Infant Mortality, Promiscuity and Custom

What do infant mortality, promiscuity and tribal custom in Papua New Guinea have in common? A great deal if one takes a closer look at the history of Eli’s cousin – Kenny.

Kenny is staying with us for a few days after she gave birth to her 8th child last Sunday at Goroka General Hospital. I suggested to Eli that her cousin come and stay with us for few days for some rest, healthy food, old fashioned nurturing and a little recovery. Eli and Kenny are first cousins, Eli’s father (Jo) and Kenny’s mother (Anna) are blood brother and sister. Both mother and newly born are in good health and doing well considering the traumatic and particularly in PNG, the risky nature of birth.

Cousin Kenny’s baby girl at one day old (21/9/09)
(Photo by Eli)

Mortality in Papua New Guinea is in your face! A week doesn’t go by that someone we know or have met, family or otherwise, passes away. Young and old, male or female, the healthy, the sick, the meek and the wealthy, town or village based – whichever way you look at it – folks die rapidly around these parts.

The 24 hour baby girl in the above photo – has made it past “birth” !! A feat in itself. All she has to do now is make it through baby-hood, child-hood, teenage-hood, then into adult-hood and beyond. Through the various stages of their lives, the Papua New Guinean confronts many more obstacles and potentially fatal situations than the average westerner. This makes living and more importantly staying alive, an extremely challenging, often painful and costly journey for “planti ol hauslain na wantok bilong mi“.

The following statistics for Papua New Guinea were sourced from: UNICEF

Statistic Rank per 1000 Year Other
Under-5 mortality 56 Current
Under-5 mortality 94 1990
Under-5 mortality 65 2007
Infant mortality (under 1) 69 1990
Infant mortality rate (under 1) 50 2007
Neonatal mortality 32 2004
Population 2007 6,331,000
Annual no. of births 2007 190,000
Life expectancy at birth (years) 57
Total adult literacy rate (%) 2000–2007 58

I’d like to share a little about Kenny’s history as it relates to the title of this post: “Infant Mortality, Promiscuity and Tribal Custom. Point form follows (perhaps we can cook up a list of “10 Things” here).

  • Kenny is in her late 30’s.
  • This is her 8th child.
  • None of her children live with her (and have not for a long time).
  • 4 of her 8 children have already died.
  • The 8 children are from 5 different men.
  • The 3 living children have been adopted out into different families and live in different places (Chuave, Kaubasis and Kundiawa).
  • A family meeting and/or court was held a few months ago, whilst Kenny was pregnant and, it was decided (not by Kenny mind you) at this meeting that when the child was born he or she would be adopted out and go and live with the father of the child.
  • Re previous point – the father of the child is now in a permanent relationship with another woman.
  • This would suggest that Kenny had little say in what happened to her child after she was born.
  • The few days with us, the rest and time shared with Mama Anna and Eli, Kenny has had a change of heart and is now adamant that she’s going to keep her little girl.

Onya Kenny!!

Here’s several worthwhile links if you’re after additional facts and figures on infant mortality in Papua New Guinea:

  1. Infant mortality rates
  3. Papua New Guinea Statistics Office
  4. Papua New Guinea Infant mortality rate
  5. CIA – The World Factbook

Been on the laptop far too long today so let’s wrap up this here chin-wag with the initial words to a song I can’t help but remember when ever I lay eyes on the miracle of a newly born:

George Thorogood – Bad to the Bone

On the day I was born, the nurses all gathered ’round
And they gazed in wide wonder, at the joy they had found
The head nurse spoke up, and she said leave this one alone
She could tell right away, that I was bad to the bone
Bad to the bone
Bad to the bone
B-B-B-B-Bad to the bone
Bad to the bone

The Author

15 responses to “Infant Mortality, Promiscuity and Custom”

  1. Arukiyomi

    that’s more like it. Great post… much better than smutty cartoons ;-)

  2. Tweets that mention Infant Mortality, Promiscuity and Custom --

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  3. Walt

    Hi Rob … thanks for the thought-provoking article. I notice that there is quite a difference between the 1990 and the 2007 stats. It looks like something must be going in the right direction. So how do you see the “Tribal Custom” fitting in here? I guess you’re saying it’s a factor in Kenny’s situation … is it that the society and environment have changed so much that the traditional ways are no longer a good fit?

  4. Nick Reese

    Good to see the site back up Rob – I hadn’t checked for a while as I thought you’d been sent back to the wilderness (Oz!).

  5. nana

    Although its late for the comment, girls in our society still have very little say or no access to their basic human rights, let alone education in the village would be regarded as waste of time and reserved for boys…pretty girls are source of wealth owned by the tribe and their future is decided also by the tribe….nothing is about the happiness of the girl but to fulfill the greed of the tribe….girls also marry at a very early age 99% straight after their first menstrual period, may be young as13, 14 years old or so. The usual big ceremonial celebration, with pigs slaughtered also announce her availability to competing potential bachelors in the surrounding clans…Im very glad you spoke out….we need to protect women and let them understand their rights…….Some of the custom practises only push our women into slavery. You dont need to apologies to anyone for speaking out….Promiscuity is prevelant…as it is part of the Simbu culture for teenage male and female to sleep together in order to get their dream partners..they are allowed to sleep with more than one partner..thats why you see young teenage girls fighting over boys or grown married men in Kundiawa or Goroka town or in village social games where the young meet and often plan sleeping arrangements for the night. Also the spread of HIV Aids and other sexual transmited diseases in the highlands are encouraged by traditional practices…tradition has allowed and contributed much to the spread of the diseases.. you also have children born out of the wed lock through these sleeping arrangements.. the girls are forced to marry the father of the child…these kids are fatherless, they are being abused, have no rights to traditional land use, basic education, best food from the graden and are treated with less affection compared to kids born in a family heart goes out to them….Thanks Rob…tru pela man


  6. nana

    Yes, Rob- thanks for encouraging on line discussion, I wish to encourage PNG women to get online and share their experiences. It brings a lot of value and insight to share their feelings as an individual. you will be surprised on each experience being told.These are human rights issues, some who had children born out of wed lock and arranged marriage who needs to be protected as every other child regardless. Women in the villages are also accused of witchcraft are often killed in the most barbaric way, slow painful deaths. all are innocent…many victims are blamed for men who die of aids or natural disease..many people also die of curable diseases like cholera and TB simply because there is absence of awareness on very simple things like basic hygiene in the rural areas and protecting the source of fresh clean water etc…there is still human activities up the small stream and animals droppings that goes into the stream which the entire village uses it… ..

    Any way, there is a common attitude around that says “Pikinini behind bai behinim Papa ikam lo ples blo em” and thats it they grow up, they dont want to know..Mum could not raise kids on their own and left them with grand parents…every body needs to take responsibility of their off springs, they are innocent..


  7. Rita John

    Hi there,

    It is an overwhelming to read through the reality of life of Papua New Guinean women being treated as an object and house whole materials rather than a person with integrity.The common attitude towards women as a tribal wealth as trading object to generate income for the females clan and males tribe payment business, it is an common practice.That leaves a women an useful asset for her tribe and an slavery object for the other paying party.Such system have to be eradicated from cultural customary practices in order to empower women from being treated an an object.
    Cultural upbringing is another factors that greatly influence a women,s autonomous decision making for their rights.Gender inequality and decision making powers, educational and resource preference have an enormous amount of impact on the women quality of life and most importantly most women die from preventable incidents such as pregnancy and child birth if only women have been given the autonomous right to make decision regarding her own reproductive rights.


  8. Rita

    Maternal and infant mortality rate is a major issue that fellow citizens and leaders have to consider seriously now .I agree with Robert’s suggestions of PNG’s slow progress yet a long way to meet to international standards and that includes reducing Infant and maternal mortality rate.Because of socio cultural aspects to deal with women issues.A healthy child which is tomorrows leader and citizens comes from a women’s womb.If they are to be treated with intergrety rather than an household object.This implies alot of health problems .According to WHO statics stated that 5 women in PNG died every day as a result of pregnancy and childbirth, Consequently adding up the figures of women and children,s death rates.Further,a statistically analysis of the figure reported by World vision (2010) justifies that recently PNG failed to reached Millennium goal 4 and 5, and more worse,it doubled up the last figures of 2000 .
    That brought the issues to our international neighboring countries such as New Zealand and Australia talking up the issues for commentary and according to recent newspaper article it say “One of the parliamentarian commented “maternal and infant mortality needs further action to be treated as an emergency but this is not a disease”.
    How do we address this issue.I strongly believe that if women are given autonomous decision making and treated as an equal valuable partner rather then than a slave will dramatically improve this bad images of both maternal and infant mortality and morbidity though it needs long term and multiple organizational,departmental and culturally effective and efficient startegies to combat the problem.
    As a PNG women and citizen I feel remorseful of such strategic preventable issues occurring of poor mothers and babies are dying .Most often,a Birth of a child brings joy, happiness in to a family and the community.That child grow up to be a health citizen to continue clan men ships.However,contrary some families each day l mourning and continue to live in unhapy circumstances.
    These are some of issues that currently affecting women and children because of our social and cultural contexts.Thanks a lot for reading,welcome to add or subtract.


  9. AW

    Passing through to say hi. Keep up the thought provoking commentary R.