From girls to women

Normal, Weekender

Traditional knowledge systems relating to women’s practices and beliefs must be studied to establish the important role of women in Papua New Guinea, writes NAOMI FAIK-SIMET

The Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies (IPNGS) recently conducted research on the Yangit female initiation ceremony located in the Burui Kunai Local Level Government area of the East Sepik province.
This ceremony involves young girls who have experienced their first menstruation. As part of their beliefs, these young girls must undergo this ceremony to signify the transition from a girl to a woman.
Three young girls between the ages of 15 and 18 underwent the Kraku-bandi (skin-cutting) ceremony as part of the initiation process. They were kept in seclusion for a period of nearly three months (29 July – 19 September 2009). During the seclusion period they are taught the knowledge and skills needed for their future roles as wives and mothers. They were taught the techniques of child-birth and rearing, trade systems involving the exchange of sago with fish (only a woman’s activity), sacred knowledge maintaining women’s power, etc. Men, on the other hand, also practice male initiation ceremonies that are respected by women. Such research carried out on the role of women in traditional societies is vital to understanding gender roles and the relationships that exist between men and women.
Traditional institutions such as Kraku-bandi continue to provide the framework for both men and women to develop and maintain their communities. Basic services such as health, education and road infrastructure continue to receive little attention from the Government. A large number of women deliver their babies in the village while traditional medicine is highly used to treat illness. Traditional beliefs relating to certain rituals and performances to heal the sick are widely practiced in Yangit village. With a small population of about four hundred people, the Yangit community encourages team work and cooperation between the different clans. One person’s problem or sickness is everyone’s concern. Women are highly respected and appreciated for their role as mothers, sisters and wives. They are seen to be equivalent to men as a result of their involvement in the Kraku-Bandi ceremony. In many traditional societies women’s roles are marginalized and limited. In the Yangit case, women are recognized as the foundation of society and are responsible for maintaining family and social relations.
The IPNGS carried out preliminary research on the Kraku-bandi ceremony in October 2008. Results of this work were presented this year at the National Research Institute’s conference on “Community Transformation Networking and Ownership in the Development Process” (16-18 June). A more thorough study was undertaken this year to record and document the whole process of Kraku-bandi female initiation ceremony. This work took approximately two months to complete.
There is still a need to explore more performances relating to women’s rituals that often silently exist in PNG. Compared to male traditional practices and rituals, women’s rituals are seldom researched causing an imbalance in gender representation. The IPNGS recognizes the study of women’s performances as an important area for the research and documentation of the many traditions and cultures of PNG.