Family is the foundation of support for most Papua New Guineans. Expectations of duty, respect and reciprocity inform the interactions among family members. In the villages, households are generally made up of the nuclear family and sometimes the husband’s parents. Extended kin commonly live in adjacent houses, and children may refer to having multiple mothers, fathers and siblings, which would typically be referred to as ‘aunt’, ‘uncle’ or ‘cousin’. Reciprocity extends beyond the family network, whereby non-kin can become ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ of a kin group by contributing generously to group affairs. People are obliged to share their income and possessions, such as food, as a symbol of loyalty to the family. Moreover, couples that are infertile or who have recently lost a child may be given an infant by other relatives to raise as their own.
While many people adhere to a patriarchal family structure, it is not rare to find matriarchal microsocieties. Additionally, clan members do not always live on their own clan lands. For example, recently married women will move into their husband’s village, while others may migrate far from their ancestral territories to find employment. However, there is a general expectation that all members of a kin group will participate in clan affairs, such as negotiating a bride price and conducting initiation ceremonies. Moreover, many Papua New Guineans are expected to send remittances and goods back to their families in the villages.
The relationship between parent and child is based on reciprocity. Children are generally taught their role and expectations within society by watching the behaviour of those older than them who are of the same gender. Girls will follow their mother’s example while boys will follow their father’s. It is expected that children will care for their elders as parents age and require care. Thus, obligation and honour informs much of the parent-child relationship.
Some Papua New Guineans are cynical about formal education, with the impression that education does not guarantee employment or security. In turn, parents tend to spend money on formal education only for the brightest, most socially responsible children. One of the most significant events in the life of a Papua New Guinean is the initiation ritual, which marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. The age at which one undergoes the initiation, as well as the practices of the ritual, varies from community to community. While it is more common for males to undergo an initiation ritual, there are also versions of the ritual for females. Generally speaking, those who live in town areas are less likely to undergo the ritual.
Division of Labour by Gender
Village divisions of labour revolve around horticulture with men expected to clear forests and tend to crops while women typically tend to the gardens and cook. Both genders generally contribute to raising small children. In towns, women usually complete the domestic chores and care for children while men are expected to generate income. In both towns and villages, men who participate in what is generally thought of as ‘women’s work’ can be stigmatised as ‘rubbish men’. Women may not experience stigma in this way, but might be subjected to prejudice if they come across as overly assertive, independent, or if they challenge men in public.
Traditionally, individuals would rarely have the autonomy to choose their marriage partner. After one was initiated into adulthood, men and women would spend time with the opposite gender in ‘supervised courtship sessions’. This is commonly still practised in village settings whereby a great importance is placed on pairing people from two different clan groups for strategic purposes. Since individuals have little control over whom they marry, incompatible partnering can occur. However, there are forms of resistance, such as women returning to their home village or threatening suicide as a way to leave the planned partnership. Generally, there are more unmarried men than women as polygamy is practised within some clans. Moreover, ‘big men’ tend to attract more wives given their revered social status (see Core Concepts for information about big men).
A central component of marriage is the notion of bidding on brides. This event, often referred to as the ‘bride price’, entails people from various clans bidding on and paying for a bride from a clan that is wanted as a potential ally. Marrying within one’s clan group can be considered incest, thus informing the necessity of marrying across clan lines. Bride price occurs at a ceremony prior to the wedding. A typical price may include pigs, food, shells and more recently – money. The groom’s extended family contribute to the bride price, and in turn the bride’s extended family will share in the gains. Bride price is a big affair for Papua New Guineans, and many people will travel back to their home regardless of where they live in order to be present for the occasion and to contribute. Thus, the practice assists in confirming social obligations between families and clans, and, in contemporary society, in maintaining national and transnational networks.
However, given the urbanisation of Papua New Guinea as well as the introduction of a cash economy, marriage customs are undergoing transformation. For example, a consequence of the cash economy and economic inequality is bride price inflation. Moreover, there are non-economic effects, such as the reversal of spouse competition, with women now competing for men. This is impacting the marital politics of the country and the perceptions of marriage among Papua New Guineans.