Bougainville women worked for peace locally and nationally

Bougainville women worked for peace locally and nationally

Bougainville is an island of between 160,000 and 200,000 people within Papua-New Guinea which, after PNG independence in 1975, made the first practical effort to develop decentralized government at the provincial level. The conflict that raged in Bougainville between 1988 and 1997 was partly related to reaction against the Panguna copper mine and partly to tensions and divisions within Bougainville. After PNG security forces withdrew in March 1990, the PNGDF blockaded Bougainville from mid-1990 until the September 1994 cease-fire, although the blockade continued to operate informally for much of Bougainville until 1997.

From the early days of the Bougainville crisis, women's groups played important roles in initiatives to end the violence and promote a sustainable solution to the conflict. Women of all political, religious and regional groupings mobilized and prayed, marched and negotiated for peace and reconciliation.

In traditional Bougainvillean society, women have an important place in the family, and a vital role in the life of the clan. The woman's line determines kinship and inheritance and use of land rights. There is a saying in Bougainville that 'women are mothers of the land'. With this go other key responsibilities such as keeping the family wealth and recording family history. In consultation with her uncle or elder brother, women also arrange marriages, organize special feasts and cultural activities within the clan, and participate in important negotiations around land rights and birthrights. However it was not usual for women to exercise political power in the public arena, although their views were conveyed through a family or clan spokesperson.

Nonetheless, women's groups played a major role in working for peace and reconciliation locally and nationally. Individual women used their high status in the family to negotiate peace in their communities and used their influence as go-betweens with the warring factions to maintain constructive dialogue. Mothers went into the bush to attempt to bring their sons home. In south and southwest Bougainville, women went into the jungle to negotiate with the local BRA.

Groups such as the Catholic Women's Association and the Bougainville Community Integrated Development Agency (BOCIDA) were the mainstay of clandestine humanitarian networks that provided food, clothing and medicines to those in government and BRA-controlled areas and were the only source of emergency assistance. As restrictions eased, these groups became the backbone of development and peacebuilding activities.

Women's groups and individual woman leaders emerged as an important influence in the political arena. Their courageous activities included prayer meetings, reconciliation ceremonies, peace marches and petitions. They also played an important role in awakening the international community to the suffering of the Bougainville people. Their contacts with women from Australia and New Zealand were influential in bringing in support and assistance from abroad.

Despite having important roles and responsibilities in Bougainvillean culture, women have struggled to participate directly in the formal political peace process, which has been dominated by men. However, their different forms of support for a negotiated solution to the conflict, often expressed from the sidelines at official meetings or through discreet lobbying of the different parties, maintained vital pressure on the men to continue to search for peace.


Adapted and summarized from an article entitled The role of women in promoting peace and reconciliation, by Sister Lorraine Garasu, a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Nazareth and Co-ordinator of the Bougainville Inter-Church Women’s Forum who has participated in peace negotiations in Bougainville and overseas. This presentation was made at a BICWF Forum for Peace workshop in 1996. The picture of the BICWF Forum for Peace workshop, 1996, was provided by Joy Balazo and appeared on the Conciliation Resources website along with Sr. Lorraine's story.


Also see Solomon Islands: Women and Peace in Bougainville, by Rochelle Jones of Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID), Sep. 26, 2008. Jones notes that in 2004, 11 women who survived the conflict and played key roles in conflict resolution and rebuilding society, published a book entitled "As Mothers of the Land".

" Edited by Josephine Tankunani Sirivi and Marilyn Taleo Havini, contributors include one of the founding members of the Bougainville Women for Peace and Freedom (BWPF). The book tells the story of the extraordinary resourcefulness of the women – how they adapted to cope with the impact of the military blockade imposed by the Port Moresby politicians. It also depicts the lives of those women who had to flee to the jungle to escape violence and rely on their traditional knowledge to support their families."