Awa Women in Papua New Guinea

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Exploited laborers on the capitalist fringe

After a quarter-century as colonial subjects and nearly a decade as citizens of the new nation-state of Papua New Guinea, Awa women have experienced many changes, but few improvements, in their lives. The usual signs of "development" - roads, schools, health clinics, retail stores - still are at least a one-day walk away, and government services, such as agricultural extension, medical aid, and police and judicial services, are rarely available locally. Although they now wear purchased clothing, have steel shovels and machetes, and exercise a bit more control over their personal destinies, Awa women still spend most of their time in domestic production and child care, have inadequate medical care for themselves and their families, and rarely venture beyond the local region. Despite the lack of modern amenities and attentions, Awa women have been deeply affected by their gradual incorporation into the world economy and have become increasingly exploited.

The lives of contemporary Awa women are better understood in relation to the lives of Awa men. Studies of gender in Papua New Guinea discuss the antagonism between the sexes. Certainly, the Awa people openly air their disagreements and occasionally confront each other to protest unacceptable treatment. Verbal altercations are everyday occurrences and physical violence is not uncommon, with women in general, "giving as good as they get." Awa women, then, are not easily dominated or dismissed; they vigorously defend their domain against all intrusions. As an Awa man put it, "The mouth of a good woman is not fastened shut."

More important, however, their sexual antagonism is the basic complementarity of the sexes. Women and men in Papua New Guinea, as in most societies, abide in rather separate, but interrelated, social domains defined by cultural notions of "maleness" and "femaleness" overtly expressed in such things as dress, physical comportment, social attitudes, responsibilities and sexual divisions of labor.

The lives of Awa women have never been easy. As part of a small linguistic group of 1,400 people living in eight communities in a relatively remote rural area of the Eastern Highlands, from an early age their lives were closely tied to the continuous labors of subsistence agriculture on which the local livelihood depends. As children, women lived with their mothers and siblings in houses separate from those of their fathers, who resided with other adult men and initiated boys in communal men's houses. As young adults, women left their families to marry men who they may or may not have chosen as husbands and who often lived in neighboring communities. Gradually, women were integrated into the work and social routines of their husbands' clans, where they helped clear and plant the numerous household garden plots and did most of the tending, harvesting, and transporting of crops. Without pack animals or vehicular roads, women were the major means of transporting all types of goods in this mountainous terrain. Women were also responsible for child care, rearing and feeding of small household pig herds, collecting and transporting firewood, and preparing and cooking food. They made clothing and net bags from tree bark they spun into twine, activities that occupied their hands continually when freed from other tasks. For a few days each month, women were confined to menstrual huts to protect others from what was assumed to be their dangerously polluting condition. Women's daily work regimen changed somewhat with the seasons and occasionally was interrupted by illness, visitors, warfare, and social and ceremonial events. During most of their adult lives, however, women's waking hours were spent in a constant sequence of productive tasks within the domestic sphere. Over the years, women were loyal producers of wealth and progeny for their husbands' clans. Their babies were delivered without the assistance of midwives and they witnessed the early deaths of half of all newborns. In old age, and usually ill-health, they were cared for by their own children and whiled away their time in the village doing small tasks and occasionally supervising older children left behind by other women working in gardens.

Men spent their adult lives doing different kinds of work. They felled trees for new garden sites in the forest and assisted with some crop planting. They built houses and constructed fences to protect gardens from predatory pigs. They also hunted sporadically and occasionally helped with child care. Most of their work effort, however, occurred in the public arena. They participated in inter-village trade, organized ceremonial events, and dominated the political negotiations of exchange, marital, and military alliances between clans and villages. Perhaps most importantly, they sought to protect village autonomy from external threats. They Grafted weapons, principally bows and arrows, and planned and executed both attack and defense strategies when confronted by hostile neighbors. When not actually waging war, men were constantly on the alert, guarding approaches to their gardens and communities.

Over the last few decades, this complementarity between the sexes has remained essentially unchanged. The lives of Awa women and men, however, have not. The presence of colonial forces rapidly curtailed inter-village warfare and undermined the autonomy of local communities. With the consolidation of government control, a cash economy was introduced. Steel tools, blankets, and clothing were obtained as compensation for participating in government patrols into uncontrolled neighboring regions. By the mid-1960s, Awa men had been recruited as wage labor migrants, and coffee was cultivated in most villages. As small amounts of cash were generated by these activities, Awa communities were integrated into local government councils and adult men became subject to an annual head tax.

Awa demands for cash quickly exceeded their earning potential and the quest- for cash began. Consumer desires accelerated as rapidly as tax levies. Exchange obligations between groups rose to burdensome levels as, for example, the cash component of brideprices increased 20-fold in little more than a decade. As a consequence, most men routinely spend some extended period during their adult lives away from the village as labor migrants and nearly all households now tend small plots of coffee trees.

The effects of these changes on the lives of Awa women are varied. Steel shovels and machetes make some women's tasks less arduous, but the more substantial benefits of having steel axes to chop down large trees accrue only to men. Whatever benefits women may have enjoyed by the use of steel tools, increased leisure was not one of them.

In the case of contemporary Awa, whose major role in the new cash economy is as suppliers of cheap, male labor, the flow of men out of these rural villages to seek wage employment means women must work harder to provide for the communities, and male tasks are often left undone. When husbands are absent, wives plant more of their gardens in grassland locations where, unlike forested sites, male tasks of clearing trees and building fences are not necessary. Women, in effect, have adjusted their food production activities to rely more heavily on their own labor. During the late 1960s, the percentage of absent adult men in Awa villages often exceeded 50 percent, and the contribution of women to local production increased accordingly. The emigration of men also contributed to a reduction in the general quality of village life. Housing deteriorated, ceremonial events declined in frequency and festiveness, adultery accusations increased, and residents feared that former enemies might take the opportunity to settle old scores.

Labor migration rates of Awa men declined during the 1970s, due to dissatisfaction with earnings and working conditions and pressures from residents, especially women, who had stayed behind. Attention turned to coffee production as the only local means of generating significant amounts of cash. This was a mixed blessing for Awa women: although men plant the new trees and tend the old, the laborious tasks of picking, processing and transporting the beans fall disproportionately on women. Women, however, do share in the proceeds of coffee sales and, as a result, are gaining a small degree of financial independence.

Awa women today are less separated from the lives of their men. The communal men's houses are gone; men and women are more at ease in each other's company. Although married women still spend their menstrual periods in seclusion, the formerly strict views of female pollution, a powerful rationale used to structure gender separation, appear less inhibiting. Most women choose their own husbands and married couples live together in the same house. The new living arrangements are pressuring fertility rates upward, a trend still muted by high infant mortality. With no knowledge of modern contraception and virtually no access to medical care, pregnancy-related morbidity can be expected to increase.

Since the late 1970s, a few Awa women have lived outside the local area with employed husbands or brothers, and several of these women can converse in the regional pidgin, neo-Melanesian. On the whole, however, Awa women remain in their villages, on the fringe, their unpaid labor supporting the profits of others. Their lives have changed, but the benefits are few.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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