Amid the disturbing images of mass protests, looting and arson in Honiara last week, local journalist Georgina Kekea shared footage on Twitter of the central market in Honiara. Here, she said, women vendors had been stuck for two days without access to food other than the fruits and vegetables they sell.
Earlier today at the Honiara Central Market, mothers are stranded here. No warm food since yesterday. They only had fruits pic.twitter.com/RdCka9h1Gd— Georgina Kekea (@ginakekea) November 25, 2021
While regional observers sought answers to the crisis in history, and geopolitics, Kekea’s report made clear the gendered face of violent unrest Honiara. It pointed to the potential for physical harm and risks to already precarious livelihoods that women navigated.
Over the weekend, the strength of Solomon Islands women was also made clear when a range of women’s groups issued clear statements calling for respect, restraint and mediation and for “women to be part of this dialogue”. These resolute calls are evidence that, even in precarious circumstances, women in Solomon Islands are, and have always been, a powerful force for peace.
On 25 November we learnt that the Australian government had been asked to provide security assistance to Solomon Islands by Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, and had agreed to do so. This deployment saw more than 100 AFP and ADF personnel flown to Honiara in the following days. While the Prime Minister Scott Morrison discussed the deployment with the now common references to “our Pacific family” he made no mention of the mission’s effort to assist and accommodate Solomon Islands women. This was borne out in a series of images released by the ADF’s Joint Operations Command over the weekend which depicted what appears to be high-level, but male-only, joint emergency assistance meetings occurring between Australian and Solomon Islands security personnel and male Australian Army personnel in full protection gear undertaking patrols on Honiara’s streets.
The early signs that the gendered implications of this mission are neglected is troubling. This is particularly so given the significant work that has been undertaken in recent years to formulate policy in Australia, and throughout the Pacific, that reflects provisions of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security (WPS), first established in 2000. This agenda has subsequently informed the development of the Solomon Islands National Action Plan (NAP) on WPS that was formalised in 2017 and, more recently, the Second National Action Plan on WPS that was formalised in Australia, in 2021.
Since the first deployment on Thursday, I have approached Australian Defence and Foreign Affairs department to investigate if and how these capacities will be evident in the current mission. All the government sources approached have credited the importance of the question but have produced far from definitive answers to it. So far, on evidence of public relations material released, the “boots on the ground approach” seems to predominate over the women, peace and security mandate. Women in Solomon Islands need far better from Australia than this.
The Australian and Solomon Islands NAPs mean there is policy in place to ensure that women’s vulnerabilities as well as their capacities for mediation are recognised by intervening forces. They make clear that when Australia agreed to Sogavare’s request to intervene, an obligation to Solomon Islands women was also activated. The question that remains unanswered for the moment, is how these obligations are to be met.
The plan identifies the need for strategies which “develop, formalise and resource women's active engagement in community, provincial and national level peacebuilding initiatives and the need for these to be “proportionate to those” involving “men”,
To explain in more detail, consider relevant clauses of each countries’ National Action Plan. The Australian NAP clearly sets out guidelines for the current deployment that uphold women’s rights to participate in mediation efforts and their rights to protection from violence. On the subject of women’s participation in mediation, the NAP states the importance of designing “negotiations to ensure women have a seat at the table … can shape agendas and exercise their voice”. The NAP further states the need to “ensure the views and needs of multiple groups” are evident so that these communities are also able to “meaningfully participate in peace processes”.
On the subject of protection, the plan is equally promising. It states the need to “increase efforts to address the full range of rights violations that women and girls experience in fragile and conflict-affected contexts”. While this includes recognition of women’s vulnerability to gendered forms of violence, it also recognises the need to “ensure stabilisation and recovery approaches meet the needs of women and girls for long-term sustainable livelihoods”. In sum, these clauses make clear the careful gender engagement that must accompany the work of the current stabilisation mission.
Clauses from the Solomon Islands NAP are just as compelling and pertinent. On the issue of women’s participation, the plan identifies the need for strategies which “develop, formalise and resource women's active engagement in community, provincial and national level peacebuilding initiatives and the need for these to be “proportionate to those” involving “men”. On protection, the NAP states the need to “decrease the risk of gender-based violence and conflict during periods of … crisis and instability.” On implementation the plan nominates a range of actors including national and provincial governments, civil society actors but crucially also mentions the implementation role of “development partners”. This wording makes clear the duty Australia has to implement these provisions as part of the current deployment.
Statements in the Solomon Islands NAP are a reminder why all of this is important. They show the terrible costs of violence borne by women in the community during the tensions of the early 2000s. Importantly, they also document the critical roles that women played in this period as peace mediators; as the plan states, drawing on “kastom and Christian doctrine in performing peacemaking roles … to mediate and exert pressure on militants to disarm”.
Australia’s NAP states that the ADF has 200 trained gender advisors who understand the significance of the WPS agenda and how it should shape Australian overseas and domestic military engagement. Put another way, this means Australia’s security forces currently have the capacity to implement these policy provisions. They should be doing so. If they do not, the policies of both countries amount to little more than empty words.