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Hail The Peacemakers

Why Bougainville ’s Women Make A Difference

By Sharon Bhagwan Rolls, SUVA

from: Pacific Magazine


Elizabeth Momis admits that whenever she talks about the crisis in her homeland of Bougainville , she gets a bit emotional. It is no wonder. The conflict resulted in the loss of thousands of lives. And the economic blockade and breakdown of health and education services for a whole generation of Bougainvilleans means it is almost impossible to count the real cost to the war.

There are a myriad of reasons for why the violence erupted. But the dispute over royalty payments from the Panguna Mine, and its disregard for the matrilineal nature of Bougainville society and therefore the role of women as custodians of the land was for Momis, at the center.

"The mine owners, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), had disregarded the 1989 appointment of Perpetua Serero by the Panguna Landowners Association," says Momis, "They looked down on this woman and they appointed their own man (Severeno Ampaoi) and as a result she (Serero) was unable to play her part as president of the Landowners Association because they are the ones who distribute the royalties. Students from that area told me that their mothers had not got their royalty payments and so they could not pay their school fees."

Momis considers the start of the economic blockade, May 17 1990 , as the height of the crisis. "That was the year things got really worse."

Yet despite these hardships, there was certain resilience among the women such as community nurses who remained at the aid posts or the mission hospitals. "A nurse told me that they had to use whatever was available to us, an open wound would be treated with a sewing needle and thread, because there were no doctors, no medical supplies."

Momis was not on Bougainville from 1990 to 2003, but she felt the impact of the crisis in her own personal life, and she was constantly in touch with the women of Bougainville through informal and church networks, as well as through her own research work. "During the Bougainville crisis women were peace makers and bridge builders; women continued their customary role of peace building across the combat lines," she says.

"It was the president of the Bougainville Provincial Women's Council, Teresa Jaintong, who went into the mountains in Central Bougainville , to ask the BRA leaders, including Joseph Kabui and James Tanis to come out and join the negotiations to have peace on our island," Momis says.

There are many accounts of women forming human shields to prevent killings and Momis knows just how far women were willing to risk their own lives for peace. She recounts an incident in 1997, in the district of Tinputz, when her husband (the former governor of Bougainville ) John Momis, was on an election campaign: "When John was captured, the men who accompanied him ran down to the beach, and he was left alone with one old man. The women stayed back and protected him. And when he was taken to Panguna, he was welcomed by women."

In 1990, Elizabeth Momis herself managed to convince two rival commanders to lay down their arms and travel to Port Moresby to participate in mediation in order to bring about peace between their communities.

Several women's groups were born out of the armed conflict, initially to provide social services and later to actively engage in the formal peace process. Says Momis, "Leitana Nehan Women's Development Agency, Bougainville Women's Peace and Freedom, Bougainville Women's Inter-Church Forum, were instrumental in bringing women together."

The women's peace movement gave rise to a women's summit in Arawa in 1996, when women came together to articulate their vision for peace.

Meanwhile in Port Moresby , women like Momis were also meeting to ensure women's representation in the peace negotiations: "We were all trying to survive in a male dominated society so we wanted our women representatives to speak at these meetings, especially when they (the women) were influential in getting their sons out of the bush. It was the tears shed by the women which helped bring an end to the war. So why not be represented in the peace meetings."

Subsequently women were represented in a range of meetings and negotiating forums culminating in the 2001 Bougainville Peace Agrement.

Momis says the onus now is also on the Bougainville Women's Provincial Council to revitalize itself, capitalize on women's contributions to the peace process and to mobilize the institutional support for the three women who are now serving in the ABG.

"The women's groups of Bougainville have a lot of do, they need to be linked together to improve the lives of mothers leading to an improved quality of life for their families," Momis says.

And a common concern for the families of Bougainville is the re-integration of the youth of Bougainville , who have missed out on several critical years of education. These young people are at a greater risk of being enticed into "fast money making schemes," such as that started by pyramid scheme mastermind Noah Musingku, who according to Momis continues to mislead people, capitalizing on the provinces' poor information and communication links.

Says Momis, "I wouldn't want them to be led by this cargo-cult movement of Noah Musingku and I am also appealing to those who have invested in the pyramid scheme to get on with their lives, the cargo cult mentality won't get them anywhere."


Elizabeth Momis







The European Shareholders of Bougainville Copper (ESBC)