THE BLOG
07/14/2011 01:17 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011

Thirty Pigs for a Bride: Modern Day Slavery in Papua New Guinea

"We don't want the beautiful ones. They cause too much trouble and do not work hard." So said Kunava, a Huli man in Papua New Guinea. "The best ones have no fingernails and are bald" from carrying the woven bilum sack strap across the top of their heads.

Huli man wearing ceremonial wig
It all comes down to land, pigs and women -- in that order. Land is most important, and it's passed down from father to son. Pigs, along with the local currency, Kina (which is a type of shell and used to be the physical means of payment before paper and coins) are how you pay your bills. I heard a lot about bride price during my recent visit to Papua New Guinea. The minimum cost to buy a bride is 30 pigs plus a mother pig for the new mother-in-law to show thanks for all of her efforts in raising a good, hardworking daughter. A really good pig will fetch about 1000 kina ($500). The bride price is made up of tranches of excellent down to just okay pigs, so the average price for a wife is somewhere around $10,000.

So what does a man get for his 30 pigs? A source of cheap labor, a vehicle for his own procreation and someone to take care of his land. What does the bride get? A life of hard labor tilling her husband's vegetable garden and tending to his pigs, years of pregnancy and often, physical abuse. A Huli woman must have her husband's permission to get contraception, which is not easy to find. The women are treated as chattel and must obey their husbands.

Men may 'marry' as many wives as they can afford. Women may only have one husband. If a woman wants a divorce, she must get his consent and repay the bride price to her husband. But most women have zero opportunity to earn any outside revenue. For the most part, they are illiterate and spend the day tending to crops, pigs and children. Domestic violence is a part of life, and you'll see women with tattoos on their faces, meant to obscure past evidence of abuse.

The man and woman do not live in the same hut. All children, boys and girls, live with their mother in one hut. The boys move out to live with their father when they're eight years old. Girls stay with mom until they have their first period. At that time, they are eligible to get married. There are occasional social (inter-village) events like marriages, celebrations and funerals where boys and girls can get to know each other. When a couple forms and gains the consent of the parents for marriage, the parents reach an agreement for the bride price. The bride is selected based on her ability to provide for the boy's parents in their old age.

With all those kids in the house, how do couples have sex? Usually the woman leaves in the morning to go out to tend her garden, taking her pig, which has a rope tied around its front leg. She ties her pig to a tree and goes about her work. While she's occupied, the husband sneaks up behind the pig and pulls its tail. The pig squeals and the woman, fearing that someone is trying to steal her pig, runs back. That's when the husband jumps her for sex. Sounds romantic, doesn't it?

The Lucky Few
Alice is a rare Huli woman who managed to divorce her abusive husband. She speaks English and works at a hotel in Mount Hagen in the Highlands.

Alice explained to me that she was able to get divorced by saving money in the hotel's safe where it would be protected from her husband's prying fingers. She also did craftwork on the side and gradually bought pigs, which were raised by her mother, aunts and sisters. Her husband physically abused her and was very jealous about her interactions with foreigners. By the time Alice had reached the end of her mental rope, she had 25 pigs and 900 kina. But she was 6 pigs short of her bride price. Her husband demanded the full bride price along with possession of their daughter as the cost of a divorce. He had initiated a civil lawsuit against her with the local magistrate. Alice had already lost her one-year-old son to measles and didn't want to have to part with her daughter. She was devastated.

So at the suggestion of her brother, Alice went to a medicine man for help. He demanded several hundred kina, which she didn't have. She gave him 100 kina and promised to pay the remainder as she earned it. He looked at her, thought for a moment, and said that he trusted her. He'd been stiffed by so many men in his life and figured she was honest. Then, he took a piece of string and asked her for the name of her husband, his brothers, his father and any uncles, sons and nephews. For each name, he tied a small knot in the string and dipped it in red paint. At the end of the process he told Alice to find a place with good depth of mud and bury the string deeply so that none of the names would ever rise again to torment her. He also told her to tell her husband, "I have the total" and remain silent about what the total was.

Alice -- proud divorcée
Alice gleefully stomped the knotted string knee-deep in mud. She then told her husband that she was ready to divorce, and has "the total." On the appointed day, Alice brought out her 25 pigs and 900 kina. Alice said that her husband was surprised and essentially took the money and ran. He quickly agreed to the divorce and didn't pursue the missing six pigs or her daughter. She was married for a total of seven years. Today she's very proud of her accomplishments. In addition, she founded the Lirrako Women's Cultural Center in order to help other women in her situation.

With perseverance, one woman found a way to end her horrific episode of human servitude. I'm hoping to help give her a voice in the world so that more women don't have to suffer her fate.