Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Meaningful participation: women and peacebuilding in the Pacific

Experience in Bougainville and Solomon Islands highlights the potential role of women to support the process.

Women in Bougainville occupy an honoured place in the post-conflict order. (Photo: UNDP Papua New Guinea/ Flickr)
Women in Bougainville occupy an honoured place in the post-conflict order. (Photo: UNDP Papua New Guinea/ Flickr)

Bougainville’s history of peacebuilding is typically depicted as a story of light international intervention. Both the Bougainville Peace Agreement signed in 2001, and the later 2004 constitution establishing Bougainville’s political autonomy from Papua New Guinea, recognised local systems of authority and customary principles and practices.

For these reasons, the peacebuilding presence was minimal, limited to a small United Nations observer mission, and a 300-strong unarmed Peace Monitoring Group, comprised of military and civilian personnel from Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, and Fiji.

The emphasis on customary principles and practices enabled women to be recognised in state decision-making and in their efforts to build peace.

Yet this experience was also significant from a gender perspective. The emphasis upon custom enabled women to argue for their matrilineal status, as “mothers of the land” within Bougainvillean custom to be recognised in state decision-making structures, as well as the significance of their contributions to peacebuilding as grass-roots mediators during the conflict years.

The provisions of the post-conflict constitution provided for three reserved seats for women in Bougainville’s parliament. More recently, parity provisions have been written into the territory’s electoral law for local government, and there is official support for local women’s civil society groups along with efforts to increase women’s representation within the local public service.

The lessons are important to recognise. At the recent UN Security Council Debate on Women Peace and Security, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described the relationship between women’s “meaningful participation” in conflict mediation and the likelihood of “a more sustainable peace”. He went on to note the irony of a UN system that can:

Extol the positive influence of women peacebuilders – but provide little space for their participation.

These concerns animate a research project that I am collaborating on with colleagues from Monash GPS, and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The aim is to understand the measures needed to support women’s meaningful participation in peace negotiations and conflict transition. My study examines women’s experiences in peacebuilding and post-conflict governance in Bougainville and Solomon Islands. In a new publication for International Affairs, I reflect on lessons learned from this work and how they are relevant to settings within, and well beyond, the Pacific islands region.

In Bougainville, the honoured place that women occupy within the post-conflict order, as “mothers of Bougainville’s peace”, has opened doors.

But these narratives have also cemented a powerful sense that links peace and order with women’s everyday obedience to the mothering ideal. Where women’s economic and political ambitions are seen to exceed these feminised norms of gender appropriateness, women can be regularly confronted with masculine censure, political obstruction and, in too many cases, brutal physical violence.

This is also found in the tensions that surround the issue of women’s reproductive autonomy, and particularly in the acts of violence and intimidation that hard-line nationalists’ have perpetrated against international agencies that work locally to promote women’s access to contraception. Perpetrators of this violence argue they are securing Bougainville from an agency intent on perpetrating a “genocide” against Bougainville’s people.

In contrast to the light international presence evident in Bougainville, peacebuilding in Solomon Islands has adhered to a more typical liberal “peacebuilding as statebuilding” blueprint. Heavily influenced by the dominant presence of Australian military and civilian personnel, the intervention known as Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands or RAMSI placed a significant focus upon “police-led” peacebuilding and the implementation of a good governance and “rule of law” agenda.

Critics have claimed that this “security first” focus on statebuilding as peacebuilding has ignored where local communities, customary practices, and principles might contribute to a reconsolidation or order.

Unsurprisingly, women’s influence has, in this context, been far more limited.

Like their sisters in Bougainville, women in Solomon Islands also played significant roles as grass-roots peacebuilders, often using their customary status to encourage militants to give up weapons and understand the destructive consequences of their violence. However, the “security first” orientation prioritised the restoration of order by emphasising the detention and criminal punishment of those who perpetrated public violence. This meant that women’s peacebuilding capacities were regularly discounted or ignored.

This was detrimental to the mission, best illustrated by the reluctance of RAMSI security personnel to allow a well-respected woman leader and mediator to speak to crowds threatening to riot in the Chinese precinct of the capital Honiara in 2006. In the hours that followed, security forces lost control of the situation and the district was razed to the ground.

In later years, RAMSI learnt their lesson, and authorities made a greater effort to create space for women’s participation. But this occurred in ways that tended to emulate rather than challenge the mission’s broader “security first” vernacular. Thus, one of the most celebrated aspects of the RAMSI’s engagement with women has been their increased visibility in the security sector, as police officers and within the ministry of corrections.

Yet women peace activists in Solomon Islands still remain sceptical of the idea that more women in the security sector equates to their meaningful participation in conflict transition. “We do not need arms to secure us,” one told me, arguing instead for more attention to the residual trauma that remains for many locals and the communal grievances that remain unresolved.

In their view, a lasting and more durable peace would be more likely if there was more support for women’s work in facilitating and leading customary processes of atonement and reconciliation. Then Solomon Islanders might have “peace in their hearts.”

How then to translate these reflections in practical ways to enhance women’s influence in peacebuilding? Antonio Guterres’ statements regarding the need for international actors to provide space and support for women’s meaningful participation in peacebuilding is important and welcome. But these ambitions cannot be advanced through simple application of “one size fits all” gender provisions in peacebuilding.

The most effective measures to enhance women’s influence in conflict transition will only be possible if a careful study is undertaken of the way peacebuilding environments are shaped, and gendered, by external and internal actors. This approach will more clearly appreciate how debates about the standing of women, and their rights to participate in conflict transition land in global, national, and local contexts where people already have strong ideas about what security “means” and where and how women contribute “rightfully” to its achievement.

Only with this knowledge we can begin to work more sensitively with local women to identify and navigate the obstacles that impede the progression of a gender-just peace. 

Pacific Research Program

You may also be interested in