Changing attitudes to marriage among women in Papua New Guinea

Event details

SSGM Seminar Series

Date & time

Monday 26 October 2015


Lecture Theatre 2, Hedley Bull Centre (130), corner of Garran Road and Liversidge Street, ANU


Melissa Demian and Ceridwen Spark


Louana Gaffey
+61 2 6125 1527

Previous research among educated women in Papua New Guinea has revealed the desire of women in this cohort to avoid or delay marriage (Spark 2010; 2011).   Financial independence from men plays a key role in educated women’s choice to focus on work rather than domestic lives, as well as on whether or not they want to share these lives with a partner.

Because educated and employed women often associate their agency with their urban status, it is interesting to consider the extent to which rural women are asserting their interests within the framework of Christian companionate marriage. In her influential study of Huli women, Holly Wardlow (2006) notes that while rural women in PNG can and do demonstrate a desire to position themselves outside the marriage system, they have varying degrees of success in doing so, with many seeking eventually to reintegrate themselves into their families and communities because of the high price and precarity of their autonomy (Wardlow 2006; see also Jolly et al. 2015).

To update previous research on the subject of women’s changing attitudes to marriage, this paper proceeds in two parts.  In the first part of the discussion, Spark discusses five case studies of women whom she first met in 2007 and who are now in their 30s.  Drawing on research conducted in Port Moresby in 2011 and 2015, she considers how this group of women are approaching intimate relationships and the extent to which they are maintaining the commitment to autonomy they expressed in their twenties. This discussion highlights the continuing significance of financial independence on women’s decision-making and influence within their families of origin.

In the second part of the seminar, Demian discusses her research on the Suau Coast of Milne Bay Province in 2014 and 2015, where marriage is becoming a topic of discussion of increasing interest to rural women, both in private conversation and in public forums such as the village court. It is in public forums in particular where rural women, especially those under 40, experiment with asserting new ideas and discourses about companionate marriage. These ideas, which appear to emanate partly from women’s NGOs and partly from the churches, are certainly contestable and contested by older members of the community, male and female alike. But the fact that they are discussed at all represents a significant shift in the way marriage is regarded in some parts of rural PNG. While still a material and social necessity in communities characterised by mixed or still largely subsistence economies, marriage is now also subject to ideals of mutual affection and respect, Christian co-commitment, and partnership in decision-making.

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