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’.