Sex in marriages or sex between a husband and a wife is undeniably a contentious issue of research and formal discussion. From a cultural perspective, in many cases, Papua New Guineans are strong believers that whatever that happens in a marriage is private. On one hand, there are arguments that lack of sex causes spouses to cheat, on the other hand, too much sex may be a catalyst to sexual health issues.
While these arguments remain significant another important question arises, one that concerns inequality and patriarchy.
First, what are the implications of unequal sexual power in marriages?
Second, what happens when one partner dominates sexual activities in a marriage?
This thesis will assess the implications faced by Papua New Guinean wives as a result of having unequal sexual power in their marriages. Specific emphasis will be on the effects of unwanted/unplanned pregnancy, general health implications and also on sexually transmitted infections.
Unequal sexual power means not being able to decide when to become pregnant, have sex or whether to use contraceptives or not when having sex.
In respect to PNG cultural norms, it is common knowledge that men have always dominated the household. What is also common knowledge but less talked about is that this domination extends into the bedroom where men decide where, when and how sex is undertaken with their wives.
All this happens with little to no consideration of women’s needs and the future consequences that the family may face.
Regardless of modernization which brought with it feminist ideologies and legal rights, many of PNG’s cultural practices have come to co-exist with these changes. And unfortunately, one of which is the subordination of women by their husband’s when partaking in sexual activities. As a result of such negative cultural practices, an implication faced by women is unintended/unwanted pregnancy.
Firstly, unintended/unwanted pregnancy is described by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (2019) as pregnancy that occurs when there was no intention/expectation or pregnancy that occurs at an undesirable time. This issue is commonly experienced throughout PNG. Presently, as explained by Sanga et al. (2014), PNG’s unwanted pregnancy rate is high, it is quite impossible to establish exactly by how much, this is because of the isolation of villages and demography issues. Sanga et al. adds that this rate is fuelled by ignorant sexual conduct and lack of contraceptive usage.
Raising a child is a delicate task, among others, it requires time, patience, resources and finance, as a result, unintended pregnancies bring about new problems for a family. And this burden doubles if there are other children. It can be argued that as a result of the inability of parents to support their children due to unwanted pregnancies, many children are forced to make a way for themselves and in doing so, they resort to criminal activities and petty crimes.
Unintended pregnancy is an issue that has a multiplier effect – where one issue creates another and the cycle continues. In order to help ease the rate of unwanted pregnancies, family planning and the use of contraceptives should be widely talked about, especially on (social) media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and television where people’s attention are drawn towards. Also, it should be a conversation that parents openly have with their adult children.
Adding to unintended pregnancy, women also face health implications as a result of having unequal sexual power in their marriages.
In terms of health implications, this thesis is concerned with problems faced by women when pregnant, during the stages of pregnancy and soon after childbirth. After giving birth, Laing (2016) states that it takes approximately four (4) months for a woman’s body to fully recover. However, if the sleepless nights, anxiety, stress and normal caretaking duties of an infant are taken into consideration, a full year would be highly preferable for a thorough physical and mental recovery. This rarely happens in the case of PNG women, especially in the rural areas which accounts for 85% of PNG’s population.
Take the case of Julie, a rural mother a six in her thirties, who has consecutively become pregnant soon after childbirth, Mola and Costa (2020), upon examining Julie (who is also diagnosed with cervical cancer) stated that she had faced constant vaginal bleeding and discharge. Also, as a result of pregnancy complications and labour, one of her sons had died and another was stillborn (born dead).
Julie’s case represents the struggle of many women around PNG that occurs on a daily basis. Further, it needs no medical advice to know that a woman’s body is fragile when pregnant. Therefore, being healthy is paramount for her and the child’s wellbeing. Women who give birth and become pregnant soon after have a high risk of facing delivery complications and even dying in labour. Child Fund (2018) has reported that in PNG, approximately 215 mothers die in every 100,000 delivers, this is arguable the highest in the Pacific. Additionally, the report highlighted that women who become pregnant again soon after delivery are 37 times more likely to die or have seizures.
Other health issues likely to be faced is the contraction of a variety of deadly diseases and infections due to a weak immune system and health. To minimize these issues, medical professionals should sternly warn men of the deadly complications that women face and further advise couples on contraceptive usage and family planning methods. Hudson et al. (1994a) recommends that basic antenatal and contraceptive information is vital to all, not just parents but also to young adults who will eventually have children. A stand out of the various illnesses that women are prone to face due to having unequal sexual power in their marriages are sexually transmitted diseases.
Thirdly, sexually transmitted diseases (STD) are infections contracted as a result of unsafe sex (sex without contraception) or having multiple sex partners. According to Hudson et al. (1994b), the most common STDs in PNG are Gonorrhoea, Nongonoccal Urethritis, Syphilis, Donovanosis and Herpes. Although not entirely fatal, STDs are responsible for a considerable number of deaths in PNG. STDs are said to have social effects such as shame, disassociation with the public/community, lack of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and also, this may even affect one’s ability to secure and be employed for longer periods.
Additionally, STDs such as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) attacks the body’s immune system (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021). Hence, a HIV positive individual can easily contract other fatal infections such as Tuberculosis and various forms of Cancer, among others.
All this makes the need to minimize the contraction of STDs more important. Married men are much more vulnerable to STDs, supporting this, after conducting a study, Andersson et al. (2002) revealed that one in every three men in PNG are likely to cheat, have multiple sexual partners or use the service of sex workers and in doing so increases their chances of contracting STDs, which can easily be passed to their wives (and other sexual partners) especially when there is disparity in sexual power.
Without proper treatment and basic knowledge of STD, assuming that if a woman becomes pregnant after having sex with her husband who had contracted a STD, their child would also be positive – and for a child whose immune system is much more fragile, the chances of death is higher if not found and treated on time.
Most STDs are treatable, however as discussed, between the recover stages, one is vulnerable of contracting other deadly diseases. Basic knowledge on the types of STDs, how they are spread and how one can safeguard oneself such as by using contraceptives should be made known to the public through varying mediums in language that is easily understandable.
In summary, unequal sexual power is being unable to decide when, where and even, how to conduct sex. This may include not being able to choose when to become pregnant and whether to use contraceptives or not.
In a patriarchal society such as that of PNG where men dominate almost all decision-making, this dominance extends into the bedroom where women’s needs and opinion are least considered during sex. As a result of these realities, the implications (apart from the others, this paper discussed only three) faced by PNG wives are unintended/unwanted pregnancy and its associated social effects, various health implications and associated diseases and also, contraction of STDs such as HIV and Syphilis, among others.
This disparity issue and its implications are great barriers to the development of PNG. Therefore, it is important to empower women so that they can become independent from their husband, empowerment may be in the form of education, employment and easy access to help, all these may assist to reduce the implications discussed.
Andersson, M., Sandstrom, C., Mola, G., Amoa, A. B., Andersson, R. (2002). Awareness of and attitudes towards HIV among pregnant women at the Antenatal Clinic, Port Moresby General Hospital. Papua and New Guinea Medical Journal 46(3-4):152-65. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/7320650
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019, September 12). Reproductive Health: Unintended Pregnancy. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/unintendedpregnancy/index.m
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 22). What is HIV? https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html
Child Fund Australia. (2018, May 29). A national health crisis: Maternal deaths in Papua New Guinea. https://www.childfund.org.au/media-news/report-shows-australias- closest-neighbor-png-one-of-the-most-dangerous-places-in-the-world-to-be-a-mother/
Hudson, B., Lupiwa, T., Howard. F. P., Meijden. I. W., Tabua, T., Tapsall, W. J., Phillips, E. A., Lennox, A. V., Backhouse, L. J., Pyakalyia, P. (1994). A survey of sexually transmitted diseases in five STD clinics in Papua New Guinea. Papua and New Guinea Medical Journal 37(3):152-60. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/15531210
Laing, K. (2016, December 7). How long does it really take to recover after pregnancy and birth? [Weblog post]. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/karen-laing/post-baby- body_b_8739254.html
Mola, G., Costa D. C. (2020). Cancer of the cervix – The view from Australia’s nearest neighbour. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 60(2):173-174. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/340648763
Sanga, K., Mola, G., Wattimena, J., Black, K., Justesen, A. (2014). Unintended pregnancy amongst women attending antenatal clinics at the Port Moresby General Hospital. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 54(4). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262533687
Banabas Menie is a second year student at Divine Word University