Female Rites of Populations The Awa and Baruya

Female rites are a culturally recognized movement of women from childhood to adulthood, and often celebrate fertility and sexuality, as well as the responsibilities and privileges that come with this change of status. The Awa and Baruya are populations living in provinces in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea and comprise an extremely complex network of female rites that mark important transitional periods in an individual’s life. Female rites for menstruation, marriage, and birth are interrelated rites of passage, celebrating emerging sexuality as the means for renewal of life. An initiation ritual is a rite of passage usually marking a change of status within a society, such as from childhood to adulthood. In this respect, initiation rituals and rites of passage are fundamentally the same, however, initiation rituals are often large social affairs and involve admission into a secret society or religious cult. This admission into a secret society does not always preclude a change in status, but often involves a test or ordeal that must be fulfilled. Therefore, although the female rites in the Awa and Baruya vary in specific practices, they are both rites of passage, rather than distinct initiation rituals.


Female rites in the Awa take place in a woman’s late teens to early twenties, once the arrangements for their betrothal are finalized. Young, unmarried women, called ‘arahsi’, who are chosen to be wives, are ritually prepared to assume their new social position as married women, called ‘ipani’. An important ritual representing the initiation of a woman’s path to adulthood is the bleeding of the nose ceremony, which is seen to stimulate her life force and increase physical stamina. Women are taken from their mothers’ houses and led to a location where their mother’s brothers insert a nosebleeding instrument into each nostril, while the young women’s male patrikin restrains her. It is said that this ritual increases a woman’s strength and well-being, enabling them to fulfill the responsibilities of being an adult woman in society. Furthermore, the enduring of pain is symbolic of change and a test of physical and mental strength.

Although it may be interpreted as an initiation ritual, it is more applicable to interpret the ceremony as part of a complex process contained within a passage of rites. The rite adds a layer of complexity to the image of Awa female rites as a passage of rites, as the nose bleeding is a form of initiation involving a test as such, that must be completed. The change of status is apparent in the woman’s new set of responsibilities as an adult. For example, older women inform them of the power of female reproductive organs, sexual obligations and responsibilities, and their need to work hard at making gardens, raising pigs, and carrying out domestic duties.

Awa female initiation is comprised of ritual transitions considered essential to the making of a wife. Another important rite that marks the transition towards becoming a fertile woman and prepares a young woman for her new roles that come with marriage involves the woman having sexual intercourse with several patrikinsmen of their future husbands. The proceedings of the prolonged copulation are considered significant rites of passage to becoming a married woman by physically preparing them for procreative activities. The severe pain experienced is necessary to stimulate bodily substances associated with successful procreation. Once the activities are finished, women are led back to the village to take on their new social status. Although the nose bleeding of the Awa closely relates to an initiation ritual, at large, the female rites of both populations are a passage of rites.


The initiation of an infertile Baruya girl is comprised of several stages triggered by her first menses. Unlike in the Awa, rites for women in the Baruya are brought about by the onset of menstruation and exist as a prelude to marriage. The rites mark a transition from being an infertile girl to a fertile woman, although not necessarily a transition between life stages. When considering a young woman’s body is already developed by her first period, the rite acts as a prelude to marriage, a distinct change in status, and thus the initial step of the passage of rites. Unlike initiation rituals, rites of passage cumulatively bestow a status change. As soon as a girl starts her first period, she moves to a reserved area at the bottom of her village. In the ensuing process, the young women are separated from their childhood and embrace a set of new duties, primarily sexual and domestic. While secluded from the rest of the village, bark cloaks are sent from the future fathers-in-law of the young woman, with the acceptance of the gift signifying her acceptance of marriage. In this sense, initiation rituals build together to create a passage of rites that transform an individual’s roles and status in society.

Following this, a great ceremony takes place, with an important ritual in this ceremony being the drinking of sperm, which gives the young woman her strength. This is embodied in the sucking of sugarcane, which represents the penis. Sucking sugarcane juices signifies a man ejaculating on the woman’s stomach to make children and also in her mouth to recover her strength after childbirth or menstruation. The act reinforces the rites of passage towards promoting the power of man and legitimizing male supremacy, a central character in Baruya society learned through female rites. Therefore, it is evident that female rites in the Baruya constitute a passage of rites, with a young women’s first menses stimulating change that eventually leads to a status change in marriage. 

07 July 2022
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