The Struggle of Papuan Women in Tiru and Yum

By: Rode Wanimbo

In Lani and Walak languages—languages spoken in the Central Highlands of West Papua, tiru means a pillar. There are four tiru (pillars) that stand firmly in the middle of the Lani roundhouse (honai), around the wun’awe, or furnace.

The Tiru are always made of the strongest type of wood called a’pe (ironwood tree). The longer the wood is heated and smoked from the fire in the honai, the stronger it becomes. The size of the Tiru depends on the diameter of the honai, and the tips of the four tiru constitute the center point of the roof frame. Without Tiru, the honai cannot stand firm. Papuan women are these Tiru.

The first thing that women, especially married women, do in the morning is to make a fire. They take pieces of firewood that have been prepared and placed in a mundu. They light the fire to roast sweet potatoes and boil water for the family breakfast.

After breakfast, the mothers will hurry and take their noken (net bag), which in Lani is called yum, to the garden or marketplaces. The noken is a knotted net or woven bag handmade from wood fiber or leaves that are typical of Papuan cultures. In West Papua, the noken is used as a container to put a baby to sleep as it gives warmth and a sense of security as well to carry garden produce. Today the noken is knitted in small sizes to be used as bags for school or other purposes. The Noken or yum is highly valuable for Papuan women. It symbolizes life and hope. When we (Lani women) get married, our maternal aunts put noken on our heads. That means that as women, we bear the responsibility for giving life, for providing food for the family. If granted a daughter, a mother will ensure that her child will be warm and safe under the protection of the noken.

The majority of Lani women and women in the Highlands work in the garden. They grow crops and bring garden produce and sell it in the market place to meet the family’s needs. Women also grow sweet potatoes for the pigs. The pigs are the primary livestock of the indigenous Papuans. Today, Papuans, even those who live outside of their traditional territories, continue to raise pigs because pigs continue to have very high cultural value. Apart from being the main dowry, pigs are a requirement in traditional ceremonies and the resolution of conflicts. Proceeds from the sale of pigs are used to meet family needs, support churches, send children to school, and so much more. It is the women who are responsible for raising them.

In recent years, the responsibilities of women, especially married women, have become heavier with the changes to our indigenous cultures in West Papua. The Indonesian central government granted a special autonomy status to respond to Papuans’ demand for self-determination. The root of the conflict between West Papua and the central government is long, but suffice to say, many government policies have had negative impacts on the quality of family life.

The policy of territorial re-division, for instance, forces husbands to leave their family and work in new administrative entities, far from their family. Separations that occur tend to be long (a few weeks or even months), and it is considered a natural thing, a sacrifice. However, this long separation had a negative impact on household harmony, even though the reason for this leave or absence is to carry out their duties as civil servants.

Wives must play a dual role in the daily survival of the family. They have to look after their children as well as other close and distant family members who live with them. Sometimes the situation is made worse by husbands who are unfaithful or even marrying other women during their work assignments. In the past, Papuan men practiced polygamy, especially big men (leaders). However, since the arrival of Christianity, polygamy is no longer a mainstream practice. Yet with money from the government and revenues from mining projects, some men have returned to this old practice. As a church worker, I frequently encounter this kind of issue. Indeed, the women’s department of our church has documented extensive cases of abuse and neglect due to this problem.

Even though they are hurt, wives must continue to live. They must struggle to ensure that their children can eat, and school fees are paid. Papuan women work hard. We work in the garden, in the marketplaces. We weave noken, make cakes or bread, and offer services to do domestic work in the homes of neighbours or communities. We, Papuan women, suffer from this form of injustice due to patriarchal culture but also an economic system that marginalizes us. To market the garden produce, women have to sacrifice time, energy, and money. In the Highlands, women from remote areas in Bokondini, Kelela, Wolo, and Ilugua have to go to the city to sell produce. They have to take public transportation, and upon arrival at the public market in the city of Wamena, they do not necessarily get a proper place to sell.

Marketplaces in West Papua consist of small kiosks that are almost all owned by non-Papuan migrants from Indonesia. Few Papuan women can get these kiosks. Most Papuans sell on the edges or in front of the kiosk area, on the ground, using sacks, plastic, and cardboard as pads. Some women sell their produce near the landfill, the only space available for them. Dust, rain, pollution from passing vehicles, sediments from rubbish even from sewer water have a very negative impact on the health of women and other vendors.
The Wouma market, the biggest marketplace in Wamena (and in all the Highlands), is also right on the edge of the main road, which often causes discomfort, not only for buyers but also for motorists who cross the street.

In Karubaga, the capital city of Tolikara Regency, there is not even an area that has been designated as a market. Papuan women sell at the edge of the main road. Along the main road and the central area of the town, stalls and shops have been built and managed by non-Papuan residents.

Tiru and Yum are synonymous with the lives of indigenous Papuan women in the Highlands. Women’s lives are those of the pillars of the house. They give hope and meaning, as implied in the noken or yum.

Are social stigmas, marginalization, limited access to fulfil their fundamental rights, and various forms of violence experienced by women like the fire in the honai? The fire that through its heat and smoke makes the Tiru stronger so that the Honai can also stand strong?