Love is universal but there’s no question that depending on where you are in the world that there are different expectations, ways of behaving in relationships and courtship customs. In a country like Papua New Guinea (PNG), too famed for violence between men and women, it is sometimes hard to see past this sensational aspect of life back to the simple essence of what makes the world go round. PNG has gone through rapid change from a traditional lifestyle to modern living. With the introduction of western culture it has bought great confusion to today’s generation. In the first of two reflections I take a look at love from a young, coastal woman’s perspective with the help of my PNG susas (sisters)…
Similarly to most other parts of the world, when young people like each other, the boy or girl will talk to their friends and tease their crush, passing notes and coyly sneaking glances. Culturally people are shy, reserved and often don’t speak out but that doesn’t stop the pursuit of young love. Access to mobile phones has changed the dating landscape considerably so now it is just a case of getting the object of your desires telephone number making things much easier. Young women in PNG have the same feeling of anticipation, butterflies and excitement as any other young woman anywhere else in the world; the build up to the first kiss, meeting when parents don’t know, late night text messages. There is such hope in these first exhilarating encounters.
Dating and relationships have a different dynamic to other parts of the world. In PNG men don’t take the women that they like out on dates, the expectation is that the women will buy the man whatever they ask for. It’s extremely usual for men to ask a woman for small amounts of money to spend however they choose. So no wining and dining for the meris (women) of PNG, just the expectation that they have to put their hand in their pocket at the drop of a hat.
In a small, coastal town like Madang there’s not really anywhere to go so young people normally walk around the streets together, go to the market, or if it’s possible they will hang out together at home. Privacy is hard to find and spending time with someone of the opposite sex has consequences. Less for men, but for women people will start gossiping, this often feeds back to parents and you can get into a lot of trouble. Being the talk of the town gives you a bad reputation and can devalue your name within the community.
“If someone is in a relationship and they begin to lose weight, other women will talk about how they are having sex!”
It is quite common for young guys to have relationships with multiple girls at the same time. Often the wounded party will then come looking for the other girl and start a fight out of jealousy. The men are boastful about it as they have women fighting over them. This isn’t exclusive to men though, this also happens with girls too and feeds into the culture of violence and jealousy.
Despite mixed relationships in PNG being common there is still a quiet prejudice towards people with mixed heritage. Sadly the perception is often that the women has had a fling with an ‘outsider’ and as a consequence the child is seen not to have any cultural background, that being said though attitudes are beginning to change.
“If someone is in a relationship and they begin to lose weight, other women will talk about how they are having sex!” A double insult really as being curvy is the preference here and being called fat is a compliment but also because the insinuation that you are having sex means that you are spoiled and have less value.
A lot of young people’s first experience of sex is outside in the bush or at a friend’s house. There is a lot of stigma attached to women having sex and judgment is passed, but not for men, as is the case the world around. As a young woman in PNG, if you have had sex, men tell their friends ‘mi broken plastic blo em pinis’, which is a really crude way of saying that they’ve taken a girl’s virginity. This is a really disrespectful thing to say and is very upsetting for a woman but is a common comment made by young men boasting to their peers.
Sadly for most, sex has no value and for men it is an expectation. It is often something that men force on women and isn’t something to be enjoyed, it is functional and for the fulfillment of the man. Men here commonly have multiple sex partners, which puts women greatly at risk.
It is always harder for parents to accept girls getting into relationships than boys. In the places where bride price is given, women and girls are valuable commodities and a family with many daughters is a potentially wealthy one.
“My parents really didn’t like the idea of me being with him, my Dad beat me a couple of times but that made me want to stay with him more.”
Even in dedicated, long-term relationships, convincing parents that you are serious is hard: “I have been with my boyfriend for nine years. Being in a long-term relationship from such a young age is unusual. A lot of people say to me that they can’t believe that I am still with my high school boyfriend. My parents really didn’t like the idea of me being with him, my Dad beat me a couple of times but that made me want to stay with him more. After all this time, they have only recently accepted him.”
When a young person tries to get married, the family must first give their full blessing. It’s considered the most important part of the process of getting hitched because it affects the family’s relationships. This is also the case when considering getting into a relationship that the family have to give their approval.
In PNG there are different paths to getting married. It might be through parental decision making like arranged marriages; this is where the parents decide who their child will marry and they are bound by the decision. This often happens in wealthy families to protect their possessions, or with a Chief’s daughter or son to protect their title. Marriage can also happen when young lovers who have been in a relationship for at least 5-6 years get engaged and then they will have a wedding ceremony in a church. During the relationship they both have to remain pure, meaning no sex before marriage. This is seen to be the most important part of the process, giving value, integrity, respect and honour to their marriage. There is also what is considered to be improper marriage, when young lovers rush into relationships doing things that cause disgrace to their families and communities, like having a baby outside of wedlock. This is seen to bring great shame to the families.
Marriage is one of the most expensive activities in PNG: “Nowadays, young PNG women dream about having a ring and white dress but for most it is unachievable because it is too costly.” The next best option is a traditional wedding where the bride and grooms family come together, the couple dress in traditional attire, have a feast, a singsing and the bride’s family give the bride to the groom and his family. There is often a lot of crying at the event as the family are uncertain that the new family will look after their daughter.
Young women don’t move in with a boyfriend until after they get married as usually both will be living with their parents as they have family responsibilities, unless they have a baby and sometimes this will force the couple to live together sooner. When couples do live together the expectation is that the women does the lions share of the work, looking after the house, cooking and cleaning.
For women, love and relationships are hard. Fear of jealousy from others is a constant consideration and how you behave can have a significant impact for your future and for your family. Freedom to behave how you want is limited and often your parents dictate what you want to do. There is still a difficult balance between traditional customs and modern lifestyle that can cause confusion in this fast evolving country. The power balance is greatly unequal and most young women do want men to change, be kinder, listen more, be thoughtful but there is still great hopefulness in these beautiful meris in the Pacific. Attitudes are changing but certainly, for now, the power remains out of women’s hands.