Tribal Wars And HIV-AIDS In The Highlands Of PNG: What Is The Missing Link?

Last year there was an advertisement in one of the dailies in PNG requesting submission by interested researchers in PNG to contribute towards a monograph that was being published by the National Research Institute. I decided to submit mine because I was doing some preliminary research on the link between tribal wars and spread of HIV/AIDS in the highlands of PNG. I am based in the Enga Province so that was where I was focusing (I have not received any reply from NRI so I think my application was not successful).

So what is the link? What I found from the few interviews that I did was something I did not expect. I am not sure what I found is also practised anywhere in the world. I assume it may be so.

This is what happens. When a tribe in Enga goes to war with another (I am talking about modern PNG) tribe, one tribe may hire gunmen. These gunmen can come from any tribe, as long as they are promised money, pigs, women or all. It is kind of a verbal contract. The actual fighting are not done everyday. Usually a group of 10-12 men would go on dawn raids to ambush their enemy.

When there is no fighting these hired gunmen just hang around. And they can pick and choose any female from the tribe that hired them. I have heard that even married women are taken by these hired men. And they are allowed to keep these women for as long as they want. Some even take young women as their fourth or fiveth wives. Some can share women. As long as the tribal war is on, this practice continues. The hiring tribe has no say whatsoever. After all they have an agreement. The security and safety of the whole tribe takes precedent over individual concerns.

Another scenario is where you have people displaced due to tribal wars. During a tribal war, one tribe can win the war and take possession of the land of the loosing tribe. To take back their land, some form of compensation payments have to be made to the wining tribe. When this happens, the people are displaced and become refugees. I personally think it is something the government of PNG has not acknowledge yet- Internal Refugees due to tribal War!

The displaced people will move away and in live with another tribe which may agree to accommodate them because of ally agreements or intermarriages. When living there the displaced people can and tend to be abused. The main victims are young women. They can be raped or even allowed to have sex with young men from the tribe so that their families can live there safely until such a time when they are free to return to their original land.

And I believe because such practices occur during tribal wars, the environment is created for women to be abused. The women become infected with HIV at no fault of their own. The Gutnius Lutheran Church in Enga has recognized this and taking steps to address it. I hope our government can also recognize what`s happening and address it. The first step I think would be to acknowledge this link and the creation of “internal refugees”.


About rodney itaki

Medical doctor and public health specialist from Papua New Guinea.
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2 Responses to Tribal Wars And HIV-AIDS In The Highlands Of PNG: What Is The Missing Link?

  1. Kolly Bang says:

    Hi Rodney,

    This is very true and a popular happening in the Highlands. The women are mostly affected mostly and end up with severe life long consequences. Peace is made finally.
    In the former tribial fights tribal dignity was maintained where damage and killing was done with some concern and dignity. These days with hiring gunmen system, tribal wars have no dignity for preservation of brotherhood but total destruction including both life and resource to dust.

    I feel that there should be systems created for women and children safety and security, and the men who do not want to participate in a tribal war as some men do not like tribial fights but due to tribal pressure they give in.

  2. Weast says:

    Just last month i attended a presentation about the the Link between Domestic Violence and Tribal fight in Southern Highlands prov as part of International Women’s Day. The person doing her research is presenting a paper to one of the UN bodies or Amnesty International ( I forgot which). I think her research is still ongoing, not to sure.

    You said your in Enga but I think the closeness of SHP and Enga could make some aspects transferable between the two places.

    if you want to contact her then e-mail me and I can forward you an e-mail address.


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