Academic journal article Oceania

Josephine's Journey: Gender-Based Violence and Marian Devotion in Urban Papua New Guinea

Academic journal article Oceania

Josephine's Journey: Gender-Based Violence and Marian Devotion in Urban Papua New Guinea

Article excerpt


The association between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and violence seems not very obvious, but in Papua New Guinea, as elsewhere in the world, people turn to Mary in order to seek a solution for the problems they face. Josephine's 'journey of violence' deals with how in the urban setting of Madang, Marian devotion is deployed in response to domestic and gender-based violence. In following the experiences and perceptions of Josephine, a 49-old educated woman working at the Catholic Diocesan's Health office in Madang, this article acknowledges the current debate on Christianity in Papua New Guinea and, in particular, the urge for a more intensive anthropological investigation of the experience of Christianity by Melanesians (for example Barker 1990:9, 1992).

Various scholars have since responded to Barker's call, but most of these studies (for example Goddard & Van Heekeren 2003; Jebens 2005; Robbins 2004) have focused on rural indigenisations of Christianity and processes of transformation. Urban experiences and constructions of Christianity remain largely un-addressed. Moreover, little is known about the impact and nature of Catholicism and in particular of Marian devotion in urban settings. Josephine's experiences give insight into how Marian devotion is practised and used by individual women and Church clergy to provide a way for them to cope with various forms of violence.

In the following sections, I will give an overview of the various acts of violence Papua New Guinean women like Josephine face, and how these acts result in a 'state of violence' (Brown 1987) that shapes women's lives. By elaborating on the setting of Madang, it is shown that this 'state of violence' is part of a specific urban sociality that calls for a redefinition of family relations, gender roles and kinship relations, and which is coloured by other morally troubling issues such as gender violence and HIV/AIDS. In order to address these issues, both men and women turn to Mary in order to seek guidance, help and empowerment.

However, as already elucidated by studies on Mary, the role of Mary is not straightforward as she is seen to both empower and dis-empower her followers (Hermkens 2007a, 2007b; Ruether 1993). In the small town of Madang, Mary not only exercises power in her capacity of strengthening and protecting her female followers against violence. She is also instrumental in the assertion of authority and obedience and, as such, of facilitating violence against women. Mary's role is complex as she herself is part of the many struggles urban women face. Caught between 'traditional', Christian and 'modern' values, (1) Josephine and other Catholic women engage in painful processes of subjectivation and self-transformation to adapt to and change their situation. In these processes, Mary is used as an (ambiguous) role model.


   Sometimes I wonder: how did I survive all this? I thank God and our
   Lady, she is my role model: a simple, humble woman.

Josephine (49 years), mother of seven children and grandmother of five, expresses her gratitude to God and Mary as she reflects on her life, which she perceives as a 'journey of violence'. Josephine originated from a small village near the town of Lae, married there and subsequently moved with her husband to Lae. There they lived until they separated and Josephine moved to Madang in 2001. When I met her in 2005, Josephine was working at the Archdiocesan HIV/AIDS office in Madang. Since 2004, Josephine has been giving advice about HIV/AIDS, organising prevention campaigns that are aimed at changing people's sexual behaviour and, thereby, their moral conduct.

When discussing the subject of sexual violence and the threat of HIV infection in Papua New Guinea, Josephine began to tell me her own story. My arrival in her office coincided with her efforts of trying to reconcile with the past, finding out who she is and, in particular, if she should speak out against the violence that has affected her life since 1973. …

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