Development, Social policy | The Pacific

18 December 2020

Recent research in Papua New Guinea has found that cultural norms around violence against women have a significant and ongoing impact on women’s economic independence, Richard Eves writes.

Promoting women’s economic empowerment is a priority of the Australian Government’s 2016 Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy. As such, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently funded research into Papua New Guinean coffee small holders. This research, a collaboration with CARE, used a quantitative survey of 143 households at four sites in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) Eastern Highlands; one each in the Unggai-Bena and Goroka Districts, as well as two in Okapa District.

Conducting and analysing this research is critical for providing an understanding of the challenges to realising the goal of women’s economic empowerment. It also creates an evidence base from which development programming can proceed.

Coffee is one of PNG’s most valuable export crops. It is a vital part of the local economy in several of PNG’s highland provinces, with an estimated 400,000 smallholders growing coffee and nearly three million people reliant on income from it. Historically, coffee has been considered a men’s crop, since it is planted on land belonging to men, and consequently men tend to monopolise the income from its sale. This is true even today, despite women doing a substantial amount of the labour in the coffee value chain.

The research found that despite some gains for women and greater awareness of ‘gender equality’, particularly in the two research sites close to Goroka, the Eastern Highlands Province capital, women continue to be disregarded, or put on the ‘last page’, as one woman described it.

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Though there has been a lessening of the more rigid traditions of gender segregation that were practised in many parts of the Eastern Highlands, gender norms and roles continue to impact negatively on women. Coffee labour is accepted as both men’s and women’s work, though gender determines the particular kinds of labour they normally do. As has often been noted, women’s role in coffee production is usually in the least skilled, most labour intensive, and time-consuming aspects of the work, such as harvesting, washing and processing.

Men take the tasks requiring some knowledge of coffee technology, such as planting, shading, fencing and pruning. Above all, men control the planning of the production process and the sale of coffee. Men refer to the income from coffee as ‘heavy money’, meaning that it produces substantial amounts of money compared to the insignificant amounts they believe other cash crops make.

The research found that women are more likely to have the lead role in commercial gardening and the selling of fresh produce, largely because the income from this is much lower than that from coffee. We found that almost 70 per cent of women had their own income, though women had fewer means of earning than men.

It has sometimes been argued that bringing income into the household gives women more influence in the household, allowing them, for example, to negotiate domestic labour burdens more equally. However, we found that the extent to which women can increase their bargaining power in the household depends on gender norms, which impose constraints on what is appropriate or permissible for women and men to do, including the kinds of labour they can do. We found that women bear the burden of responsibility for the agricultural labour that provides most household food and for the unpaid house and care work.

However, there were various degrees of cooperation, with some households exhibiting high levels of men’s involvement. Childcare, for example, is not considered exclusively women’s work. Only 25 per cent of women said they are the main worker whilst 65.4 per cent of women and 76 per cent of men saying that they were the equal main worker caring for children.

Domestic conflicts were common, 71.9 per cent of women and 76.9 per cent of men saying they argued with their partner. Both men and women said that most arguments were over money, followed by sex, other women, drinking, gambling, in-laws and mobile phones.

Arguments over gambling and drinking are often conflicts over money, since these activities squander household resources. Conflicts over money are generally over men’s inequitable distribution of coffee money or their squandering it on drinking, gambling and other women.

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Given women’s significant role in producing that coffee income, they resent it being squandered and are forthright in querying their spouses’ actions. Domestic conflicts sometimes descend into violence. Sexual violence, in the form of ‘forced sexual intercourse’, was the most commonly reported type of violence. At the four research sites, rates varied from 34.3 to 66.6 per cent of women having been subjected to this during their married lives. This was especially pronounced at Okapa District site two, where 25.9 per cent of women reported that this occurred frequently.

A significant number of women reported that they had been subjected to physical violence at some stage in their lives. The most common violence was being hit with a fist or other weapon. The worst rate of violence was in Okapa District site two, where 18.5 per cent of women indicated that such hitting occurred frequently.

Emotional violence was also common. At the four research sites, the various rates were between 18.1 and 44.3 per cent of women who had experienced such violence at some stage in their lives.

A high proportion of men and women approved of the violent treatment of women, with women’s support sometimes being greater than men’s, indicating that gender norms supporting such violence are entrenched. For example, 61 per cent of women agreed that a husband is justified in hitting his wife if she has not completed housework to his satisfaction, compared to 35.9 per cent of men. High proportions of both men and women also agreed with statement that ‘a wife should tolerate being beaten by her husband to keep the family together’.

Women’s defence of gender norms that support their own ill-treatment reflects that they too are products of a culture that enshrines gender inequality. The research also sought men’s and women’s opinions on a range of gender issues and again, high numbers of men and women generally found gender inequality acceptable, with women’s approval sometimes being greater than men’s.

Rather than promoting women’s economic empowerment interventions as standalone projects, the research among coffee smallholders in PNG points to the importance of addressing violence as a component of women’s economic empowerment interventions. Moreover, such interventions need to tackle the wider social and gender norms which support violence.

This article is based upon a research report published by the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA). The original report can be found here.


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