A Bride for Barter?
The Huli are one of the largest ethnic groups in Papua New Guinea. How has life changed, especially for the women, in the 50 years since their first contact with the white man?
The Huli - better known as wigmen - live in the remote Southern Highland province. They have been here for 600 years; most probably even for 1000 years. Only 50 years ago they had their first contact with the "Whites". They were suddenly spirited from the Stone Age with its subsistence agriculture and traditional values to a market economy based on money. There are now 350,000 wage earners in Papua New Guinea out of a population of 4.2 million. Because traditional cultures and values have disappeared, an ever increasing number of young men have neither a future nor anything to do. Some turn to crime in one form or another. The social codes have been broken, even before new ones emerge.
For the Huli marriage is male-dominated in that men are free to take as many wives as they can afford. Women, however, are allowed only one husband at a time. A marriage can take place when the bridegroom's family has paid a considerable brideprice to the bride's family, principally in the form of pigs. The consequences of present-day polygamy are particularly harsh on women. Polygamy impoverishes the first wife, whose economic status can be compared to a divorce. As a result the rejected wife as often as not seeks refuge in transactional or commercial sex. In the meantime, female promiscuity is severely punished, not just with a black eye, bruises or cuts. Even in marriage mistreatment and rape are not exceptional.