Women Leaders key to post-conflict development on Bougainville

November 12, 2011 1:53 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Along the main road in the busy northern coastal town of Buka on Bougainville, an autonomous island province in the South Pacific state of Papua New Guinea (PNG), roadside bins proclaim the message: ‘Their War, Our World.’ Amid the sense of peace here, it is one sign of the long struggle of islanders against colonialism, economic exploitation and environmental devastation wrought by the Panguna copper mine during the 1970s and 1980s, and ensuing ten year civil war which ended with a Peace Agreement in 2001.

Overlooking the sea and beyond local trading stores, the fresh produce market and a beach where people are unloading boxes of supplies from a visiting cargo boat, is home of the local NGO, Leitana Nehan Women’s Development Agency (LNWDA). The Director, Helen Hakena, is one of many women who lived through the Bougainville Civil War and contributed to the cessation of hostilities by publicly campaigning for peace and the laying down of arms in the late 1990s.

Today Hakena says it is time for Bougainville women to forge more leadership roles in shaping a future of long term peace, political and social unity and sustainable development.

“Women need to speak out more, like we did during the Bougainville crisis,” Hakena proclaimed.

During the conflict, women suffered rape and brutality and watched their families confront injury and death at the barrel of a gun, or succumb to disease in the absence of health facilities and medicine. But in North and Central Bougainville, where a matrilineal society prevails and women inherit land and make decisions regarding its use, they also used their power as landowners to bring about change and pave the way for a permanent ceasefire in 1998.

The courage of women during the ‘crisis’ is almost as legendary in the region as the indigenous uprising against social and economic injustice and corporate environmental destruction which began it in the late 1980s.

From 1969 to 1989 the indigenous Nasioi people living in the Panguna district in the remote mountains of Central Bougainville watched as the Panguna copper mine, operated by Australian mining company, Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), a subsidiary of Conzinc Rio Tinto Australia (CRA), contaminated their customary land and rivers with tailings. Villages were forcibly relocated and they were excluded from the Bougainville Copper Agreement and mining consultations, while receiving approximately 1.25 per-cent of mine profits. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) used explosives to shut down the mine in 1989 when BCL failed to meet the landowners’ ultimatum of K10 billion (€3.2 billion) compensation. The civil war which followed ruined infrastructure, left communities throughout the island traumatised by atrocities, and claimed an estimated 20,000 lives.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the Bougainville Peace Agreement, which resulted in a weapons disposal programme, the island’s new constitution and formation of the Autonomous Bougainville Government in 2005, with provision for a referendum on Independence from PNG by 2020.

It is also the tenth anniversary of the awarding of the Millennium Peace Prize to LNWDA by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) for its contribution to peace building on the island.

According to Hakena, Bougainville has progressed significantly in peace, disarmament in North Bougainville and restoration of schools and local businesses. However, in addition to development that is needed in health and food security, transport and other infrastructure, she says:

“There still needs to be more funds channelled to peace building, like reconciliations, laying down of arms in other parts of Bougainville, which is still causing a threat to our people, particularly women.”

Bougainville President, John Morris, is committed to completing the weapons disposal programme, but memories of the civil war remain vivid in people’s minds and reconciling communities and former fighters is ongoing.

“There is an increasing level of trust now between the landowners and the authorities,” Hakena said, “But there still needs to be healing, there still needs to be counselling. We lost our villages, we lost our homes; there has not been any reconciliation with the people who burnt our villages.”

Economic development in rural areas has also been impeded by the island’s current dependence on international aid and a rapid increase in the island’s population from 175,000, at the end of the civil war, to over 300,000 today. The west coast of the island, according to the World Vision Pacific Development Group, has been neglected to date by governance and NGO support with “many human and capital resources lacking, including teachers, nurses, health officers, schools, aid posts, roads, water supplies and telecommunications.”

LNWDA, with its 36 members resident across the 14 districts of Bougainville, strives to meet the many needs of villages with initiatives to increase community cohesion, leadership and social development.

“We call it the strengthening communities for peace project and our key activities are providing counselling to victims of all forms of violence against women” Hakena explained, “We build the capacity of key people in villages, like the chiefs, local magistrates, women and youth leaders, by training them on specific issues they have identified. We also build the capacity of other community based organisations by training them on how to write small project proposals, and on land issues, because land is a big issue on Bougainville.”

LNWDA is an important model of women’s leadership, but, according to Hakena, there still needs to be greater representation of women in Bougainville’s public and private sectors.

“We are thankful that when the constitution was framed we had three seats available for women to contest in the Autonomous Bougainville Government. This is giving women a voice, in other words, women’s participation in politics is good,” Hakena said.

Rose Pihei, Bougainville’s Minister of Community Development, is currently developing a government policy to address women, peace and reconciliation. Meanwhile, Bougainville MP, Elizabeth Burain, is a vocal member of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians organisation, a group within the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association which aims to increase the profile of gender issues within the Commonwealth and Pacific politics.

Neither are women absent from public debate on important issues. In the wake of initial discussions this year, between the ABG and Bougainville Copper Ltd about proposals to reopen the Panguna mine to increase the island’s revenue, women landowners have been publicly speaking out on related land, social and environmental issues.

“But at the other decision-making levels men still need to recognise that women are their partners and they should be given the opportunity to give their views at the local level, like the Council of Elders,” she continued.

“Women should be represented in managerial positions as well, in private sectors, but we don’t see women being represented in those areas.”

A major factor has been an education gap for women created by the decade long war.

“Women should be given the opportunity to pursue their careers which they lost during the Bougainville crisis,” Hakena continued, “In big institutions, like the education system, women really missed out during the Bougainville conflict. Women cannot compete with men for certain positions because their education level is low.”

Looking to the future, Hakena believes that women must use United Nations Resolution 1325, which advocates the mainstreaming of women’s perspectives in peace operations and a greater presence of women in decision-making roles at national, regional and international levels.

“Women need to use that Resolution 1325 to further their participation at all levels,” she said, Even people within the ABG and the administration need to know this resolution to incorporate it into policies for women to benefit.”

Long term unity and prosperity on Bougainville is dependent on all communities experiencing the benefits of peace and development. Women who have traditionally determined the use of land, which is a primary source of livelihoods, in the interests of present communities and future generations, hold key leadership values and skills to make this a reality.


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This post was written by Catherine Wilson

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