© 2024 KRCU Public Radio
90.9 Cape Girardeau | 88.9-HD Ste. Genevieve | 88.7 Poplar Bluff
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Betel Nut Sellers Of Papua New Guinea


Time now for another Weekend-Long Listen. In the mountain towns of Papua New Guinea, you'll frequently see women selling a small, green tree fruit called betel nut. The seed is a mild stimulant when you chew it. Running a small market is one of the few jobs available here to women with limited education. But as NPR fellow Durrie Bouscaren reports, one group of women in the town of Goroka found that their new-found income triggered a disturbing reaction - physical abuse from their husbands.

DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: Patty (ph) and Joyce (ph) are married to two brothers. They all live together in a cluster of houses they built in an informal squatter settlement near the Goroka airport.


BOUSCAREN: Patty, the younger one, sells betel nut on the street late at night. It's a bit risky because of armed gangs that roam the streets. But she says the sales are better when there's less competition and lots of foot traffic heading to the nightclubs and bars. Joyce, who's a bit older, runs a small canteen selling cookies and canned tuna. For years, she says, her husband would take the money she earned and go out drinking.

JOYCE: (Through interpreter) When he's drunk, he becomes violent and hits me. The situation gets worse. I leave the house and go hide until he sobers up.

BOUSCAREN: The women asked to be identified by their first names only for privacy. A few months ago, Joyce and Patty saw their earnings were missing again, so they went to confront their husbands together and brought a knife as a means of protection.

PATTY: (Through interpreter) Both of our husbands are unemployed and don't work. We do sales, earn enough money and save some aside.

JOYCE: (Through interpreter) Then they come and take our money to go and drink, so we fight. We become upset, and we fight.

BOUSCAREN: It ended without major injuries, but the abuse didn't stop. The same thing happened to Patty's childhood friend Mala (ph), a 20-year-old betel nut seller in the same neighborhood. Her husband would demand a share of her profits.

MALA: (Through interpreter) If I give him my earnings, he leaves me alone. But if I refuse and say that I'm sitting in the sun and working hard to earn an income, he gets angry and hits me.

BOUSCAREN: Domestic violence is illegal in Papua New Guinea, but it's rarely prosecuted. Instead of turning to police, survivors are much more likely to go to family members or their community for justice. An estimated 2 out of 3 women in Papua New Guinea experience abuse at the hands of an intimate partner, according to the World Health Organization and other aid groups. It's one of the highest rates in the world outside of a conflict zone. Economic independence is generally seen as a way to prevent abuse. If you aren't financially dependent on your partner, you can always leave them. But in Papua New Guinea, the conventional wisdom seems to backfire, says Richard Eves of Australian National University, who spoke over Skype.

RICHARD EVES: Men in PNG see power as a zero-sum game, so any powerful woman is seen as a loss for men. So basically, they want to keep the status quo of them being the powerful person within the household, so that entails, you know, bullying their wives and beating them up.

BOUSCAREN: But it's hard to do anything about that when desperation pushed you into this work in the first place. In Goroka, women drape hand-woven string bags over the chain-link fence in the center of town. Near the supermarket, men sell woven baskets and handicrafts to tourists. About 80 percent of Papua New Guineans participate in the informal economy, but the betel nut sellers are the ones who get harassed. Along the dirt road leading into the settlement down the hill, an older woman with long dreadlocks, who asked not to be named, sits alongside the vegetable vendors. She sells a small pile of smooth, green betel nuts on a handkerchief in the afternoon sun. Each is about the size of a walnut.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) The town authority - they came three times today.

BOUSCAREN: Through Agnes Mack (ph), an interpreter, she says selling betel nut isn't illegal. But setting up a market on the street can be, so she has to keep an eye out. And she has to be ready to pack up quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) If they come and catch them here, they will have to pay 50 kina on the spot - spot fine of 50 kina.

BOUSCAREN: Fifty kina is worth about $15 in the U.S. That may be her earnings for a week. And yet despite the risks, she comes here every day. Years ago, after her husband died, her sons accused her of sorcery, a pretty common rationale for violence in the highlands. They cut half of her fingers down to stubs and banished her from the village. With no savings and limited use of her hands, this is the only reliable source of income she has. Many of the women who sell betel nut left school early and married young out of family pressure or financial necessity or both. When faced with abuse, they adapt in different ways. Twenty-eight-year-old Joyce says she got a court order to stop her husband from hitting her thanks to Papua New Guinea's 2013 Family Protection Act.

JOYCE: (Through interpreter) 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 in compensation, so he's finally reforming himself.

BOUSCAREN: She says she's staying in her marriage because she has two children, and her husband paid a customary bride price to her family. That's the equivalent of a thousand U.S. dollars.

JOYCE: (Through interpreter) He has fulfilled the custom. And my people accepted the bride price payment, so I can't go back. I'm not happy, but this is life, so I just endure it.

BOUSCAREN: Meanwhile, she's asking him to go to church. Her sister-in-law Patty chose another strategy. After her husband beat her into unconsciousness three years ago, she decided to start fighting back. She sleeps with a knife near her now when he goes out drinking.

PATTY: (Through interpreter) I beat him up as well, so he can feel the pain that I'm feeling.

BOUSCAREN: As for Mala, she actually 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.

MALA: (Through interpreter) My mind is troubled when I'm alone. I don't have healthy thoughts.

BOUSCAREN: Her ex-husband remarried, but that wasn't the end of it. In the early spring, she walked to the market to sell fried eggs. Her ex-husband saw her and beat her in the middle of the street.

MALA: (Through interpreter) I brought my eggs back to the house. He ruins and stops every hope of running my business, so I stay at home.

BOUSCAREN: That day, she says, she decided to move to a bigger city. And now she's going to try and make it on her own. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in Goroka, Papua New Guinea.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Translations for this story were provided by Agnes Mack and Samoa Asigau (ph). That story was reported with support from the John Alexander Project, which funds coverage of underreported countries throughout the world.


Durrie Bouscaren was a general assignment reporter with Iowa Public Radio from March 2013 through July 2014.