How an illiterate woman in a polygamous marriage transformed a whole community
The Highlands region of Papua New Guinea is known for polygamy, a long-held practice in this remote area. Livelihoods here are scant and most people make a living growing vegetables. Family structures tend to be extended and traditional. Evidence also shows that women in these polygamous marriages are at a higher risk of being physically abused by their husbands than are those in monogamous marriages. Having multiple wives in the same household causes a great deal of jealousy among the competing wives and this jealousy feeds into violence that can be exceptionally destructive for the family.
“I have experienced both physical and psychological abuse at the hands of my husband and the other wives. I was not happy with the new additions but I had no choice. Life was really hard.” - Serah Tei
Kinzibi village reflects the problem. In the past there have been extremely high numbers of rape cases and high levels of violence against women and girls (VAWG) in Kinzibi, with many instances of women in polygamous marriages slashing the legs or breaking the limbs of rival wives in the same family. Living in this community is Serah Tei, an illiterate mother of two children, who is one of four wives of the local community counselor, a leader in the village! Serah was no stranger to this violence.
“There used to be a lot of conflict in my family,” she says. “I have experienced both physical and psychological abuse at the hands of my husband and the other wives. I was not happy with the new additions but I had no choice. Life was really hard.”
The behavior is handed down from father to son too. Serah’s daughter-in-law, Karen, also experienced violence at the hands of her husband, Serah’s son. He too wanted to take an additional wife, saying like the other young men, ‘this is what my father did and what his father did.’
Since October 2012, the Komuniti Lukautim Ol Meri (KLOM) project (“Community Looking after Women and Girls), implemented by FHI 360 and funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), has been working with communities in the Western Highlands and West Sepik provinces of PNG to reduce the level of violence against women and girls and support survivors of gender-based violence (GBV). KLOM has been working with community mobilizers, who are selected by the community to help educate and raise awareness about GBV and to work toward attitude and behavior change. The community is involved in the selection process to build trust and ownership of the interventions.
When Serah first learned about messages given out by KLOM on gender equality and GBV, it struck a nerve with her. It challenged her to change her own thinking about the normalization of violence within polygamous marriages. She sought to volunteer as a community mobilizer: she was the ideal candidate. There was only one problem, the selection criteria for a volunteer was an individual who had, at minimum, completed the eighth grade, because the work required volunteers who could read and write. Serah was illiterate.
She was not alone, however. The KLOM project team reviewed the selections for community mobilizer and noticed that other volunteers were illiterate too. So rather than reject these willing volunteers who had valuable personal experience at the receiving end of VAWG, they decided to take up the challenge and develop the skills of these candidates. KLOM modified its training tools to include picture cards as a tool.
Serah began attending trainings offered by FHI 360. Among the skills she learned was basic communication so she could express herself to her husband and the other wives about what was wrong. She took this new knowledge, along with leaflets to be used as aids for interventions, home and shared this all with her family. The other wives listened, and her husband, Alphonse, took on board the information that she shared.
Now, with support from Alphonse and the rest of her family, Serah was sharing messages on prevention of violence against women in the village. As a family, they started to hold community discussions at the market place, church and other gatherings to speak about violence and the negative impacts of polygamy. They spoke openly about the challenges that they had faced as a family and demonstrated the changes that can occur when there is no family violence. Granted, being still polygamous they had a complex message to get across, that polygamy is not acceptable and ultimately, to stop violence, stop polygamous marriages.
The knowledge that Serah has learned has now had a positive impact on her son’s family too. “Serah would visit us at home to inform about her learnings and she gave me leaflets to read,” Karen says. “We learned and started to change, and [my husband] stopped drinking and being violent to me. The whole family has visibly changed.” Karen and her husband are now members of the community action group as well and they too have participated in community trainings organized by FHI 360, which boosted their own knowledge gained from their sessions with Serah. They have also attended economic enterprise trainings conducted by FHI 360 in partnership with ANZ Bank, on savings, called MoneyMinded. “We now have money to build a permanent house,” she says.
In just under four years, the work done by KLOM community mobilizers has had a profound impact in Kinzibi. In a community where polygamy was once the norm, now the mobilizers report that no one is taking a second wife, which is a considerable change in local values and a great example of how the community has worked together to bring about a positive transformation.
“Now in our community awareness is much better,” Serah says. “Men just have one wife. They aren’t drinking home brew as much, or smoking marijuana, or pulling women into the bush. People had the wrong thinking about what is acceptable and tolerated as a norm. Now we talk about what’s the right way. Now things are normal. There is no more violence and we are living peacefully.”
Alphonse now says, “It hurts me to discover the pain that I was causing my family by having more than one wife. Through what Serah told me, I could see that this was at the root of the problems in our family. I’m now telling my people and no one is taking a second wife.”