Q&A: The life of a woman in PNG politics
Journalism & art at PNGAA speaker series

Bride price today: abuse & exploitation

bride price
The modern bride price system, corrupted by foreign influence and culture, has made the man the centre of attention


MADANG - Bride price is a notable Melanesian tradition passed from one generation to another; it is a form of payment or dowry to the bride’s family by the groom.

Traditionally, bride price was a gesture of appreciation towards the parents and relatives of the family who had raised a woman with traditional moral values.

There were criteria for the bride price ceremony. A young woman, newly married into another family, had to prove to her husband’s family that their son has chosen wisely.

A resourceful wife, raised well by her mother, grandmother and aunts, had to show she could look after her in-laws as well as her husband.

In my area, during the first few months with her husband, the woman was under the scrutiny and watchful eyes of her in-laws.

The groom’s family would need to decide if an appreciation ceremony should be made to the wife’s family or not.

If a woman was found worthy in the eyes of her in-laws, the in-laws would get together and discuss the appreciation ceremony.

After careful planning, word would be sent out to the woman’s family of the intention to hold a ceremony including all tribes and villages.

Families of both man and woman brought gifts of food, ornaments and traditional form of money to exchange amongst both families and tribes now united as one by the married couple.

When the husband’s family came with food and gifts, they would recite the virtues of the wife when handing the gifts to the wife’s family.

Where I come from, it worked like this. Say my newly wedded wife helped my aunt when bringing in the harvest from the garden.

As she handed gifts to my wife’s family, my aunt will call my wife’s name and praise her good deeds, resourcefulness and kind and caring heart.

The appreciation is shown first by the man’s family. The wife’s family then returns the favour by handing food and gifts to the man’s family for the good things said about their daughter.

This was a time for the man’s mother to thank the woman’s mother and female relatives for raising a good woman. The man’s mother vows to protect and care for her daughter in-law as she would for her own flesh and blood.

The matriarch of the woman’s family hen offered words of advice to the family and relatives of the man.

They must love their daughter and take her into their home as one of their own, to cherish her, help her in need and take care of her when she is with child.

There followed a long exchange of words between both parties about the welfare of the woman and her future life with her husband.

The bride price ceremony was centred on the woman. The man did not shine; it was not his platform.

Let me now move to the present day. Over the past 30 years, we have witnessed the deterioration and corruption of one of our most valuable traditions.

Bride price has lost its value. Materialism has taken over and corrupted what was once an important tradition that bonded families and valued Melanesian women.

The modern bride price system, corrupted by foreign influence and culture, has made the man the centre of attention.

Bride price is no longer about showing appreciation to the bride’s family; it has become a time for men to show off their status and standing.

With heads held high and puffed-out chests, men present many thousands of kina in payment to the bride’s family.

Bride price ceremonies in this age are littered with white goods, huge amounts of money and an endless supply of alcohol.

A man’s worth is now measured in how much money is paid to his wife’s family, how many pigs are slaughtered and how many white goods are purchased.

This has led to competition among men to see who can outbid everyone else in bride price payment.

With the large amount of money being paid, husbands become arrogant and treat women as their property because they have been paid for.

When the bride price ceremony is over, everybody goes home talking about what the man has done and his achievements in the bride price payment.

The story of the man’s deeds travels far. His popularity grows with the stories of his display of wealth and status.

Yet little is said of the woman. What is the value of the woman?

One million kina? One thousand pigs? A warehouse full of white goods? No, that is not the value of the woman.

And the mothers did not sing praises to the woman and her deeds. No, they sang praises to the man who outclassed other men in paying much money to the wife’s family.

And there is a sense of ownership. The man claims he bought his wife, and not just his wife but her family as well. As long as they are alive, they will look upon and worship at his feet.

This has led to many marriage problems we witness in our society today.

Bride price payment has been identified as a major factor contributing to gender based violence in our now modernising and Christianising Papua New Guinea.

Men believe wives are their personal property and tend to abuse them because they know the woman’s family, the recipient of much wealth, will do nothing.

The family of the woman have also come to accept that, when the husband pays for their daughter or sister, he owns her and that what that happens between husband and wife is a private marriage problem.

Thus, they do not interfere. As much as possible, they try to avoid or pretend not to notice of abuse.

There have been instances where, when the wife runs away from her abusive husband, the husband and his family demand a refund of the money paid to them as bride price.

This method has been an effective control and manipulation mechanism employed by the husband to keep the wife’s family away from his problems with his wife.

The wife’s family, knowing they are unable to repay the largesse, begs their daughter to return to her husband to avoid conflict between the families or tribes.

The wife, knowing she has been placed in a hopeless situation, stays with the husband for the sake of her family. She is threatened that if she disobeys him or runs away, her family will be made to pay.

And so the once valuable tradition of bride price has been marred by materialism, corruption and male control.

Our ancestors would be very sorry to see we have come to this.

I am angry at what we have become. I think we should do away with the term ‘bride price’.


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Max Rai

I totally agree with this essay on the abuse of bride price culture, thus rendering the bride as a commodity subject to abuse by the groom.

The huge prestige in making overpayments also distances the bride’s family from interfering in abuse. Therefore the bride is the often the victim of these ceremonies as the years go by. Often some husbands begin to stray with other women.

PNG, we need more discussion on the way forward.

Garrett Roche

It is interesting to contrast Melanesian bride price systems with the dowry system which is still prevalent in India and other areas in Asia, and was historically quite common in Europe.

In the dowry system it is the family of the woman that has to give money and valuables to the family of the man. The dowry system seems to imply that the man’s family have to be compensated because they now have to support a woman.

In contrast, the Melanesian bride price systems do acknowledge that the man’s clan or family is gaining a producer.

The woman will produce children and the woman is also a worker. So the family or clan of the woman have to be compensated for their loss.

In brief the bride price system clearly acknowledges the value of the woman.

As noted, bride price systems vary throughout Melanesia. In the Hagen area there was usually an actual exchange. The tribe of the man gave valuables, usually including pigs, shells, cassowaries, etc to the tribe of the woman, but the tribe of the woman also gave some valuables in return.

If the tribe of the man had included 16 pigs in their bride price given to the tribe of the man, it was not unusual if the tribe of the woman gave up to eight pigs in return.

It can be noted that the dowry system in India has come under attack because it was seen as being the root cause of much violence, especially violence against women.

Some states in India have endeavoured to outlaw the dowry system.

In some anthropological literature the word ‘bridewealth’ is used instead of ‘bride price’.

Baka Bina

I agree the money and goods keep on rising up and up and this has distorted the traditional reasons for bride price. In some places, it is one-off, in others sort of continuous. In others no bride price but it costs the groom in other ways.

This idea of ownership of a women is not only related to bride price payments but, I opine, is rooted in ownership of land.

In the patrilineal society all land was owned by males, once the son in the family got married and brings in a wife, the new wife will dispossess all the sisters of land rights, in some instances even the mother.

A woman has no land rights in her marital village and also back in her maiden village. In her maiden village, she is custodian for her sons. If she get divorced, she has no rights to the coffee garden even if she spent her young marriage life in the pursuit planting these coffee trees.

Transfer this idea to today and I think that is where the problem is.

A women can't make decisions over her own life as she is never allowed to in the traditional society so if the marriage falls apart, she is a nobody back in her own maiden village and family as she needs land in order to build a house or to make a garden to survive - both of these must be given by the sons and especially the wives.

One thing we should do is find ways to legislate that bride price is non refundable (there is a whole gamut of discussions to be had on this idea) which would make it a lot easier for the lady to make decisions about her marriage if it is not right and she decides to walk out.

Philip Fitzpatrick

There are places in PNG where bride price was not the custom.

In societies with a moiety system (usually matrilineal) the custom was 'sister exchange', where a man must have a real or classificatory sister to give in exchange for a wife, but was not required to pay bride price.

In other places a dowry system was used similar to the European/Asian systems where the bride brought wealth with her into a marriage.

Baka Bina

Lest our readers think that this is generic PNG, this process Duncan describes is here is different as in each of the regions and provinces and amongst cultures under the brand name of bride price (BP) processes and payments.

Daniel Kumbon mentions in passing in his recent episodes some to the activities around BP processes in Enga province. You have to read his episodes.

Arnold Mundua from Simbu in his book 'A Bride's Price' lays out he got married the Upper Simbu way.

Between these and what you write here, the differences are clear.

You say your area, the appreciation ceremony is stated in a different way.

In the Goroka valley, where there is a de facto relationship where the girl has come under the roof of the man in a de facto marriage relationship, the relatives of the girl will come around for the 'sindaunim meri' mumu and Raymond Sigimet attended one of these and wrote about it a couple of years ago in his piece - 'A Modern Day Goroka Couple's Engagement (PNG Attitude, 15 November 2016).

During this mumu, the BP demand is made if all is good for the girl who then stays on marriage as this relationship is now recognised. Otherwise the girl will be told to move if she has not found favour but the problem is it is never said outright.

When those who would matter to her in that relationship give her bilums that nobody likes, she is supposed to read between the lines there - so to speak.

The term that is branded around currently is 'dinau marit' when BP is outstanding. In that case, the bride is supposed to work for, save and come up with the BP herself, especially when she has a heir to the family.

The pure form of BP for the Goroka valley was when a possible groom's people take a bride wealth for a 'walk' looking to see if they can find a probable bride to lay out bride price.

Again I make a call out for everyone one out there to detail these processes as the old is dying out with new ones and 'plastic' ones that keep on changing are creeping in to our societies and cultures.

Thankfully Arnold has documented the Upper Simbu way, Let's hope that Daniel can compile his excerpts to document the Engan way, Duncan with this snippets can develop that up for his area.

It is my fervent hope that my editorial team and I can complete and publish the Goroka valley's old and dying out process of taking a bride wealth 'out for a walk' to put bride price in my next project 'A Farmer Buys a Wife'.

As Baka says, Duncan did indicate that he was referring to bride price traditions "in my area" and "where I come from", not as a generic practice - KJ

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