Gender Equality in Papua New Guinea

last updated: May 2018

The issue of gender equality in Papua New Guinea presents a bleak picture for women; the United Nations Development Programme in 2014 gave the country a Gender Inequality Index (GII) figure of 0.611, ranking it 140 out of 155 countries. Despite the Papua New Guinea constitution recognising the equality of men and women, women are severely disadvantaged compared to men. For example, women have: lower labour force participation than men (70.5% for women and 74% for men [aged 15 years and over]); less years of schooling (mean years of schooling 3.2 for women and 4.8 for men); and lower estimated per capita income (USD2145.50 for women and USD2767.70 for men) (UNDP 2015b). At the time of the Do No Harm (DNH) fieldwork, women had very low political representation (three seats or 2.7%) in the national parliament but this was reduced to zero seats in the 2017 national election.

While men, too, may be excluded from the formal financial system, the situation for women is especially dire, with the Women’s World Banking study concluding that, ‘Papua New Guinea is a challenging place for
women to start and grow businesses and to access financial services’. Reliable and up-to-date figures on financial inclusion in Papua New Guinea are rarely available, with most of the cited figures only being estimates. The excellent report of the Pacific Financial Inclusion Programme (PFIP), The Financial Competency of Low-Income Households in PNG, estimated financial exclusion to be as high as 80%. More recently, the Bank of Papua New Guinea estimated the number of account holders with formal financial institutions to be 435,316 out of a population of 5.38 million (cited in INA, WB and BPNG 2015:10). Financial exclusion is especially stark in the highlands region, with the Bank of Papua New Guinea putting the number of unbanked at 91.92% (BPNG 2013:8). In research among coffee smallholders in Eastern Highlands Province carried out as an adjunct to the DNH research, we found much higher levels of financial inclusion, with 25% having a household bank account (31/124, with 1 unanswered). Financial exclusion was greatest for women in the Eastern Highlands with only a small percentage — 6.6% (9/136) — having their own bank account.

Despite the popular view that Papua New Guinea has remained rooted in a past era, many changes have occurred, both during the colonial period and subsequently, that have had profound impacts on gender — Christianisation, Western education, exposure to modern media, labour migration and exposure to Western notions of human rights and gender equality. Some of these changes have influenced a shift in the cultural norms governing gender relations and led to more equitable relations between men and women, though the degree of this varies across the country. Sometimes these changes have been negative for women and sometimes positive, and so progress towards gender equality is extremely variable.

Christian missionisation brought new ideas concerning gender, perhaps most notably a focus on the nuclear family as the basic unit of society, rather than the traditional extended family, typically organised around a ‘big man’ who gathered supporters around him. Some missions and churches have reinforced traditional notions of the husband as the head of the household, arguing for a hierarchy with God at the top, followed by men and then women. This places emphasis on the submission of women to their husbands. However, other missions and churches challenge the notion that women should be ‘slaves’ to men as a pastor in Chimbu indicated when he remarked that ‘meri i no inap stap slave bilong mipela (women should not be slaves to us)’. Some missions and churches see the relationship between husband and wife as a partnership that entails mutual cooperation and respect. This is sometimes expressed in terms of mutual submission, with the woman submitting to the husband and the husband submitting to the wife (‘meri i mas aninit long man and man i mas aninit long meri’) as one female key informant in Jiwaka expressed it. Sometimes this is still conceived as the husband being the final arbiter of decisions, but it is a significant improvement on the view that a wife should entirely submit to her husband, since it recognises at least that women should be consulted in decision-making. However, although some key informants enunciated the idea of mutual submission, this was less common among the female respondents. Far more common was the belief that a wife should submit to her husband, suggesting that women readily subscribe to oppressive gender norms.

Any decline in the more rigid norms and practices that keep women subservient has been patchy, and women continue to be far from equal partners with men. In reality, the prospect of gender equality remains a distant dream. Despite much talk about gender equality and considerable condemnation of violence against women, this antagonistic outlook and behaviour remains endemic in most parts of the country and entrenched ideas continue to be strong — for example, in many places, including the highland provinces of Jiwaka and Chimbu, the exchange of bride price is widely accepted as giving men the right to beat their wives. Even when bride price has not been exchanged, men still believe that they are entitled to use violence against their intimate partners. Several scholars explain the high levels of violence against women in Papua New Guinea as due to men’s wish to maintain the existing unequal relations of power and the control that they wish to assert over women. Some of the changes that have occurred in Papua New Guinea, such as the constitutional recognition of rights of equality, the availability of education and new career opportunities, have brought a new independence to some women, disturbing the traditional gender roles, but this has sometimes led to a male backlash. Indeed, some scholars have argued that male angst and confusion in the face of rapid change, including more rights and autonomy for women, has produced increased violence against women.

Gender in the Highlands

The precolonial situation for women in the highlands is generally considered more extreme than in other parts of Papua New Guinea. An earlier generation of anthropologists characterised gender relations there as ‘sexual antagonism’ — that is, a fundamental opposition between male and female. This included a rigid role dichotomy, residential segregation, a strict division of labour, and distinct spheres of interpersonal life, experience and ritual activity. Men avoided women at certain times — such as prior to an important ceremony, the use of magic, warfare and hunting — because women, and especially their bodies and their menstrual blood, were considered antithetical and in some contexts dangerous to men. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that negative views of women prevailed.

To some extent, the rigid dichotomisation of ‘sexual antagonism’ was challenged by pioneering women anthropologists who suggested that the picture was not so simple. They argued that elements of complementarity
existed between men and women, particularly in the types of labour each performed. The value of women lay in their capacity to produce and raise children and the wealth objects, such as pigs and garden food, that were used in exchanges and ceremonies where men could acquire prestige. Marriage, together with the exchanges of wealth and the creation of relationships it involved, was an important pathway that allowed men to compete in contexts where they could gain prestige. Men were, thus, dependent on women and their labour without which their ambitions to become big men would be severely curtailed. Despite this, men rarely esteemed or respected women but regarded them as inferior beings to be managed for men’s benefit.


In the highlands, gender norms interact with other social and cultural norms, such as those pertaining to land tenure and marriage, to disadvantage women. The land tenure system imposes constraints on women’s ownership of, and access to, the productive asset of land, which impacts negatively on their income generating opportunities. The highlands region is dominated by patrilineal land tenure systems, which position men as landowners and render women essentially landless. Having no access to land, this essential requirement for the production of livelihoods and income, is a major impediment for women. While a woman may have some use-rights to her father’s land, upon marriage she is expected to move to her husband’s land and then to use his land. Marriage does confer some use rights to a woman over her husband’s land, but women are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing land which they control and from which they can secure the economic benefits of production. Because cash crops are planted on the husband’s land and he is considered its owner, he may monopolise the income from those cash crops, seeing it as exclusively his own, even though his wife has often done a major part of the work involved in their production. Generally, the kinds of secondary use rights that women have do not enable the planting of permanent cash crops but do afford the opportunity to plant annual crops such as vegetables, and women usually have the use of the small amounts of money they earn through selling these at markets. Women’s marginalisation from this key productive resource makes it difficult for women to escape violent relationships because there is no guarantee that if she returns to her natal village she will be granted access to land. So, while a woman may return to her place of birth and reside there, with her father giving her use-rights to land, she is not necessarily assured of access following his death, since his land passes to his male children, her brothers.

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