THE PACIFIC

Bridewealth Project

The Pacific spans a vast region, from Hawaii in the North to New Zealand in the South and from Papua New Guinea in the West to Eastern Island (Rapa Nui) in the East. The Pacific region, also known as Oceania, is reputed for its diversity: it is home to approximately 1 750 different languages and to almost as many cultural groups. This diversity is equally found in marital practices and exchanges. However, bridewealth remains the primary form of marriage exchange practiced in Melanesian countries (Fiji excluded), i.e. New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, parts of the Solomon Islands (see Solomon Islands Page) and Vanuatu.

Traditionally, food crops such as yams, taros, manioc, bananas, sugarcane and coconuts, and local valuables such as pigs, pandanus mats, shell and feather money constituted the bulk of bridewealth in the Pacific. With colonization and the development of a cash economy, however, cash, rolls of fabric and steel tools were added to the mix. Nowadays, bridewealth often also includes large sums of cash, food products such as bags of rice, sugar and flour, and consumer items as diverse as dresses, household utensils, plastic buckets and drums of kerosene.

The size or value of bridewealth in the Pacific varies according to several factors, including the status of the bride's and bridegroom's families, the residence of the couple (urban vs rural), their church affiliation, the qualities of the bride, her ability to get paid employment, her beauty and her virginity. In Melanesia, not only the lineage and the clan of a man contribute to the payment for his wife, but also his fellow villagers and people from other villages who are tied to him by an exchange relationship or who have debts or obligations towards him or his kin. Their contributions, in turn, trigger a series of debts that are part of a larger system of obligations which, in some cases, may be extinguished only a generation later.

Bridewealth is typically structured in three phases. In phase one, the groom and his kin assemble the necessary goods for the bridewealth payment. This phase in most communities may last up to a year. In phase two, the bridewealth is transferred to the bride's kin representative, usually the bride's father or a male of high status. This transfer may take place immediately before or after the wedding but also many years later, when children are born out of the union. In phase three, the bride's father distributes the bridewealth among his own kin, according to a set of pre-existing obligations that bind him.

As in other countries, bridewealth in Melanesia "balance[s] a transfer of rights over the wife's sexuality, work services, residence, fertility, etc." (Keesing, 1981: 508) It is also aimed at appeasing the bride's parents for the loss of their daughter. Bridewealth in New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu also contribute at reviving old social and kin relationships and in creating new ones.

Bridewealth is considered by most Melanesian men and women as a practice of great significance. This is often expressed in their conviction that bridewealth is "part of their culture," that it is the only way for them to officialise their union in a customary way and to uphold their social responsibilities and obligations. Nevertheless, several criticisms have been aired at the practice. One of such criticism is that cash has distorted bridewealth payments, making marriage looking like a "bisness" (Hess 2009: 91). Another criticism of the practice in the region cites the excesses that now characterize bridewealth payments and severely limits the capacity of young people to get married according to kastom.

Increasingly, bridewealth payments have also been denounced for the effects they have on women. While some claim that bridewealth celebrates the social value and the virtue of women, others claim that the practice is demeaning for women. Opponents to bridewealth also argue that the practice condones and even encourages domestic violence. Having paid a large amount in cash and goods as bridewealth, some men feel that they "own" their wives and, consequently, may do whatever they please with them, including verbal and physical abuse. In a similar way, critiques of bridewealth argue that as a payment operating the transfer of authority over a woman from her lineage to her husband's, bridewealth renders divorce difficult for women and often necessitates the partial or complete reimbursement of the payment made at marriage. Melanesian women who seek divorce also risk the custody of their children. In having paid bridewealth, their husbands and their in-laws assured their rights over the women's fertility.

Fabienne Labbé

References

Hess, Sabine. 2009. Person and Place: Ideas, Ideals and the Practice of Sociality on Vanua Lava, Vanuatu. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Keesing, Roger M. 1981. Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

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MAP OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF BRIDEWEALTH PRACTICES IN THE PACIFIC

MAP OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF BRIDEWEALTH PRACTICES IN THE PACIFIC