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"Women Work Harder Than Men"

In the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, women must cope with two types of male domination: an indigenous form based on men's traditional role as warrior and defender of the village and an externally imposed one that makes paid employment a male privilege. Yet despite this double burden, Highlands women are strong and assertive - and aware of their shared interests as women. They actively and aggressively exploit the opportunities that are available to them.

Traditional Eastern Highland societies relegated women to a distinctly second-class status. Until the advent of colonial rule in the 1930s, men were warriors, and endemic warfare determined the division of labor, residential arrangements, ritual practices, and marriage rules. While men fought, most agricultural chores were left to women. Residence and land ownership were based in clan membership inherited through men, and a woman moved to her husband's settlement. Men could marry several wives, but a woman could only have one husband at a time.

Colonial rule brought sweeping changes, including some benefits to women. The most important of these was the end of constant warfare and the cultural complex supporting it. In addition, hospital facilities have improved women's chances for surviving child-birth, and women have gained some legal protection from courts at all levels. Peace and legal support have given women the security to participate more fully in village society.

While colonial rule opened some local activities to women, colonial administrators, missionaries, and businessmen also imposed new constrictions on them. Women were initially left out of the cash economy, which, even though highly exploitative of men, laid the foundation for subsequent development. Colonial plantations, for example, employed men almost exclusively. Colonial assumptions combined with a previous male monopoly on prestige activities to produce a new sector of the economy based on paid labor and largely excluding women.

Today, women fare best in local activities where they can draw on strengths from traditional society - growing food crops and, to a lesser extent, growing coffee on small plots. Traditional restrictions on women have weakened, allowing a great deal of autonomy and, in individual cases, economic success. By contrast, women only fill subordinate roles in plantation agriculture and play little part in the formal economy.

The strength of women at the local level derives from a sexual partition of society that results in a strong awareness of their identity as women. Self-awareness also underlies the economic success of individual women and their willingness to assert their rights in village forums. And it lets women coordinate their actions vis-a-vis men. For example, as Lorraine Sexton describes in Mothers of Money, Daughters of Coffee, it has enabled women in one area of the Eastern Highlands to develop a female-run savings-and-exchange system to counter-balance institutions dominated by men.


Women's labor still dominates subsistence farming in the Eastern Highlands. Women perform routine chores much as in pre-contact times, although steel spades and knives have replaced wood and bamboo tools. "Women work harder than men," Ann Aroako explains. "They can finish a garden in one day, [and] in gardening, there are plenty of jobs. [Women] plant all sorts of greens, bean seeds, corn, pumpkin, sweet potato." On the other hand, his young woman adds, women need male labor to complete their work: "Men can dig drains, fence the ground where they make garden[s], and cut wood with an ax."

Women's work is continuous and routine; men's work is intermittent and valued. Women plant and harvest sweet potato, the staple crop, which is consumed mostly in the household; men grow bananas, sugar cane, and yams, all luxuries that villages exchange as gifts. Women feed pigs; men slaughter and exchange them. To women also falls the task of transporting heavy bags full of harvested sweet potatoes.

Although these roles make the sexes interdependent, men and women normally don't work together. As a result, women aren't subject to male supervision and usually go to their gardens with small groups of friends who work cooperatively. Moreover, women control the garden magic used to plant their crops. They recite spells invoking female nurturing abilities as they put the slips into the ground. Women jealously guard their knowledge of specific spells, which are considered essential. "If a person plants something without using its spell, it will not grow," villagers assert.

Women's control over food crops carries over into a small but growing commerce in local produce. Markets weren't part of the traditional Eastern Highland economy, but now even small Highland towns have markets where sweet potatoes and other food crops are sold. The vendors are invariably the women who grow the crops. In Ontena, 10 miles from the nearest town, no one sells produce regularly, but most village women raise small sums of money by sometimes selling produce in town.


Smallholder coffee plots, introduced to the Eastern Highlands in the 1940s and still the only significant cash crop, is neither a male nor female preserve. Both women and men work in coffee gardens, although women perform more than their share of tasks that aren't allocated by sex. Male tasks adapted to coffee production include ditching, fencing, and ax work. Women do most of the hand weeding. Both sexes pick and process the coffee. Both men and women accuse their spouses of laziness.

One negative side-effect of the crop is that coffee gardens planted on the best sites near villages make it more difficult to find land suitable for food crops. Women now must walk farther to perform their daily chores. The labor needs of coffee also interfere with food production because the women who pick and process coffee have less time for other harvests. Therefore, much of the cash from selling coffee must go to buy imported rice.

Most coffee gardens are owned by married couples with the husband and wife as co-owners. If a man has more than one wife, each has her own garden. Widows keep the gardens they shared with their husbands and get help from their children, but divorce places a woman at a disadvantage, since the marriage system usually requires her to move to her husband's settlement. Most coffee is planted on land belonging to the husband's clan, so she loses any claim to the gardens if she moves away. Even if she remains in the village, she severs her ties to her ex-husband's clan if she re-marries outside it and must forfeit any claim to coffee gardens planted on her ex-husband's clan land.

Nevertheless, many women retain control of the coffee gardens after divorce. This is most likely if the woman has the support of her kin and public opinion in the village. In Ontena, a divorced woman owns the fourth-largest coffee smallholding. Because she was clearly the wronged party in her divorce, public opinion supported her and she kept gardens she and her husband had shared. In addition, her own clan owned good land near her home, and her paternal uncle helped her plant a large coffee garden there.

In the same village, several single women, past the usual age for marriage, planted coffee on their own clan land. Most single women don't plant their own coffee gardens because they expect to move when they marry and the trees take six to eight years to reach maturity. Those who had planted coffee gardens had no immediate plans to marry, and might stay single. Although this was unusual, village elders didn't condemn the women, instead praising their hard work and sexual restraint.

Husbands and wives may sell small amounts of coffee separately or divide the proceeds of large sales. Some spending decisions are made together, but spouses also keep some money of their own. Spouses frequently quarrel over money because men dominate or monopolize it for drinking and gambling. Women seldom drink alcohol and gamble much less than men. Anna Aroako explains how quarrels begin: "When the wife hides some money and the husband comes [to] get the money and the husband comes [to] get the money, he doesn't ask the wife, but steals the money and plays cards. So in the afternoon when the wife comes from the gardens and sees that the money was lost, she blames the husband and they fight for that." The fundamentalist versions of Christianity popular in the Eastern Highlands condemn drinking and gambling. Women participate avidly in the church, and support from it adds moral weight to their positions on social issues in the village.

Apart from drinking and gambling, women need cash for much the same reasons men do. They pay school fees for the children, buy some food or consumer goods, and contribute to brideprices and other kinship transactions. Women also contribute to major purchases like light trucks, but less often than men.


Unlike their importance in small-scale economic activities, women play minor roles in plantations, which are a foreign institution, differing in scale, organization, and permanence from anything in the traditional economy. Although only Papua New Guineans can own plantations in the Eastern Highlands, all the owners are men, whose careers began with formal employment in male occupations, such as truck driving or coffee buying. Most women lack histories of formal employment and can't get the necessary credit.

Casual work on a coffee plantation is the only paid labor most Eastern Highlanders of either sex are likely to experience. Coffee plantations no longer rely on single men bound by labor contracts as in colonial times but now informally recruit men and women from nearby villages. This pattern lets villagers earn a wage while maintaining smallholdings and subsistence farms.

The balance among subsistence farming, smallholer cash cropping, and wage labor shifts with the global economy. When coffee prices are high, as in the early 1980s, plantations expand and villagers rely more on wage labor. However, many marginal plantations have shut down during the recent decline in world coffee prices, pushing the balance toward subsistence farming.

During the 1987 coffee harvest, about 200 men and women picked coffee on the local plantation in Ontena. More than half the adults of the village worked there or on nearby plantations at least occasionally. Women picked coffee or weeded, while men also worked as supervisors, house builders, sprayers, security guards, and drivers. In these jobs, men received a slightly higher wage. Men also had more stable employment. The plantation hired about 15 men - but no women - on a semi-permanent basis.


Women's opportunities for formal employment are dramatically less than those for men. Rural but non-agricultural occupations that arose during the colonial period, such as driving light trucks to carry people or produce, are exclusively male. Eighty-seven percent of the workers in the small, but important, formal sector of the economy are men. Furthermore, these jobs are mostly in towns, and the departure of able-bodied village men increases the workload of the women left behind.

Basic education is necessary for most formal-sector jobs, but girls have had less access to education since schools were first opened in the Highlands. The 1980 census reports that nearly three-fourths of Eastern Highland women have never attended school, compared to about half the men. Girls are gaining ground but are still less likely to be enrolled in primary school; even fewer girls go to secondary school.

Electoral politics is another male preserve. When Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, a few women were active in national politics, but none sit in the parliament elected in 1992 All of the representatives of local and provincial governments are men, with few women even running for office. Similarly, the administrative elite that came into being at the end of colonialism is mostly male, although it includes some notable women. Margaret Taylor, the ambassador to the United States, is an Eastern Highland woman, and a few others have achieved positions of power.


Two decades ago, Peggy Sanday suggested that women's participation in the productive part of an economy is a necessary but insufficient precondition for political power. Highland women meet this requirement and have achieved some notable local victories. They have succeeded as small farmers growing coffee. And women are expanding traditional roles into marketing food crops in towns.

However, women remain marginal to the rest of the economy. Men's advantage in education is echoed in formal employment, while lack of formal employment deprives women of access to credit and, as a result, to government-sponsored development projects as well.

Still, women fare worst in those areas of life, such as schools, that government can affect most easily. Higher education benefits those women who have access to it, and white-collar jobs using education are more open to women who have access to it, and white-collar jobs using education are more open to women than other areas of formal employment. Clearly, when opportunities are available, women take advantage of them, accustomed as they are to playing important economic roles and with a self-awareness grounded in tradition. This suggests that Papua New Guinea would do well to deliver on its expressed commitment to enhancing women's participation in all forms of economic and social activity. To begin with, expanding educational opportunities for girls and increasing formal employment are crucial.

The conjunction between stated government policy and the attitudes of contemporary rural women is encouraging. Kenneth Read, returning to a village he had studied 30 years earlier, finds it possible to describe the woman he knows best as a feminist. She is single, in her thirties, outspoken, and modestly entrepreneurial. She does not sound unusual to me, and I would suggest that such women are to be found throughout the Eastern Highlands. The existence of village feminists, aware of special issues affecting women, is promising, but the problems remain formidable.


Kenneth E. Read, Return to the High Valley, University of California Press, 1986.

Lorraine Sexton, Mothers of Money, Daughters of Coffee, UMI Research Press, 1986.

World Bank Papua New Guinea: Policies and Prospects for Sustained and Broad-Based Growth. World Bank, 1988.

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