For better, for worse

“Do you want to come and see a bride price ceremony?” counselor Leonie asked us last week. Of course I, the project coordinator and the medical doctor Martina were immediately up for it.

A bride price ceremony is the equivalent of a Western wedding ceremony; it is the ceremony that links two people together as a married couple. The bride price ceremony, however, does not resemble much a traditional Western creamy white wedding. The ceremony is an occasion when the groom has to pay the woman’s family a bride price. The price depends mainly on the woman’s virginity, education and age. A typical bride price is some cash (500-2000 Kina, which equals about 173-693 Euros) and three times ten pigs; ten piglets, ten middle size pigs and ten big pigs.

In the bride price ceremony, the groom displays the pigs and the money (notes are attached to long sticks which are placed in the ground), and the bride’s family inspects the goods and divides it among the family members, based on for example who took care of the bride when she was growing up and who back in the days helped pay the bride price for the bride’s mother. The bride is standing alongside her mother, carrying a bilum bag with few personal belongings. After the bride price has been paid and received, the groom and the bride walk together to the husband’s village where they will settle down and start a life together.

The bride price ceremony Leonie invited us to witness was held in town. Around fifty people were gathered in the hot sun and the pigs were happily rolling around in the soil. I watched the ceremony fascinated and admired the bride, who was shyly hiding under her umbrella. I found myself hoping that she would have a good married life.

When working in the Family Support Center and knowing what the statistics say, I am very much aware that most married women face both physical and sexual violence at home. The bride price is considered a factor that affects domestic violence rates; when a man pays for his wife he might easily consider her his “property” and therefore treat her as such. The bride price also hinders many women from divorcing since she or her family then must pay back part of the bride price. If the woman leaves the husband without repaying the bride price she might face violence from the husband. MSF recently treated a woman whose arm was amputated by an infuriated husband because she had left him without giving back the bride price. The reason why she had left him originally was his violent behavior towards her.

When the bride price ceremony we witnessed was over, the bride and the groom walked away together. Rarely in weddings do I experience such mixed feelings as now. On the one side I feared that the house of these two would be marked by violence. On the other hand, I thought that there is a small chance that this might not be the case.

There are always positive exceptions and there is always hope for a change. I strive never to give up on the latter.