ONE CASSOWARY, TWO SHEEP, 24 pigs, K1,600 worth of vegetables, K10,000 of gas and K10,000 in cash is the worth of a woman.
That’s the bride price my driver, Andrew, paid for his wife, Jennifer, when they met and married in Mount Hagen.
“As a couple, we received up to 50% of that payment back in some form,” Andrew explained. My parents-in-law gave us back three pigs, K800 of vegetables, especially bananas which we didn’t have, cooking utensils, bedding and K3,000 in cash.
“We needed this as we were very, very poor. I had to worked for years in my garden to save for the bride price.”
This is the reality of a man marrying a woman in one of the rural areas of the Papua New Guinea. Old traditions remain strong.
Around 40% of PNG’s population lives on less than $1 per day, with PNG ranking 121 out of 135 countries on the United Nations Human Poverty Index, which measures a country’s standard of living.
On the UN Human Development Index, which measures literacy, life expectancy and standard of living, PNG ranks 148 out of 182 countries.
PNG has the poorest state of health in the Pacific region, especially in rural areas where health services are deteriorating and difficult to access at best, or at worst closed down.
“PNG has the second highest rate of maternal mortality in the world after Afghanistan,” Scholla Kakas, President of the National Council of Women, told me.
“The churches are the ones that have focused on local training for village attendants but there’s still so few who have been trained.
“It would help if we had a training facility for midwives but, even then, there are issues of transport and access, especially in the remote locations. Meanwhile, the women are dying.”
Global Fund for Women’s Grantee partners have been responding with their own creative initiatives to some of these issues. For instance, in 2007 a group of single mothers formed the Waugla Single Mother’s Association (WSMA) in Simbu Province.
The group’s mission is to address the issues of a marginalized, but rapidly growing, community of single mothers from aged 17-40 and it conducts training on food preservation and security as well as birth control practices.
Members of the group have also collectively pooled their resources to help each member construct their own homes.
Another group, The Women’s Rural Advance Program (WRAP) is a women’s group located in the Highlands. Established in 1988 by women of the Ramui tribe, the membership of the organization includes 18 women’s groups over 900 women from different communities.
WRAP trains rural women to become leaders and to foster the future leadership of women and girls across PNG and to increase women’s economic autonomy and advocacy around health and HIV/AIDS.
As I was headed back to my accommodation today, I watched a gorgeous girl peep out the window of a bus, held tight by her Mum, who waved at me.
Across from my hotel, street artists lined up their brilliantly painted scenes of everyday life in PNG for the 99 percenters here. One painting was of people in a local bus looking up at westerners in a kind of Biggles plane contraption in the sky.
“We are singing in our bus”, the woman artist explained to me. “We’re poor but we have our families and our songs and our feet on the ground.
“We feel life. You foreigners are in another world with your heads in the clouds looking down on us all the time.”
She smiled and looked at me. “Two hundred kina, you buy?”