August 2014

Essays

Alana Rosenbaum

The women of Papua New Guinea’s village courts

Margaret Inamuka. © Alana Rosenbaum

Being a magistrate in the Eastern Highlands is not for the faint of heart

Early on a Monday morning, Margaret Inamuka woke to the sound of her mobile phone ringing. “The boys are on their way,” the caller confided, and then hung up. A raid on Inamuka’s village, Aseoka, was imminent. Hundreds of men were planning to charge down the dirt road, setting fire to houses and slaughtering livestock.

For days, tension had been building between Dualo and Aseoka, two hamlets in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands separated by a square kilometre of sweet potato crops. An adultery complaint had been filed, and it appeared as though a man from Aseoka was cuckolding a man from Dualo. A mediation hearing was planned for later that week, but this was not a matter that the men of Dualo planned to settle peacefully. They knew their target. They had identified Nick as the culprit sleeping with their clansman’s wife, and they were out to get him.

When Inamuka reached Dualo ten minutes after receiving the call, the men were waiting in a clearing with an arsenal of spears and bush knives. They formed a pack, 300-strong. Inamuka, 173 centimetres tall and possessing the girth of a rugby league player, stepped in. She didn’t need to state her purpose but she did so nonetheless, just for the record. “I am the magistrate hearing this case,” she announced. “And I order you to stop the fight.”


Inamuka, 45, is an officer of a local village court, one in a network of grassroots tribunals charged with mediating minor disputes. She receives a stipend to work for the government of the Eastern Highlands, a land-locked province of 600,000 people sprawled over craggy topography. She is one of 130 female officers on a staff of 1434, and part of her job is to talk down mobs. This is a region of PNG where you don’t just pick up the phone, call the police and expect them to show. Law enforcement is underfunded and compromised, and the task of dissuading vigilante justice is often left to the village court’s elected officials.

Inamuka was motivated to run for the village court by a desire to protect women. As president of the women’s chapter of her Seventh-day Adventist Church, she took victims of domestic violence into her home but made sure to keep her bush knife handy, just in case. (She only used it once, to chase out a man who tried to retrieve his wife.)

In 2004, Inamuka had attended a funeral in her village for an elderly man. She was sharing a mumu, a meal of baked meat and vegetables, when she watched an assailant sink a tomahawk into the skull of one of her friends. Inamuka held the woman as she bled. She felt for a pulse, but there was none. Later she learnt that the assailant believed his victim to be a sanguma, or sorceress, guilty of using witchcraft to murder the elderly man. The attacker was arrested and jailed. But six months later he was back in Aseoka, a reminder of all that was rotten with the district.

Inamuka’s run for office in 2007 coincided with an especially volatile period in the Eastern Highlands; no less than 84 tribal fights, full-scale armed confrontations, broke out. Four hundred people died and thousands were displaced.

Though Inamuka never went to school and only learnt to read and write after the birth of her three children, as a candidate her lack of formal education was irrelevant. Village court magistrates are expected to be experts on the customs of their community, not on white man’s law. They’re expected to deliver natural justice, even when presiding over matters that touch their clan, community and family. Inamuka stood against three other female candidates and won the election by a landslide.


Standing before the mob in Dualo, Inamuka felt no fear. She knew most of the men and some she recalled as children. So far, things had gone to plan. She had upset the momentum of the fight and now had the men’s attention. Without raising her voice, she explained the consequences if they raided Aseoka.

What the men were planning is known in Tok Pisin, PNG’s lingua franca, as a cross-fight. The raid would target not just Nick but also his entire clan. Aseoka would be pillaged and anyone attempting to defend the village would be in peril.

In the Eastern Highlands, cross-fights are common and are waged according to conventions. Each fight has an “owner”, in whose name combatants seek revenge. The owner takes responsibility for the fight, and in return for his clansmen’s loyalty he is expected to pay the lion’s share of damages.

But the fight that was brewing in this case defied convention. It was ownerless; James, the man taken for a cuckold, wanted no part in it. 

The men of Dualo were convinced that Nick had wronged James, even though James knew, without a shadow of doubt, that they were mistaken. He regarded Nick more like a brother than a friend. For months, they had been hanging out in their free time, playing cards, sharing meals and doing what men do in their early 20s. Occasionally, James’s wife, Eros, and Nick’s wife, Maggie, would join them. Eros and Maggie were also friends, but things had begun to sour between them. One evening, when James was at a church meeting, Eros paid a visit to Nick and Maggie’s house. The plan was for the three of them to eat dinner together, but Eros and Nick became engrossed in a game of cards. Maggie watched with rising fury as her husband ignored her and lavished attention on another woman. She shot him dirty looks, and when he didn’t respond she called him outside on a pretext. She closed the door behind them and belted Nick across the head. He went back inside and resumed the card game. The last hand was played at 11 pm and Eros ended up staying the night.

From then on, Maggie and Nick argued constantly. She was suspicious of his relationship with Eros and felt neglected. Maggie’s family lived in a neighbouring province; in their absence she confided in a village leader, who advised her to register her suspicions with the village court. Maggie did so.

For the men of Dualo, Maggie’s complaint was immutable evidence that Nick was sleeping with James’s wife. James, who describes himself as a devout Lutheran, watched on with revulsion as his clansmen plotted payback over an imaginary affair. He shouted at them to stop, insisting they’d got it wrong. They thought they knew better.

Standing before the group, Inamuka reminded them that they were avenging a man with no cause for vengeance. If they persisted with the raid, they would pay for it out of their own pockets. Walking home uphill through the sweet potato plantations, she felt confident she’d bought time.


Six days later, I accompanied Inamuka to watch the hearing of the adultery case. A crowd of about a hundred people had gathered at a clearing between the villages. Women cradled infants and older children played in the dirt. The tensions of earlier in the week had diminished; the only bush knife in sight was tucked discreetly between its owner’s knees.

The court was no more than a patch of red earth surrounded by bark huts and gardens. Still, Commonwealth conventions applied. As Inamuka opened the session, the crowd was silent, apart from a pariah dog that was growling at a pig snuffling in a nearby garden.

Maggie, the first witness, sat cross-legged and hunched as she spoke volubly to the ground. After Maggie had described the card game, Inamuka said: “There is nothing out of the ordinary about playing cards. Is there anything else you’d like to discuss?”

Eros was more poised than Maggie and answered Inamuka’s questions without flourish. The point of the hearing was to ascertain whether Eros had slept with Nick, but Inamuka never asked Eros the question directly. As the case unfolded, it became clear that Eros and Nick had never been caught alone together and there was no hard evidence to back up the accusation.

It took Inamuka and the panel of six other magistrates just ten minutes to reach a verdict: Maggie would pay Eros 300 PNG kina (A$130) as compensation for besmirching her reputation. In her judgement, Inamuka avoided chastisements, even expressing empathy for Maggie; Inamuka, too, had arrived in Aseoka unable to speak the local language.

Inamuka’s only reference to the fallout from the complaint was an oblique one. “I’m pleased that James isn’t the type of man to beat his wife on a rumour,” she said. “And I’m proud of both sides.”

After Inamuka closed the session, the parties and spectators hung around to share a mumu. Hands reached into a steel pot to break off pieces of vegetable in symbolic gestures of reconciliation. Things were right again between Dualo and Aseoka.


Mandated by PNG’s constitution when the nation won independence in 1975, the village court system is a modern manifestation of a traditional mode of dispute resolution. Magistrates are empowered to impose fines of up to K300 (A$130) and award compensation payments of up to K1000 ($A440). For non-compliance, they can slap offenders with a six-month jail sentence, but only if it’s upheld by a higher court. Likewise, decisions can be appealed further up the chain but rarely are.

In the Eastern Highlands, about 90% of legal disputes are heard in the village courts. They deal with about 60,000 matters annually, and common complaints include swearing, minor acts of violence and pigs digging up gardens. During the two weeks I observed, women fought over lovers and men accused estranged wives of infidelity. In one case, an uncle and his nephew had come to blows over a missing tinny. While many of the cases appear trivial, this is a nation where payback crime is common. The village court needs to snuff minor disputes before they turn into major ones.

For most of its history, the village court was dominated by men. In 2006, the Eastern Highland Province, flush with Australian aid funding, devised an affirmative action scheme to recruit female magistrates.

The province imposed the quotas despite blanket resistance from the serving magistrates, and by 2007 each of the 107 courts in the Eastern Highlands had at least one female magistrate.

One of the motives for affirmative action was to encourage decision-making to respect the rights of women. Magistrates are expected to make decisions on customary law that respect principles of natural justice, but sometimes they face a difficult balancing act. Don Hurrell, a development adviser of the Papua New Guinea–Australia Law and Justice Partnership, said it used to be common practice for magistrates to penalise women for adultery and let men off for the same offence. And when it came to compensating female victims of crime, they would channel payment to their husbands.


My guide as I roved from court to court was Dora Kegemo, a trainer of fledgling magistrates. As a senior officer of the court, she was in charge. When a truant clerk delayed proceedings by more than an hour, Kegemo directed the other court officials into the back of a four-wheel drive and told them to search for the missing man. When a defendant failed to come up with the cash compensation due to his wife, Kegemo interrupted the hearing and threatened to have him jailed.

One Monday morning, I followed Kegemo on her court rounds. On the outskirts of Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highlands Province, we entered a weatherboard courtroom on stilts. The complainant, JK, was pursuing his estranged wife, Merinke, on adultery charges. Four years previously, JK had left the family home, cut off all financial support to Merinke and found another partner, with whom he had a daughter. JK and Merinke were barely on speaking terms, yet they had not divorced and JK still considered Merinke his wife. He responded to news that she had found a boyfriend by filing an adultery suit. “We were married for almost six years and have three children, but when I was away she brought another man into my house,” JK told the court, outraged. “They were having sex in my house.”

The magistrates ordered Merinke and her boyfriend to apologise to JK and pay him K500 (A$220), a sum JK felt to be insufficient compensation. He complained bitterly about the award, but Kegemo interrupted him. Her lecture, shouted across the courtroom, lasted four-and-a-half minutes. She listed all the ways in which he had failed Merinke as a husband and then she segued into a threat: she’d keep an eye on JK, and if he had any notion of revenge on his estranged wife, he should keep in mind that PNG had the death penalty.


Kegemo’s father had been a serial adulterer. She’d once seen her mother, bush knife in one hand, stick in the other, fight a love rival in a crowded market. Kegemo knew her mother was defending not only the man she loved but also her stake in his family. She considered her mother a strong woman and felt she had inherited her strength, but she planned to channel it in more productive ways. After finishing school, she enrolled in nursing college; when that didn’t work out, she found a job in her father’s company. The first time she set foot in a village court was to seek compensation from her husband over a black eye. By 30, she was divorced with two children. 

Kegemo was one of the first women in the Eastern Highlands to serve as a village court magistrate. Initially, working on all-male panels, she was too timid to speak up, but in time she developed a style and it was adversarial. Once, during a divorce hearing, the husband interrupted proceedings and called out to her. “Dora, I don’t want you involved in this case,” he said. “You’re always protecting women.” Kegemo relished the slur. She had joined the village court to protect women, and although she no longer served on the bench, her priorities hadn’t changed.

Having trained more than 200 magistrates (both male and female), Kegemo counts Margaret Inamuka among her star graduates. She also considers her a friend. They both happen to live as single women: Kegemo is divorced and Inamuka’s husband works in Port Moresby.

On a humid Tuesday afternoon, I sat in the back of a stationary four-wheel drive with them. They had not seen each other for months and joked about Inamuka’s quest for justice beyond the courtroom. Inamuka told Kegemo how she had once grabbed a man by the throat and toppled him backwards into the foliage.

Inamuka went on to describe another act of vigilantism, this time against a formidable wife beater. She had snuck up behind him with the branch of a tree and belted him across the legs. When he dropped, she dragged him downhill, by the feet.

“He was hollering, ‘A woman is trying to kill me,’” she recounted.

Inamuka told the story deadpan while her two-year-old granddaughter fidgeted in her lap. The magistrate wore bold aquamarine florals with a knitted beanie pulled over her forehead. For just an instant, she looked thuggish.


As a trainer, Kegemo teaches magistrates to interpret custom in ways that are fair to women. In PNG, customary marriages are sealed with a bride price: a gift, usually of money and livestock, from the groom’s family to the bride’s. Critics of the bride-price exchange argue that the custom commodifies women, reducing them to household chattels. The practice has been blamed for the high incidence of domestic violence in PNG, the logic being that a man who buys a wife feels entitled to mistreat her.

But Kegemo rejects such arguments, believing the bride price protects women. If there is no bride price, then the union is a de facto one and the couple’s obligations are unspecified. In her experience, it’s tricky for a woman to extract child maintenance from a man with whom she has no formal union.

Kegemo teaches her students that although part of the bride price should be returned to the man’s family to signify divorce, there is one exception to this rule: in separations necessitated by domestic violence, the bride price should be retained. Her position is controversial. The only time she ever saw it put into practice was in Inamuka’s courtroom.


The day after Inamuka mediated the case involving Eros, Nick and Maggie, she presided over a divorce. Doris and Jack were in their early 20s. They had been married for three-and-a-half years and had a young daughter. Doris had endured no less than 11 serious beatings from Jack and wanted out. After the most brutal thrashing, she spent a month in hospital recuperating. She was afraid that Jack would murder her.

Under a pitched roof, between bare walls of exposed brick, Jack and Doris stood buffered by their kin. Their daughter, a fair-haired moppet clutching a Puss in Boots doll, was passed from maternal to paternal sides of the courtroom without complaint.

After questioning Jack and Doris, Inamuka interviewed Jack’s father. He opposed the split and wanted to know why Doris hadn’t sought help earlier.

“We know what marriage is like, those of us who have matured,” he said.

Inamuka brooked no further argument. “You should have been the one to give them guidelines,” she snapped.

When the clerk adjourned the case, the magistrates discussed the divorce settlement and how much of the bride price should be returned. Inamuka believed that Jack’s family was entitled to nothing, as Doris had had no choice but to leave the marriage.

Putting her case to fellow magistrates, Inamuka said that Jack had ruined Doris and she’d struggle to remarry. Her motion that Jack should forfeit the bride price was opposed. Inamuka’s colleagues argued that Doris should pay up to half of it back because she had ended the marriage, but Inamuka kept insisting and eventually won out.

After the clerk called the parties back into the courtroom, Inamuka looked directly at Jack. “Love should be the basis of marriage, but it hasn’t happened that way,” she said. “You have been raping Doris, and the child you have is from rape, not love.”

She announced to the court that the bride price would not be refunded, and then watched as the decision backfired.

Jack’s father spoke. “The village court has taken my entire bride price. I’ll take the child right now.”

Doris’s father acceded without argument. “We all know the child was born under Jack’s payment, so we relinquish her,” he said. “Jack can have the child.”

Doris wept as both parties applauded the agreement.

Outside court, no one could bring themselves to separate the little girl from her mother. It was decided, upon further deliberation, that the child could live with Doris, but only for the short term. When the girl grew more independent, Jack’s family would come for her.

Inamuka would stay on the case, to ensure that Doris wasn’t punished for a divorce that may well have saved her life.

Alana Rosenbaum

Alana Rosenbaum is a Melbourne-based writer and video journalist.

@alanarosenbaum

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