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Polygamy has become a destructive force in PNG

Tribal chief with wivesPHILIP KAI MORRE

KUNDIAWA - Polygamy was relevant to traditional societies in Papua New Guinea, especially in the highlands, as part of a patrilineal tradition passed from generation to generation as a means of gaining wealth, prestige and social mobility.

It was also recognised that marrying multiple wives would also increase the labour force to ensure enough pigs were raised and enough gardens were established to maintain the status of the husband and the clan.

Sometimes when the first wife bore no child, the man found a new wife to bear children, especially male children, to increase the male population who could defend the clan and its land from enemies.

The extra wife or wives could be young women, divorcees or widows.

But in modern society, polygamy is a social disorder that undermines the family unit, its structure and the value of marriage as an institution. It also violates the rights and dignity of women.

The social, spiritual, psychological and economic cost of polygamy in today’s society is great. Often the man abandons his first wife, and his children, with no means of support and they are faced with grief, hardship and exclusion.

Some young women, without thinking it through, marry any man who promises them good fortune. Even educated women fall into this trap only to later find they have been deceived. Promises of material wealth - money, mobile phones, cars and good clothes – has blinded them.

Another problem in polygamous marriage is the power struggle in which the husband controls and manipulates his co-wives. Most times he thinks he is superior, using masculine and aggressive behaviour to suppress women.

At first, the women remain silent and obey. But they feel know they are being treated as second class, their freedom limited and their role more than that of a servant.

There is lack of trust, confidence and intimacy and there is no proper communication to maintain the marriage.

If husbands give more time to the new woman, the older women may commit adultery. I know of several cases where other brothers or relatives take over another brother’s wife.

These days many wives refuse to have sex with their husband because they know that AIDS is prevalent among promiscuous husbands in polygamous marriages.

Children born out of de facto and ad hoc relationships present another problem that places a great burden on grandparents who are left to raise these helpless kids. There is a new trend of grandparents taking responsibility for their grandchildren.

Most Village Court cases involve marital problems with increasing instances of assault, adultery, divorce, separation, child abuse, desertion, rape and carnal knowledge. Almost half of cases involve polygamy where jealous co-wives assault each other or their husband and in-laws.

Eva [the names here have been changed] has been the second wife of Adam for 10 years. Previously, Adam has a first wife for 15 years with full bride price. The two wives were jealous of each other and there were constant fights and problems. Then the first wife walked out, leaving her three children with their father.

Eva has no choice but to take care of the children as her own with no support from the biological mother. Eva wouldn’t treat the children as her own and they grew up in a hostile environment.

Eva told me five months ago that her husband has now deserted her and her children for another woman. She faces many burdens looking after her own two children and the three children from the former wife. She copes with her studies at a local teachers college at the same time taking care of the children.

She has been humiliated and suffered indignity as a Christian and church leader of the local church she helped establish. And of course she suffers financially.

Eva is now at the crossroads: going back to her own people means imposing a liability and staying means more burden and suffering. She is confused and doesn’t know what to do.

Here’s another case known to me.

Tura was married with three wives and 10 children to take care off. His first wife left with her four children to live in Lae with her family and relatives because she couldn’t cope with her polygamous husband and jealous co-wives.

The first son left school because Tura was unable to pay his fees and was soon abusing alcohol and drugs and engaged in criminal activities in Lae. The other children were also neglected and had uncertain futures. Other relatives had their own children and problems to cope with. The family’s welfare and future is now in limbo.

The second wife is at home with two adult children and three school age children. The first son left school because of unpaid school fees. He retaliated against Tura, destroying property and stealing a solar panel worth K3,000 belonging to the company that employed his father, whose pay was deducted to meet the cost of a replacement panel.

This posed another problem for Tura, who now had no money to feed his third wife and infant child. So he borrowed money with the hope of paying it back quickly, which did not happen. With his debts building up, the police arrested him for non-repayment.

Polygamous marriage can be a real headache, a nightmare for every family member. Every woman and child has their own story to tell.

It is frightening that PNG is rated 133 out of 138 countries in the UN’s gender index. Even though the convention does not mention polygamy, it’s a significant contributing factor to gender-based violence in PNG and parliament needs to pass legislation to outlaw polygamy. Human rights advocates, concerned individuals and women’s group are all trying to deal with the fall out from this issue.

The churches also need to address polygamy, which is against Christian principles. As Christians we should be aware that the union of marriage between husband and wife is linked to divine law and natural law.

There is no real bond and intimacy in polygamous marriages. It is spiritually and morally reasonable only to stick to one wife, one husband.


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Philip Kai Morre

As far as I know the late Bomai Kawale of Karamui Nomane district married 37 wives.

Why these remote women loved ugly Bomai Kawale so much is a mystery for me. He took all the women and young Bomai men ran around dry.

They did not question him or accuse him because of fear of his powerful black magic.

Chips Mackellar

Nothing I can quote here, Keith. But after PNG I spent 20 years in immigration, most of it in the Enforcement Branch where we came across all manner of skullduggery and nefarious methods of bypassing the established migration systems.

So I got to see hundreds of applications for Australian residence and citizenship and to meet people involved with them. And I put all this to good use, because it was through my study of illegal immigration that I obtained my MA and later, my PhD.

Incidentally, the methodology I explained for polygamy in Australia is all perfectly legal, since there is no law against fathering babies with women not recognised as wives, and Centrelink is obliged to support Australian citizen babies whatever the circumstances of their birth.

Chips Mackellar

Would you believe that polygamy is alive and well in Australia amongst our Moslem population. It works like this:

An Australian Moslem man already married in Australia goes back to his Moslem country of origin and marries another Moslem girl there. That second marriage is not recognised by Australian law, but it is by Sharia law.

The second wife has a baby born in the country of origin. The husband registers that birth in the nearest Australian Embassy, and the baby then becomes an Australian citizen by descent from the Australian citizen father.

The father then migrates to Australia his child by his second wife. He can't migrate her as his wife because in Australia she is not recognised as his wife. But she obtains a visa on humanitarian grounds, as the mother of an Australian citizen child.

So mother and child migrate to Australia where they survive happily due to our generous Centrelink family allowance payments. The husband repeats this process with two other girls from his country of origin.

He then has four wives by Sharia law and by Australian law he has one wife and he is associated with three other single mothers and their children all supported by Centrelink.

Some Moslem men have told me how lucky they are to live in Australia, because in their country of origin they never could have four wives and their children, because the Koran stipulates he must support them all equally, and he couldn't do it in the home country, but in Australia, Centrelink does it all for him.

Given what we know of Centrelink's frugality when it comes to doling out money and the legal constraints on polygamy in Australia, I'm very surprised to hear of this, Chips. Is there a reference or a citation? - KJ

Garry Roche

In my opinion, Philip Kai Morre rightfully distinguishes between traditional polygamy and the type of polygamy that has become prevalent in more modern times.

Traditional polygamy was still common in the Mt Hagen area in the early 1970s. There was no social welfare system, and often widowed or divorced women could only survive by becoming an additional wife of a successful ‘big-man’.

In addition, marriage was a means of forming alliances with neighbouring tribes and good marriages helped to maintain peace.

I knew many men who had several wives and at times I was impressed by the manner in which some of these men dealt as fairly as possible will all the wives.

The old man Yaga from Mokei Akilika Ronimp near Hagen had 11 wives. He seemed to be able to keep peace among them all and also divide up the land among the various children in an equitable manner. He was a good man.

Rakopa from the Jika Komapi clan had at least eight wives. He had daughters married into very many neighbouring tribes including the Yamka and Mokei tribes.

Wamp Wan from Mokei Nampakae had at least three wives.

I am not advocating that polygamy be continued. I am simply saying that traditionally there were many reasons why society tolerated polygamy, and that polygamous men could be very good to all their wives and children.

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