|Women as Mediators in Pacific Conflict Zones|
|Thursday, 22 February 2007 17:33|
Women as Mediators in Pacific Conflict Zones
The pacific Islands that have undergone a period of armed conflict include Fiji , Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands . Women were very much involved in peacebuilding in these countries by engaging in talks with the armed and warring groups specially in their own communities, but were eventually ignored once the peace negotiations reach state level. However, sustainable peacebuilding in these countries would require further involvement of women, and the building of peace networks at the regional level.
The stability of the Pacific countries has been seriously weakened with the armed conflict in Bougainville, the first coup in the Pacific Islands in Fiji in 1987, the ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands, and the coup and mutiny in Fiji in 2000.
However, in times of conflict, women mobilise for peace.
Fiji Islands: The Peace Vigil, the Bose Levu Vakaturaga and the Military Council
Throughout Fiji’s history, women and civil society groups have repeatedly mobilised to call for the release of political hostages, a return to parliamentary democracy, and upholding the principles of good governance, democracy and the rule of law.
The history of the women’s peace movement in the Fiji Islands dates back to the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). The YWCA played a leading role in the anti-nuclear movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Young women activists and the student Christian movement were formed at the University of the South Pacific. They became the agents for peace activism.1
The politics of race in Fiji has impacted on women and influenced women’s responses to national crises. Each political conflict has had an impact on our multiracial society, as well as the multiracial networks of women’s groups. Women have participated on all sides of the conflict in Fiji, even as supporters of the coup perpetrators. But women have been particularly more visible as supporters of peace, although invisible from formal peace processes.
Despite these obstacles, women have continued to work towards peace, equality, and a voice in the future of Fiji. Although women have traditionally been perceived as the peacemakers in the home and family without a voice in community or public affairs, women have been able to use the news-media to mainstream their opinions and to speak the language of peace and justice, especially during the height of the crises in Fiji, through such initiatives as the Peace Vigil. Even though women remain outside of the mainstream decisionmaking processes, the Peace Vigil and other initiatives enabled women to collectively address issues and concerns using traditional networks:
In 2000, for instance, women were instrumental in maintaining a degree of calm and infusing hope during the crisis. On May 20, 2000, the day after the Government’s overthrow, the National Council of Women Fiji, an umbrella organisation and coordinating body for a range of women’s
organisations and clubs, issued its first media statement denouncing the coup and then mobilised a network of women’s groups in Suva to gather for a peace and prayer vigil the following day.
Between May 21 and July 24, 2000, a multi-ethnic group of women held daily vigils. What emerged from the vigil were actions of peaceful solidarity and a denunciation of the illegal overthrow of the government. “The Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil” as it became known, played an important role in bringing different communities and groups together to pray for peace and unity. It also provided considerable solace to family members of the hostages, and became a meeting point for the hostages when they were released from captivity. The “Mothers in White” representatives of the Catholic Women’s League, a core group of the Blue Ribbon Peace Vigil who gathered at parliamentary complex, the site of the hostage detention, to pray for the hostages and the women who wrote letters of support—all these provided a sense of hope.
How Did We Mediate?
Following discussions at the Peace Vigil, a delegation of indigenous women met with (the late) Ro Adi Lady Lala Mara (then the wife of the President and a paramount chief in her own right). Adi Lady Lala was also a mother of one of the political detainees during the hostage crisis. With her traditional endorsement, a message on behalf of the women of the Peace Vigil was conveyed to the Bose Levu Vakaturaga/The Great Council of Chiefs by Taufa Vakatale.2
Because of the role of the military in both conflicts, and its recurring role in addressing instability in Fiji, women learned to negotiate and communicate with the security forces.
The message highlighted the ongoing peace vigil action and the collective call by all women, regardless of ethnicity, for the release of the detained political hostages and a call especially from the indigenous women, for the peaceful resolution of the conflict.3 Having the statement delivered during the formal meeting was critical to ensure that this esteemed body of traditional leaders heard formally from indigenous women.
Because of the role of the military in both conflicts, and its recurring role in addressing instability in Fiji, women learned to negotiate and communicate with the security forces. In 2000, as a result of discussions at the Peace Vigil, the National Council of Women Fiji made contact with the military, and as a result, the Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces, Ratu Voreqe Bainimarama, brought together military council members and other senior officers to meet with the Peace Vigil.
The delegation presented what has become known as “The Women’s Letter.” It outlined various suggestions, particularly the need for Fiji to return to parliamentary democracy, and for the military to uphold the 1997 Constitution as the supreme law of the country. The women also requested that the military respect human rights.4 From this initial meeting, women learned the importance of using the language of the military/security sector for future dialogues and peace initiatives.
The letter was received respectfully and favourably, and a critical lesson learnt from this process was to ensure that future communication should be more in line with the style of communication the army was familiar with.
But where have these initiatives led us?
As we are all aware, a conflict does not end just because overt violence has ended, or because national elections are held. Certainly, at one level it can be said that Fiji has returned to parliamentary democracy, but while the country awaits the outcome of the legal process including inquiries into the events of May 2000, one critical challenge currently facing the country is clearly how to implement a national reconciliation programme which will not merely “band aid” the hurt and suffering caused by both these political upheavals.
Who is going to invest in the women of Fiji to assist them to re-group, review their peace initiatives and find a path forward? How can Fiji Islanders continue their mediation efforts—at the political or legislative level, while continuing to work at the community level?
The rise in Christian fundamentalism from certain church groups, which further alienates non-Christian groups, is further cause for concern, especially as people continue to experience the outright disrespect towards other faiths by the desecration, in particular, of Hindu temples.
How do we ensure respect for the rule of law and how do we account for the possibility of the resurgence of violence, as many of the deep seated ethnic concerns, especially by the indigenous community, the corruption and other underlying causes of the coups, remain invisible at the national level, although deeply rooted in the country’s history?
In the face of these challenges, women remain sidelined from the decision making processes both within the national development framework and more importantly within traditional decision making structures—whether it is the Great Council of Chiefs, at provincial level or at district and community level.
This shortcoming was highlighted in December 2003 during the opening of the Women Peace and Security Coordinating Committee (Fiji) on Conflict Prevention and Early Warning by the (then) Chairman of the Great Council of Chiefs Fiji (Bose Levu Vakaturaga) Ratu Epeli Ganilau who admitted that issues concerning women have not been a priority for those in position of influence, not only in institutions of the state, but more importantly, in traditional and faith based institutions.
Where then is the space for us to engage as mediators?
The ethnic violence in Solomon Islands has had significant effects on women and children. Women have experienced displacement, rape, harassment, and economic hardships, but have nevertheless played a vital role in creating and maintaining peace at the community level.
The roles of women in the present conflict can be traced back to their hands-on skills and traditional knowledge, to Biblical doctrines, and to their love for their nation. Women have used their traditional go-between role as an accepted form of conflict resolution.
Women have used their traditional go-between role as an accepted form of conflict resolution.
During the conflict, the National Council of Women (NCW), which is comprised of many women from church-based women’s groups, led women’s call for peace and democracy. The NCW made appeals for peace directly to the militants and offered food assistance to them. The Council mobilised women inside Honiara to organise formal exchanges of food and supplies with women of the rival ethnic group. The exchanges occurred at checkpoints set up by warring factions.
In Honiara, women’s groups of the Solomon Islands Christian Association had to deal with untrained armed elements in the course of their daily lives. When husbands and sons took up arms, women even enforced disarmament.5 Women bravely moved between the “bunkers” of different combatant groups, persuading men to lay down arms.
The events of June 2000 constituted the biggest hostage-taking conflict in the history of Solomon Islands. It challenged the current methods and mechanisms designed by and for Solomon Islanders, and in response, the Women for Peace (WFP) was formed. Working as a network of women, independent of any political, religious or ethnic movement, the group consists of women of all ages, religions, walks of life, and provinces, who reside in Honiara, and includes the sisters of the Catholic Church and Church of Melanesia. It is committed to working on a voluntary basis for peace. The group also recognises the difficulties of Guadalcanal and Malaita women, and encourages them to take an active and leading role in its activities. The group is independent of any political, religious or ethnic movement. It worked in collaboration with the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF), Isatabu Freedom Movement (FM), churches, non-government organizations, community leaders, chiefs, government and the international community.6
WFP members have been involved in various activities, including: meeting with militants, government and police representatives; representation at ceasefire talks; weekly prayer meetings, including the women’s plea for peace which was broadcast live throughout the nation; forums and conferences; and visits to displaced families, the hospital and provincial communities, particularly to encourage the reintegration of young militants. During the crisis, WFP members remained in Honiara and worked with women from other provinces. They mobilised to provide assistance for those in need, regardless of ethnicity. At great personal risk, members of “Women for Peace” also helped to distribute basic essential items to displaced families.
Afu Billy, a leading and respected women’s human rights activist and peace advocate of the Solomon Islands observed:
I think for our women, whatever sort of violence happens, be it in the home or outside, women are very much affected by it and I think women are more responsible not for the violence but for making sure that things are okay, because women look more after the family and when it comes to things like that, they are worried about how the children are feeling and how the violence is affecting the children. Whilst men have those concerns, they are not at the concern level that women have, because the latter still have to feed the family, they still have to make sure the kids are comfortable, they still have to comfort the children affected by, or if they are affected they have to settle them down and they are the ones who are responsible for finding safe places for their children when things happen. So with those kinds of responsibility, women must have a say in the peace process and the peace building of a country.7
Without access to formal structures for preventive intervention, women’s peace building ultimately begins in the home. Initial interventions are often as a wife, mother or daughter of an armed combatant, on either side of the conflict.
In the Solomon Islands, women peace builders went into the camps to talk to the militants, taking with them food and a few basic necessities. Women in the rural communities, such as the Guadalcanal women, went to the bunkers, talked to their sons and prayed with them.8Despite all these initiatives, women’s actions were not incorporated into the formal peace process. Although women played a pivotal role in persuading parties to open up dialogue, women’s organisations and other civil society groups were excluded from the official negotiations that eventually led to the Townsville Peace Agreement. As one peace activist told us: “I don’t think we were heard, and because of this conflict, men thought that women should not be involved in anything to bring them back from what they wanted to do. And even in the peace agreement meeting we were not involved.”
During the Bougainville crisis, women were peace makers and bridge builders, maintaining their customary role of peace building across the combat lines. Church structures, which had their own women’s groups in place, became the means for the establishment of women and peaceinitiatives and cooperation among groups. For example, the Bougainville Inter-Church Women’s Forum (BICWF) working through churches, developed a critical link between communities that had been torn apart by the destruction of infrastructure and communications.9
The Port Moresby Bougainville Inter Church Women, in a series of petitions to the national government in March 1997, emphasised the importance of dialogue, stating that “the national government must sit down with Bougainvilleans to work out a long term political settlement. Using force is not an answer to resolving Bougainville Crisis.”
In August 1996, the Bougainville Inter-Church Women’s Forum (BICWF) led by Sister Lorraine Garasu and women from United Church, Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist and Pentecostal churches, staged a Women’s Peace Forum with the theme, “In Search of Genuine Peace and Reconciliation.” More than 700 women made their way to Arawa from across Bougainville. They walked across mountains, and negotiated their way across rapid rivers and rocky roads. Women were motivated by their collective commitment for a renewed women’s movement as part of the new Bougainville.
The Peace Forum emphasised the need for women to take part in decision-making bodies at the village, district, and provincial levels.
What motivated me was seeing that not many women take part in decision making bodies at the district level and upward to the provincial level and I thought my women from the villages needed someone to voice our issues at upper levels.
After the meeting, the district representatives formed women’s groups to begin negotiating with the combatants. These groups began mediating with the young male combatants in the jungle. In each district, women negotiated with BRA troops. “Mothers were going in the bush to get the boys. The informal negotiation process was started by the women. I was frightened because we did not know what to expect,” related Monica Samu.
Some of them were from our village . . . some of them were more aggressive than the others. We told them to come home. It wasn’t easy.
The process began with formal consultations with the chiefs in each village to decide when the mediation visits would occur. “The chiefs had to say ‘yes’ in order to ensure our safety,” said Samu. Permission also had to be sought from both the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) and the BRA.
Many of the women had to deal with very aggressive behaviour from the young armed combatants. Monica Samu related:
[When] we went they asked us not to go further to their camps but to meet them half way. They had all their guns pointing to us. Some of them were from our village... some of them were more aggressive than the others. We told them to come home. It wasn’t easy. They were saying we were trying to get them to be afraid of the PNGDF. That was my first trip and only trip to the bush. The second trip comprised of women leaders from districts, church leaders, government leaders...They continued to go regularly, going in to talk to them.
Women had to learn to negotiate and communicate not only with local armed combatants but also with the PNGDF. In the Siwai District, in the South of Bougainville, women and peace groups offered the PNGDF strategies for negotiations with their sons, with the combatants:
We started women’s groups within their peace group. And every Sunday after church we come together, talk, and make plans. So the first time the security force landed, that was our chance to go and hear those people, and we said, if you are here to see us make peace then you have to support ourplan.10
Traditional governance structures were also an important forum for women’s peace intervention. For example, Terese Jaintong capitalised on her traditional role as a landowner and worked with the chiefs in the bush during the conflict. She assisted in establishing the Council of Elders (COE), a local level government body to negotiate with Francis Ona. She was a member of the Evaluation Committee, and was one of the first women who negotiated with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army.11
According to Jaintong, traditional structures also gave rise to peace building at the community level. Women were among the first to intervene as peace builders, as traditional landowners meeting with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) combatants, and as mothers who sought out their sons in the bush and encouraged them to lay down their weapons. At the same time, women’s peace efforts were also being promoted by women within the combatant groups. The Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom (BWPF), for example, was born out of the women’s network within the BRA.
The existence of parallel peace and reconciliation structures within the BRA enabled peace efforts to prosper at the community level, especially as combatant leaders recognised the need to end the war and to prevent a new generation from growing up in an environment of armed conflict.
According to James Tanis, former member of the BRA and now a peace advocate, even the BRA had a Ministry of Political Education and Reconciliation, while the Bougainville Transitional Government had peace committees. The Bougainville Interim Provincial Government established the Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom (BWPF), a parallel structure to Bougainville Provincial Women’s Council (BPWC).
The Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom network was an initiative for women who were living in the jungle in BRA-controlled areas. Women met in the jungle, organised prayer vigils, and distributed relief assistance to widows and displaced families.
Throughout the war, women did not stay silent out of fear but continued to advocate for peace. Women struggled to manage the scarce resources available, and despite the severe restrictions on freedom of movement, which limited their access to market gardens, they continued to provide for their children and their family networks.
The effectiveness of women’s actions was reinforced by the fact that Bougainville/Papua New Guinea is a matrilineal society where women carry respect and authority. The peace initiatives by women on both sides gave birth to reconciliation and opened up mediation and negotiation processes between the BRA, the people and the PNG Government.12 Unfortunately, this authority did not extend to national level decision-making. In 1998, despite women’s success at implementing a permanent ceasefire (which has held to date), women were left out of national level negotiations and post conflict programmes.
In 1998, a Women’s Statement was delivered to the Leaders’ Meeting at the Bougainville/Papua New Guinea Peace talks, demanding a tangible role in the long-term peace process:
We are continuing to work with the communities, in getting the communities to deal, and work out strategies for themselves that will… really attain peace, because we believe that the absence of war is not the end to the violence. We believe and we see that there is still a lot of violence in the community. Women have built bridges between their own families, clans and displaced fellow Bougainvilleans by working for mutual survival, whether it be in the bush, in care centres, or wherever they have hosted strangers in their own communities. Without remuneration, they have laboured beside their men to create basic services using whatever talent or means they had at hand. Our menfolk have rediscovered the value of women sharing in the decision-making process and we attest…to the liberating effect this has had upon our fellow women delegates. As mothers of the land, we take seriously our responsibility to rebuild peace in our hearts and create a peaceful environment that will improve the quality of all our lives.13
Despite women’s prominence in the peace process, women received only 6 out of 106 seats in the appointed Bougainville/Papua New Guinea People’s Congress in May 1999.14
Women were absent from the Peace Process Consultative Committee (PPCC). This committee is chaired by the UN, and oversees the peace process, in particular the weapons disposal programme of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. Apparently, one of the reasons women have not been appointed to the Peace Process Consultative Committee (PPCC) was that the representatives of the ex-combatants were not comfortable with the inclusion of women.15
The new constitution for Bougainville was formulated by the Bougainville Constituent Assembly (BCA). The Assembly included the following women: Elizabeth Burain, Monica Samu, Lucy Madoi, Agnes Nara, Genevieve Pisi, Therese Jaintong, Martha Turatis and Dorcas Awaso.
In 2005, three women—Magadelene Toroansi, Fancesca Semoso and Laura Ampa were elected to the three regional seats (North, South and Central) reserved for women in the new Autonomous Bougainville Government (provincial government). It should be noted however, that women did not contest other seats in their own constituencies. So there is an urgent need to invest in the leadership capacity of Bougainville women to assist them to be more involved in formal decision-making in the new Bougainville. It is only thus that they can ensure a more holistic approach to peace, security and development.
Investing in Rebuilding the Women’s Movement
Indeed, a key requirement in all post conflict situations is the need to provide substantive and long term investment in the rebuilding capacity of women leaders, of new women leaders who emerge during times of crises to not only enable them to take on new leadership roles in post conflict reconstruction but to also be in a position to consult with one another—women among themselves, to ensure consensus for a women’s platform for reconstruction— within a women’s human rights framework.
At the same time, while there exist underlying causes of division among groups in Bougainville, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, these divisions will continue to affect women and will impact reconciliation efforts within and among communities.
Future peace building initiatives must give much credence and assistance to the need for reconciliation among women leaders and women within their communities. Otherwise, untreated wounds have the potential of festering and developing into renewed conflicts.Women must have the space and support to develop a women’s agenda for peace at the local, national, and regional levels. Future peace building initiatives must give much credence and assistance to the need for reconciliation among women leaders and women within their communities. Otherwise, untreated wounds have the potential of festering and developing into renewed conflicts.
UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION 1325
Women have suffered the brunt of violence, often from both sides, during the conflicts in Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Bougainville. Because undocumented, many of these violations remain invisible from the mainstream peace process.
Yet, despite many obstacles, women in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, as well as in Fiji, were instrumental in brokering peace during the crises and continue to play a vital role in building and sustaining peace.
However, women remain greatly marginalised from formal decision making structures as a result of the predominantly patriarchal governance structures from the time of colonial administrations and continuing after independence.
On October 31, 2000 the United Nations Security Council passed a Resolution on Women, Peace and Security, a historical document, which is the first formal and legal document from the Security Council that requires parties to a conflict and the international community to respect women’s rights and to support their participation at all stages in peace negotiations, conflict prevention and post conflict.
The Resolution calls for the following:16
• participation of women in peace processes;
A Security Council resolution is a commitment made by the United Nations and Member states to take action on specific issues. States are expected to comply and work towards implementation. Resolution 1325, therefore, builds on a number of resolutions and frameworks that set out international commitments to women’s full involvement in decision-making, including numerous resolutions of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)17, as well as the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action. Resolution 1325 recognizes that while entire communities suffer the consequences of armed conflict, there is a clear need to account for the impact of conflicts on women and girls (especially as the impact of violence against women and violation of the human rights of women in conflict situations is experienced by women of all ages). However, even though women also constitute the majority of the world’s refugees and internally displaced persons, they are not just victims of conflicts. Women continue to play an important role in conflict resolution, peacekeeping and peace-building.
Links to Other International and Regional Gender Commitments:18
To date, 11 Forum Island Countries (FICs) (being UN member states) are party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Solomon Islands is the only FIC that has ratified the Optional Protocol to CEDAW.19 All PIF members have endorsed the Millennium Development Goals which include MDG 3 on Gender Equality and the empowerment of women.
All FICs committed to the 1994 Pacific Platforms for Action for the Advancement for Women,20 and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, agreed to at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. In addition, 11 FICs are members of the Commonwealth and have committed to the Commonwealth Plan of Action for Gender Equality.21 All these international commitments to gender equality, reaffirm the inextricable link between gender equality and peace, as well as highlighting the need to improve equal access and full participation of women in power structure, to enable their full involvement in all efforts for the prevention and resolution of conflicts.
The Pacific Islands Forum is mandated to respond to issues of security at the regional level. In 2000, Forum Leaders endorsed the Biketawa Declaration, which recognised the need for action to be taken on the basis of all members of the Forum being part of the Pacific Islands’ extended family. The Declaration highlights that the Forum must constructively address difficult and sensitive issues including underlying causes of tensions and conflicts (intolerance for ethnic differences, socio-economic disparities, and lack of good governance, land disputes and erosion of cultural values), while also reiterating belief in the liberty of the individual under the law, in equal rights for all citizens regardless of gender, race, colour, creed or political belief and in the individual’s inalienable right to participate by means of free anddemocratic political process in framing the society in which he or she lives.
Furthermore, in October 2005, Forum Leaders endorsed the Pacific Plan for Strengthening Regional Cooperation and Integration, of which security is one of the four key components. The Plan defines security as “stable and safe social (human) and political conditions necessary for, and reflective of, Good Governance and Sustainable Development for the achievement of Economic Growth.” The Pacific Plan has a specific strategic objective to improve gender equality which means that all Pacific Plan initiatives must give due consideration to gender issues and demonstrate a positive impact on gender equality, wherever possible. It is therefore critical that regional security initiatives are reconciled to ensure the inclusion of gender as a crosscutting issue.
Despite a multitude of regional commitments to gender, peace and security, implementation on the ground has been limited.
Women have demonstrated the ability to effectively work together at the local level, but there is a need to strengthen women’s and peace networks at the regional level. This requires investment in capacity building and institutional strengthening. Women peace advocates need to be able to exchange ideas and lessons learned from their own Pacific Island experiences.
A reconstruction plan for the Pacific’s arc of instability will not be complete without an equitable inclusion of women in the design, delivery and evaluation of all development programmes and plans. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 therefore has the potential to provide the necessary impetus to help women make this change.
1 femLINKpacific YWCA Herstories Interviews with Ruth Lecthe, Susan Parkinson and Suliana Siwatibau.