The women are mostly in their early 20s. They have children at home. Selling betel nut — an addictive, natural chew — to passersby in mountain towns of Papua New Guinea is a good way to earn a living.
But the extra income sometimes comes at a heavy price: violent beatings by their spouses. Two out of three women in Papua New Guinea experience abuse at the hands of an intimate partner at least once in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organization and aid groups.
Betel nut sellers in Goroka, the main city in the Eastern Highlands, say physical violence is particularly common in their marriages.
“If I give him my earnings, he leaves me alone,” says Mala, 20, who sells betel nut and other goods in Goroka. She’s talking about the man she married when she was 12.
“But if I refuse and argue that I am sitting in the sun and working hard to earn an income, he gets angry and hits me,” she adds. Like other women interviewed, she asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy and out of fear of her husband.
A dirt road near the Goroka airport leads to a squatter settlement down the hill. Dozens of women preside over stacks of vegetables on blankets or sell fried eggs out of big plastic containers. About 80 percent of Papua New Guineans participate in the informal economy, but betel nut sellers say they’re often singled out by authorities and fined for making sales in the street. They are also harassed by criminal raskol gangs, who demand free cigarettes.
Betel nut is the pit of the walnut-sized fruit of an areca palm tree. In Tok Pisin, one of the major national languages, it is called buai. The nut is chewed throughout the Pacific islands for a high similar to nicotine, and about as addictive. It is also carcinogenic and is believed to contribute to Papua New Guinea’s high rate of mouth cancer, the most common type of cancer in the country.
In the highlands, one betel nut costs 1 kina, the equivalent of 30 cents. People take it with a mustard stick and slacked lime powder, which turns the mixture bright red and compels the chewer to spit — often onto the ground or into a small plastic bag.
People chew it to relax and to get to know one another. “It’s the fruit of love!” one Goroka resident exclaims.
Men lashing out
When men react violently because their wives are earning money on their own, it’s because they see power as a zero-sum game, says Richard Eves, an Australian National University anthropologist who has published several studies on masculinity based on fieldwork in Papua New Guinea’s highlands.
“So any powerful woman is seen as a loss for men,” Eves says. “Basically, they want to keep the status quo of them being the powerful person in the household. So that entails bullying their wives, and beating them up.”
While aid groups trying to stop violence against women may default toward focusing on female survivors, he says they should spend time with both sexes.
“There’s strong social pressures on the masculine role model there, to be assertive, to be in control, to be dominating,” Eves says. “One of the things we need to do is challenge those rather toxic notions of masculinity that are at work.”
Patty, a 27-year-old betel nut seller in Goroka, dropped out of school in second grade. At the time, her family struggled to pay for school fees and decided to educate her brothers instead.
When she got older, she started selling betel nut at night, when there’s less competition and plenty of customers — people heading out to bars and nightclubs. But it is also a time when most Goroka residents stay home, fearing the high crime rate and armed raskol gangs that patrol the streets.
“For other women, it’s risky for them, they feel frightened. But for those of us who grew up in the settlement, it’s safe for us,” Patty says.
Her sister-in-law Joyce runs a small market, selling cookies and canned tuna. Both she and Patty asked that only their first names be used so they could speak openly about private, sensitive issues involving work and home life.
Their husbands, who are brothers, began to demand a share of their profits. A few months ago, the women saw that their earnings were missing again.
“Both our husbands are unemployed and don’t work. We do sales, earn enough money and save some aside,” Patty says.
“Then they come and take our money to go and drink,” Joyce interjects. “So we fight. We become upset and we fight.”
They confronted their husbands in a public market, brandishing a knife. The confrontation ended without major injuries, but the abuse didn’t stop.
Domestic violence is illegal in Papua New Guinea, but it is rarely prosecuted. Instead of turning to police, survivors are much more likely to turn to family members or their community for retribution.
“I am not happy, but this is life”
The settlement where the betel nut sellers live is a maze of homes built with brush material, over streams and gullies. Extended families often live together in a collection of homes they built themselves, the houses facing each other across a courtyard of hard-packed soil.
Increasingly, Papua New Guineans are leaving ancestral lands in search of jobs and education in cities and towns. But the cost of living in urban areas is far higher than in the countryside, and many people make their homes in informal squatter settlements like this one.
About 62 percent of adults can read and write in Papua New Guinea, according to UNICEF. Jobs are scarce for those without a formal education, pushing many people into an informal economy of selling goods on the street.
One of Patty’s childhood friends, who asked not to be named out of concern for her family’s privacy, is quieter than the others. She’s 21, with bright blue braids woven into her hair. At night, she sells betel nut and loose cigarettes.
“When we sell properly, we make 4 kina [$1.20] profit from a pack of cigarettes. But if the drunks come and destroy our market, we have a loss,” she says through an interpreter.
Her parents forced her to marry when she got pregnant at 15. But her husband was controlling, and would accuse her of having affairs when she sold betel nut.
“I asked him why,” she recalls. “‘I loved you and I married you. Why are you mistreating me like this, belting me up?’ And my husband said, ‘I don’t want you go out and seeing other men.’ That’s why he was hitting me.”
“Belting” is a term used to describe repeated strikes with an open hand or closed fist — generally not a belt, despite the name — and is often seen as a form of discipline.
She left her husband, returned to her parents’ village and married again. But she came back when she got word that her first husband had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“He has mistreated me badly. But now that he’s sick, you know, I have compassion for him. I’m taking care of him because there are no other people that can support him,” she says.
Many of the women who sell betel nut left school early and married young — out of family pressure, financial necessity or both. When faced with abuse, they adapt in different ways. Some file for divorce. Others, for various reasons, fear leaving their husbands.
Patty decided to remain in her marriage. Her husband once beat her until she lost consciousness. When she came to, she decided to fight back.
“I got a knife and chased him. He slept outside for two nights and didn’t come home,” Patty says. “If he hits me in public, I beat him up as well. So he can feel the pain I’m feeling.”
Joyce, Patty’s sister-in-law, says she got a court order to stop her husband from hitting her.
“If he does it again, I can report him to be locked up for 10 years. Or he’ll have to pay 10,000 kina [about $3,000] in compensation,” she says. “So he’s finally reforming himself.”
She says she’ll stay in her marriage because she has two children, and because her husband paid a customary bride price to her family equal to $1,000.
“He has fulfilled the custom and my people accepted the bride price payment, so I can’t go back,” Joyce says. “I am not happy, but this is life. So I just endure it and stay.”
As for Mala, she went to court and got a divorce from her husband. But when she sat down on a friend’s porch a couple of months later to talk about it, she was ashen.
“My mind is troubled when I’m alone,” she says. “I don’t have healthy thoughts.”
Her ex-husband remarried, but that wasn’t the end of it.
In the early spring, Mala walked to the market to sell fried eggs. Her ex-husband saw her, and beat her in the middle of the street.
“I brought my eggs back to the house, and I told him that he ruins and stops every hope of running my business,” Mala says. “So I stay at home.”
That day, she says, she decided to move to a bigger city. Now, she’s going to try and make it on her own.