Wife Beating and Modernization: The Case of Papua New Guinea

By Morley, Rebecca | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview
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Wife Beating and Modernization: The Case of Papua New Guinea

Morley, Rebecca, Journal of Comparative Family Studies


In response to a directive from the Minister of Justice in 1982, the Papua New Guinea Law Reform Commission undertook a series of standardized questionnaire surveys to investigate the extent and nature of domestic violence in Papua New Guinea(1). Over 2,000 men and women, representing the diverse population of the country, were interviewed or received postal questionnaires. The impetus for this ambitious undertaking was a resolution passed at the fifth convention of the Papua New Guinea National Council of Women, and communicated to the Law Reform Commission, expressing concern about the apparent rise in crimes against women and the lack of effective remedies.

The Papua New Guinea domestic violence surveys are unique in developing countries, where the vast majority of data comes from ethnographic reports. Indeed, representative surveys focusing on the problem of domestic violence are extremely rare in industrialized countries: the American national family violence surveys (Straus et al., 1980; Straus and Gelles, 1986) and the Australian national surveys of attitudes to domestic violence (Public Policy Research Centre, 1988; Elliott and Shanahan Research, 1989; 1990) are perhaps the only examples of nationwide domestic violence surveys.

Because of their survey methods and wide coverage of a population at varying stages of "westernization," the Papua New Guinea domestic violence surveys provide a rare opportunity to explore the relationship of wife beating to modernization. To examine this relationship, this paper uses the published quantitative data from the two major surveys, complemented by data from the supplementary studies published by the Law Reform Commission, other ethnographic reports of wife beating in Papua New Guinea, and some comparison material from studies of developing and industrialized societies. It begins with an introduction to Papua New Guinea and women's-status therein, and a summary of the survey methods.


Papua New Guinea is a predominantly Melanesian country of about 3.7 million people from more than 700 different language groups and associated cultures, many of whom inhabit remote and isolated areas contacted by Westerners as late as the 1930s. It gained independence from Australia in 1975.

The country is comprised of 19 provinces within four regions. These provinces and regions reflect administrative rather than cultural distinctions, although neighbouring groups tend to display cultural similarities. Eighty-five percent of the population live in rural areas (National Statistical Office, 1991), almost all in villages (Government of Papua New Guinea, 1987:8). The urban population are immigrants from the rural areas, most of whom have settled since World War II (Toft, 1986:2). The capital city, Port Moresby, has a population of nearly 200,000 people (National Statistical Office, 1991) from all four regions. Communication between diverse language groups occurs primarily through the two main lingua francas -- Melanesian Pidgin and Hiri Motu -- although many people, especially in the urban areas, also speak English. English is the official language and is used in formal education. Most (about 87%) of the population depend on agriculture for a livelihood, with only 10% engaged in formal employment, mostly in the urban areas (Government of Papua New Guinea, 1987:12).

Gender Relations and Women's Status

Given the degree of cultural variation throughout Papua New Guinea, the paucity of detailed information available, and limited space, it is impossible to provide an adequate summary of gender relations and women's status in all their complexity. Nonetheless, a number of generalized comments can be made about traditional societies, the impact of colonialism and modernization, and today's rural and urban life. (The following discussion uses material compiled from Bradley, 1985; Brown, 1987; Crossley, 1988; Counts 1990a; Gillett, 1990; Government of Papua New Guinea, 1987; Johnson, 1985; Josephides, 1985a; Macintyre, 1985; MacPherson, 1991; Mandie, 1985; Martin, 1985; Nagari, 1985; Samana, 1985.

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Wife Beating and Modernization: The Case of Papua New Guinea


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