Thursday, 9 January 2014

Social issues surrounding child marriages in PNG by Joshua Goa, Social Work strand, University of Papua New Guinea (2014)

The social issue associated with child marriages is child abuse. Child abuse is an act committed most often by parents or caregivers which endangers a child or young person’s physical or emotional health or development. Child abuse is not usually a simple incident, but takes place over time (HELP Resources Inc, 2005:23). When a child is involved in early child marriage to adult husband they are prone to abuses associated with physical, emotional, sexual and neglect. The perpetrator of child abuse in early marriage is usually the adult husband but sometimes can be from husband’s family. There is a strong relation between bride price and abuse. Bride price reinforce the notion that women are men’s property, thus providing an excuse for violence (Amnesty International, 2010).


Physical abuse occurs when a person purposefully injures or threatens to injure a child or young person. This may take the form of slapping, punching, shaking, kicking, burning, shoving or grabbing. The injury may take the form of bruises, cuts, burns or fractures.


 Emotional abuse is a chronic attack on a child or young person’s self esteem. It can take the form of name-calling, threatening, ridiculing, intimidating or isolating the child or young person.


Neglect is the failure to provide the child with the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing,

shelter and supervision, to the extent that the child’s health and development are placed at risk.


Child Sexual Abuse occurs when an adult or someone bigger and/or older than the child uses power or authority over the child to involve the child in sexual activity. Physical force is sometimes involved. The Criminal Code, amended in 2003, prohibits rape including spousal rape. The same law prohibits sexual harassment and child sexual exploitation (JICA ,2010:6). Contact offences include touching and fondling through to sexual penetration. Noncontact offences include verbal sexual harassment, indecent exposure, ‘peeping’ and exposure to pornography. Therefore the two main components of child sexual abuse are:


·         An abuse of the unequal power relationship between a child or young person and an

older, bigger or more powerful person, which usually includes a betrayal of the child’s


·         The sexual activity –actual, attempted or threatened – between a child or young person,

and an older, bigger or more powerful person.

“The commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is a fundamental violation of children’s rights. It compromises sexual abuse by the adult and remuneration in cash or kind to the child or a third person or persons. The child is treated as a sexual and commercial object. The commercial sexual exploitation of children constitutes a form of coercion and violence against children, and amounts to forced labour and a modern form of slavery” (HELP Resources Inc,  2005).


The three primary forms of CSEC are:

·         child prostitution;

·         child pornography; and

·         trafficking in children for sexual purposes.

Other forms include:

·         child sex tourism; and

·         child marriage for the purposes of sexual abuse or sexual exploitation.


PNG is a country of enormous cultural diversity with 836 distinct indigenous languages and many areas still very remote and isolated. Degrees of exposure to and participation in new social and cultural institutions vary across the country. Citizens’ awareness and comprehension of state law and administration varies, according to the outreach and effectiveness of the formal government institutions and staff. People’s accountability to state administrative and legal systems depends on the extent to which they access and enjoy services, security and protection from government administrative and legal institutions. It is not possible to generalise about any aspect of traditional culture in PNG. Levels of literacy, education, employment, incomes, mobility, contact and communication with the outside world vary among districts between provinces. Every setting is different. Sweeping political and economic changes of the last century have wrought radical social and cultural changes. The extent to which citizens and communities have been impacted by these changes depends on their proximity to and participation in new social and economic institutions and structures, as well as the values promoted, standards advocated and the behaviours modelled and encouraged by local community leaders (HELP Resources Inc, 2005). Therefore based on these facts it is highly emphasis that if a new law is to be developed to protect child marriages in PNG it must be effective made known to all the people of Papua New Guinea. This is because citizen’s awareness and comprehension of state law is the key to effectively protecting children against early child marriages.



Traditionally child marriages were seen normal and culturally right in most or all tribes in Papua New Guinea. Legal pluralism can be defined as multiple laws co-exist within a single environment. For example in PNG we have the Traditional Justice System and the formal justice system. Since legal pluralism exists in Papua New Guinea children’s rights must be considered when comes to the issue of early child marriage. The issue of child marriage has made most Papua New Guineans to come in conflict with the laws under the formal justice system.  This is because in the formal justice system the laws under PNG Marriage Act, § 7 (1963) stated that the Marriageable age is a male person is of marriageable age if he has attained the age of 18 years and a female person is of marriageable age if she has attained the age of 16 years.  This formal law on eligible marriage age is quite contradictory with the traditional justice system laws as most tribes in Papua New Guinea’s traditional laws do not based marriage time on age but rather based on the physical biological development of a child. For examples most traditional tribe based eligible criteria of marriage on puberty; girls having developed breast, having menstruation and developed pubic hair. For boys is having developed deep voice, facial and pubic hair.


This can be supported by literatures as most research shown that many societies in PNG based marriage criteria or maturity on puberty. Muruans (east of the Trobriand Islands) celebrated a marriage soon after the intended partners reached the age of puberty” (Lyons, 1925:p131). According to Lyons (1924:p58), however, girls were “immediately handed over to the care of older prospective husbands” and female infants were taken into the care of some female relative of her affianced “until she attains puberty”.


Sexual maturity was thought to be facilitated by coitus (Berndt, 1962:p87). South Coast, describes that the young girl is “subjected at about age eight to ten to serial sexual intercourse by adult men to procure sexual fluids for rubbing on the girl’s groom-to-be, “to help him grow”. Herdt, (1985, Guardians of the Flutes p178-85) reports heterosexual dealings with girl children was believed to precipitate menstruation. This idea is still commonly encountered by PNGIMR researchers.


Pre-puberty intercourse is recorded in Banaro (Middle Keram), where boy’s initiation into sexual life is experienced at the conclusion of his initiatory rites, with “an elderly woman” (cf. Haddon, 1920:p255). A minority of societies seem to permit seduction of boys by older women although in one society where this is thought to impede the boy’s growth it gives rise to complaints. Strathern, (1979, p17-8, 21-2) and Thurnwald (1921) relate that wedding customs and puberty rituals were intimately connected (16-7, 19, 32), specifically, boys were allowed sexual intercourse only after the rites (p32).


Genital touching has been recorded by Gillison (1993:p176), Van Baal (1966; cf. Money and Ehrhardt, 1973 [1996:p132]) and Hauser-Schäublin (1997:p106). Semen passed from male adults to male children is believed to have many qualities important to male growth, strength and identity. Boys were inseminated through anal and oral intercourse either secretly and ritually or more routinely and sometimes over a long period of time, through puberty and until bearded. Semen could be rubbed on cuts and during scarification.


Child betrothal is recorded, however, it does not necessarily mean sexual activity always took place while the wife was still a child:

• Betrothal before puberty used to be customary. Goudswaard (1863:p65-6), Gell (1975:p104);

• Manus girls were betrothed at age 8 or 10 (Mead, 1956:p31);

• Kewa girls could be married at menarche, but sometimes chosen before puberty (Franklin, 1965:p417);

• Kapauku marriageability was measured by “physical appearance” (thelarche), rather than menarche (Steinberg,


• Child marriage was noted among the “Kaoweraw√©dja”, Van Eechoud ([1959]:63) and among the “Waropen”

Papua by Huizinga (1937:p436), but this was not noted a decade later (Held, 1947:p99);

• Gogodala girls usually married when they reach the age of puberty (Lyons, 1926).


However, with regard to marriage, especially, much social change has occurred since intense missionisation, especially from the 1920s up till now. There is some anthropological reference (Janssen, D. F, 2002) to perceptions of younger children as more exciting sexual partners. However in the contemporary context, social perceptions have already been greatly influenced by the importation of Western notions of physical beauty as evidenced in Miss PNG beauty contests, routine urban nightclub competitions (Ms Wet T-shirt, etc) and the influx of western and Asian pornography (mainly through pirated DVDs, satellite TV access and the Internet) (HELP Resources Inc,  2005:23). At a meeting of Oceanic anthropologists (Hawaii, 2005) issues of gender violence were discussed. Some consensus was reached about the link between PNG’s deep and widespread social breakdown and increasing crimes of sexual violence against women and girls, but all agreed that this is an area that warrants more attention and analysis (HELP Resources Inc,  2005:23).


There is no set minimum age for customary marriages as this is dictated by physical maturity rather than chronological age (CEDAW, 2009:92). The government reported in 2009 of girls as young as 13 and 14 entering into marriages arranged by parents, other family members, or village chiefs on behalf of the families(CEDAW, 2009:92).‘Bride-price’ which is an exchange of wealth between the groom’s lineage and the bride’s, continues to be practiced widely in PNG, particularly in the Highlands and Papuan Coastal societies (CEDAW, 2009:49). The payment is seen as a major contributor to domestic violence (JICA, 2010:7)

The United Nations reports, based on 1996 data that 21% of girls between 15 and 19 years of age were married, divorced or widowed. In 1980, 13% of girls aged between 15 and 19 were married, divorced or widowed which indicates that societal acceptance of early marriage has increased in recent decade (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2008)  UNICEF reports that early marriage is more common in rural areas, compared to urban areas on PNG (UNICEF,2006).

Marriage is a social relationship between the husband and wife and also in a wider perspective the social relationship within their nuclear and extended family. In Pacific cultures especially in Papua New Guinea the concept of extended family is the norm, where the family is expected to consist of more than just parents, children and immediate relations such as grandparents but it includes all the other extended social relations. The early child marriage is a social issue and must be captured quite well in developing any legal framework in protecting a child. This is because in PNG cultural context these social relationships of the nuclear and extended family plays a vital part in the upbringing of a child and what is expected of a child since they are one family. This to an extent can sometimes be abuse in the case of early forced child marriage. Whether the child likes it or not she or he must get married. Those social relationships are the implementer of traditional law of early child marriage. It is strongly emphasis that the formal law is directed to those social relationships so that it prevents such forced early marriage. The better laws we have on protecting a child must be based on guiding all the social relationships to the child.

PNG is lagging far behind in achieving most of the Millennium Development Goals. Poverty is reported to be increasing in both urban and rural areas. Some indicators, particularly those for health, show deterioration, while in other areas, such as education and promoting gender equality, there is little or no progress towards meeting the targets by 2015 (Asian Development Bank, 2003).


Women’s role in PNG’s politics and decision making remains very low. Constitutional provisions for the participation of ‘nominated’ women representatives to all levels of government, are intended to compensate women’s negligible electoral success, but are unevenly and inconsistently implemented. Sex scandals among political, administrative and religious leaders are regularly reported in the newspapers and involve allegations, protests and court cases regarding alleged of multiple wives, mistresses, child brides and allegations of sexual assault committed against women and under-age girls. Public outrage is usually short-lived and quickly dissipated. Male political and administrative leaders commonly practice polygamy, or openly have many sexual partners, usually without public or legal sanction. In many rural areas of PNG, households are headed by women. This is the lasting legacy of recruitment of cheap male labour for coastal and island region colonial plantations from 1890-1975, mostly from the Sepik Provinces and later from the Highlands provinces. Continuous circular male migration from these areas, regardless of the needs and wishes of wives and children, has become a family and community norm. Men travel in search for work, markets and a reprieve from the routine and rigorous manual labour of village life. The structure of the PNG economy stimulates and sustains male migration. Most employers do not provide accommodation for employees, let alone family accommodation. (HELP Resources Inc, 2005:12).The PNG minimum wage is not adequate to support a family on largely imported, store-bought foods, let alone other living expenses. Long absences from their families, of men aged 15-50 years, are tolerated and accommodated. Jenkins (1993 and 1994) reports that male migration facilitates the introduction of new social values, attitudes and behaviours and erodes old customs, penetrating even the most remote parts of PNG.


Mixed historical and social experiences affect the way in which village leaders, police, village and district courts administer, adhere to, enforce, bend or bypass domestic laws to protect girls and women, and in particular the laws on sexual violence. An isolated highlands community, where most conflict and disputes are handled by the Village Courts, may be governed more by customary law. Village courts do not have jurisdiction over rape or incest cases, yet often these cases are not referred on to the appropriate levels of the justice system. Resolution is based on male biased traditions rather than constitutional and legal rights and global human rights standards. People from poor communities in a provincial town may, in theory, have access to state family welfare services and to the police force and courts tasked with enforcing criminal law. In reality there is no access to effective welfare services or legal aid for the majority of Papua New Guineans and most citizens cannot afford to hire a private lawyer (HELP Resources Inc,  2005:12-13)



PNG’s serious law and order problems inhibit and prohibit development at many levels and across many sectors. Crime is a key factor in PNG’s vicious cycle of underdevelopment, poverty and violence. Women and girls are made increasingly vulnerable to violence in a gender discriminatory social climate. Leaders and sometimes magistrates and judges tend to blame women and girls and advise parents to ‘lock up your daughters’ to guarantee their safety, rather than focus on prosecuting and punishing the violent and sexually abusive behaviours of boys and men (HELP Resources Inc,  2005)


Furthermore, complainants operate in a situation of violent threats, intimidation and silencing by people who, for various cultural, family, economic or political reasons choose to protect the offender. All social, economic and political change and development in PNG is gendered. According to HELP Resources Inc (2005) a clear example given is the ease with which gender discriminatory and oppressive aspects of the culture and customs of some parts of PNG (e.g. bride price, child brides, polygamy and compensation for the families of women victims of violence) have been adopted and assimilated as normative in societies where they never existed previously. The resulting generalised low status and diminished rights of women, throughout most of PNG, has terrible consequences for the quality of male/female relationships and family life, and is the central contributing factor to the three most critical social problems facing PNG:

• slow progress toward gender equality

• rising levels of gender and sexual violence and;

• a rapidly growing HIV/AIDS epidemic.


These three problems define the context of family and community life and the gendering experience of children growing up in PNG today. In many parts of PNG, dual systems of customary and state law and administration, and a dual economy are maintained. Many men, especially in the culturally most male-dominated parts of PNG, act to manipulate both the traditional and modern political, economic and social systems of PNG to their own advantage, and enjoy the male privilege of both worlds. Women and children are often left behind or caught in between. Village Court is an active and approved institution (in the Highlands region particularly) that has little or no impact on high levels of gender violence and child abuse and the increasing commercial sexual exploitation of children (Garap 1995, 2004).


There is a problem with inconsistent and unreliable data collection on all crimes, including sexual offences and other crimes of gender violence. The quality of data collection is poor and not comparable across agencies or provinces. A FSVAC initiated pilot program to improve data collection aims to capture data on any victim of family and sexual violence and is not particularly focused on child victims. It does however require the age of the victim and offender to be entered. Once the data is collected it will be disaggregated by age, amongst other things. Only a limited number of provincial agencies have demonstrated commitment and capacity to collect data and pass it on for centralised collation and monitoring. The best data has come from The East New Britain Sexual Offences Squad and the East New Britain Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee as well as the Lae and Port Moresby Family Support Centres based on the grounds of the cities General Hospitals. This data is informative but not representative, however, it already clearly shows that girls under the age of 18 years are the main group of victims and crimes of sexual violence are the main offences (Wainetti, 2005 in HELP Resources Inc, 2005 ).


Parents in PNG border villages reported accepting large payments of up to K20, 000 for handing over their daughters as child brides. In 2004 this involved wealthy adult vanilla farmers from the East Sepik province who were returning from successful sales in Jayapura. Even though one of these child victims in this case had already presented at her nearest crisis counseling service in Maprik, East Sepik, and the counselors there were making efforts to repatriate her. No charges were being laid against the exploiters.


In Vanimo, much information about CSEC was discovered in the provincial court house, police station and hospital. Court officials and nurses complained that most CSEC cases only come to light when a girl becomes pregnant and tries to abort or experiences a difficult, even fatal birth due to the mothers’ young age and small size. Most of these cases involved girls drawn into relationships with Asian (Malaysian, Korean) logging workers. The police claim that loggers bring young girls from very remote areas to work and live with them in the logging camps. The Catholic Family life counselors confirmed these cases, adding that young, mostly illiterate girls are disguised as domestic workers and cooks (HELP Resources Inc,  2005:31) Welfare officers complained that they had reported many cases to the police but there has been no action. This is a social issue that needs proper attention by law to protect the young girl.


Where local men are the perpetrators, police refer the complainant back to the village court. In some cases these relationships are permitted by the girls’ family when Asian men pay large sums of money to the girls’ parents. The fact that many families are complicit and have accepted large payments for their daughters has been documented in World Bank studies on the social Impact of logging in many parts of PNG (Romaso, personal communication, 2004 in HELP Resources Inc,  2005:31 ).


More than almost twenty such cases were known to the Vanimo court. The Sandaun Council of Women expressed alarm about this common trend in loggers exploiting local girls with parents’ complicity. Few of these cases resulted in successful legal action, including maintenance and custody. The majority of cases are kept out of the court by large ‘compensation’ payments being made by the perpetrator to the victim’s family (HELP Resources Inc,  2005:31)


Girls with disabilities are particularly vulnerable. A young Sepik girl from an offshore island was raised by her deserted mother and was unable to complete her grade 4 due to lack of money for fees. She is now 16 years old. Her family accepted bride price of K1, 200 from a 45 year old man and forced her to go and live with him. This is an issue of CSA and CSEC that NGOs working in support of people with disabilities could investigate and act to prevent if they sensitized their workers to this problem of the increased vulnerability and potential exploitation of children with disabilities (HELP Resources Inc, 2005: 34-35).


Victimized children have various experiences with the national criminal justice systems. They cannot always count on the criminal justice system for protection. In terms of combating violence against children, there often exists gaps and ambiguities in the laws criminalizing violence to children. Laws tend to be piecemeal, focusing on specific forms of violence rather than dealing comprehensively with all forms of violence to children. When the law is in place, there is often weak law enforcement. This can lead to victim apathy and distrust and avoidance of the system. In certain situations, such as trafficking in children, corruption among police and other enforcement officials is cited as a major obstacle (Coomaraswamy, 1997). 


Women in Papua New Guinea lag behind men on across all indicators of gender equality, including education, economic opportunity, political empowerment and health (JICA, 2010) Women generally suffer from excessive workloads, mal-nutrition, poor access to safe water and healthcare services, excessively repeated pregnancies, and high levels of gender-based violence (JICA, 2010:2) Discriminatory practices such as polygamy, early marriage and ‘witch hunts’, based on custom, continue to perpetuate gender inequality in the family, particularly in rural areas (JICA, 2010:2). Gender inequalities are very much ingrained into the social and cultural institutions of the country.


With respect to the country’s HIV/AIDS infection, girls and women are more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and this pattern in the infection is linked to their unequal status (CEDAW, 2009:19)


In PNG its tradition that husbands have more than one partner, but if a wife challenges this arrangement, she faces the risk of being beaten (CEDAW, 2009:50).The government reported that in areas where polygamy was customary, an increasing number of women were being charged with murdering one of their husband’s other wives (CEDAW, 2009:96).There are also concerns that the practice of polygamy is contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS (JICA, 2010:7).The law in Papua New Guinea grants parental authority to both spouses, who share responsibilities towards their children. However, the position of the father as the head of the family is deeply embedded in the complex system of family relationship (CEDAW, 2009:49). Women’s rights in marriage are limited because of the lack of laws to validate and regulate customary marriages. Divorce in PNG is based on fault based criteria including adultery, desertion and cruelty. Women also face discrimination in proving fault, particularly cruelty and adultery if they choose not to be witnesses or they do not wish to attend court proceedings (CEDAW, 2009:92). PNG has adopted the ‘best interests of the child’ as the paramount consideration in custody disputes after separation and divorce. However, a lack of economic independence or an inability to gain custody of their children upon separation forces many women to stay in violent or difficult relationships (CEDAW, 2009:97). Although national legislation does guarantee equality to men and women in inheritance, it does not apply to customary land for which inheritance is based instead on patrilineal lines and can discriminate against women (CEDAW, 2009:95).


Discriminatory practices such as polygamy and bride price reinforce the notion that women are men’s property, thus providing an excuse for violence (Amnesty International, 2010). Women do not report violence due to shame or fear of further violence. Further, police do not property investigate or prosecute these crimes, based on the idea that violence against women is a ‘private’ matter (Amnesty International, 2010).  Village courts offer no protection to beaten wives and treat rape as a matter for compensation to the victim’s male relatives (CEDAW, 2009:80).


Even in matrilineal societies, there is a dominance of men who do esteem women and include their views in decision-making, yet ultimately hold the power. In Bougainville, for example, men who ran the modern institutions overlooked women’s contributions to the peace process and domestic and local economies. Men in matrilineal societies are patriarchal in their ways because they are still leaders, so while descent and the custody of land is traced through women, the right to rule still remains the prerogative of the men (CEDAW, 2009).












Amnesty International (2010) Papua New Guinea: Update to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (the CEDAW), Violence Against Women, available at, accessed 19 February 2011.

Asian Development Bank. Millennium Development Goals in the Pacific: Relevance and Progress, March 2003.


CEDAW (2009) PNG State Report (combined initial second and third) submitted to the CEDAW Committee May 2009 for consideration by the Committee at its 46th Session, available at, accessed 19 October 2013 p.12

Coomaraswamy, R. The Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, UN doc. E/CN.4/1997/47, 12 Feb 1997 and also Human Rights Watch, The Human Rights Watch Global Report on Women’s Human Rights (1995) p. 196.


Garap, S: Unpublished Field report on CSEC / CSA in the Eastern Highlands Province, November 2004


HELP Resources Inc, 2005. A Situational Analysis of Child Sexual Abuse & the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in Papua New Guinea (Draft). UNICEF, PNG.



Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) (2010) Country Gender Profile: Papua New Guinea, available at, accessed 19 February 2011


Jenkins, C., 2002, Situation Analysis of HIV/AIDS in Papua New Guinea

UNICEF (2006) Development Programming and the Well-being of the Girl Child: Report to Accelerate Human Rights-based Approach to Development Programming in Papua New Guinea, available at, accessed 19 February 2011.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2008) World Marriage Data 2008, available at, accessed 20 October 2013.