In a territory of just 9318km2, situated in the Asia-Pacific, Bougainville has undergone significant change in recent years, having witnessed the power and influence of female peace movements. The Bougainville Civil War of 1988-1998 resulted in the loss of over 15,000 lives through the conflict between the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and the government-backed Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Many in the state were left with limited access to education, health services and basic services. And yet, during the height of the conflict, female peace movements began gaining increasing prominence. It was through grassroots activism that women were able to join together in providing support and comfort to many impacted by the war as well as successfully influenced public opinion in favour of peaceful negotiations.
Women As Agents Of Peace
Women were able to effectively instigate grassroots movements in Bougainville, encouraging peace movements. Peace baskets filled with essential supplies such as food and medicine were passed onto women in rural and remote areas as a bottom-up approach, supporting vulnerable communities. Church events were organised for women to connect and create a sense of community. Events such as prayer vigils were important in encouraging solidarity, faith and kindness. Peace organisations were also established with women playing a prominent role in visiting BRA camps to negotiate with soldiers directly and using Radio Bougainville to send messages of peace to the public. By focusing on gaining public support, women were able to participate in wider peace movements which later resulted in the Peace Conference in Arawa. Leading figures such as Josephine Kauona, the founding president of Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom, were able to represent female voices and experiences at negotiations. This in itself appeared to be a highly promising start to female involvement in peace processes.
Bougainville’s culture also played a large role in allowing women to be agents of peace. The state has traditionally placed a high value on women with land largely owned by the female population. Men are believed to have a duty to protect the land on women’s behalf, giving women the ability to instruct men on different methods of protection. The society is also matrilineal, meaning that after marriage, husbands move in with their wives. Cultural norms have allowed women to gain relative power when exercising control in the area. During the conflict, women were able to take advantage of these practices, meaning their voices were arguably more valued when they spread messages of peace.
Reproduction Of Stereotypes
Yet, in order to achieve legitimacy and attention, Bougainville women had to rely on stereotypical tropes of being mothers and vulnerable women to legitimise their peacebuilding activities. Icons such as the Virgin Mary and helpless mothers were used to create sympathy with mass audiences.
Utilising tropes is controversial. Critics argue that by perpetuating stereotypes, women were feeding into the patriarchy, resulting in a cyclical pattern of females constantly being portrayed as helpless and incapable. This, in turn, leads to the reproduction and further consolidation of harmful stereotypes, reducing the capital of feminist movements. This argument does have value. After all, despite the largely positive impact women were able to play during the civil war, afterwards, they were excluded from decision-making processes on the basis that they were unknowledgeable, overly forgiving, and weak. Yet, this argument excludes the fact that Bougainville women often had to rely on these stereotypes to be taken seriously.
It is easy for us to now critique the use of gender tropes as cementing inequality and feeding into the patriarchy. However, this fundamentally ignores the circumstances of the time, a period where women had previously tried to encourage peace but were unsuccessful when simply speaking out. The struggle to have one’s voice heard is not the same in every single country, with certain places having more entrenched biases against women than others. Bougainville women’s peace movements should be widely celebrated for generating a broader momentum for peace, even if its means were controversial. Post-conflict, however, is the most appropriate time to focus on increasing female participation and addressing existing inequalities.
Issues Moving Forward
Despite the prominent role played by women during the conflict, post-conflict rebuilding has left little room for female voices and involvement in the political process. Gendered violence against women appears to significantly undermine opportunities of progressing forward. Family violence and strict gender norms play a large impediment to female participation in political life. Transitions from conflict to peacebuilding are often difficult periods but also ones which contain the most opportunities for challenging previous norms. Encouraging female participation, not only on the ground level but also in the higher echelons of peacemaking, is crucial in sustaining momentum for gender equality.
Examining female participation in the Bougainville Civil War provides ample evidence of the power of peace movements around the world. Maintaining and building upon the progress made by these women is important. We must recognise the difficulty faced by many and rather than comparing their methods of achieving peace, should instead be seeking to now empower them in the post-conflict period.