Supporting the Women Peace and Security Agenda in the Pacific Islands: Participation in the Spotlight

George field picIt has become commonplace to argue that there is a contagion of state weakness across the Pacific Islands.  Conflicts occurring in Bougainville (1990s) and Solomon Islands (early 2000s), Fiji’s history of coups – military- and civilian-led (1987 onwards), ongoing tribal violence in the Papua New Guinea (PNG) highlands, and continued tensions around indigenous autonomy claims in New Caledonia or French Polynesia are indicative of these trends.  Even where these conflicts seem outwardly to have reached a point of resolution, tensions continue to simmer in ways which make peace fragile.  In these settings women’s social, political and economic standing, and their physical safety, is far from assured.

Women from the region have not been passive observers of these conflicts.  They have worked across racial, village, and clan lines, often at great personal risk, and sometimes clandestinely, to challenge the normalization of violence and to alleviate its humanitarian impacts. In Bougainville, women played a major role in convincing warring parties to recognize the civilian costs of the conflict and end the violence which in the 1990s cost more than 10 000 lives.  In Fiji women have resisted the politicized racial divisions that have fuelled aspects of that country’s troubles since 1987 and have worked across ethnic and faith-based boundaries to build an intercommunal commitment to peace. In New Caledonia, women have engaged in customary peace processes which have healed tribal tensions that have simmered since the death of Kanak Independence Leader, Jean-Marie Tjibaou in 1988.

This work to build peace has begun not with formalised negotiations around a table, but with women’s commitment to dialogue, engagement and their efforts to challenge violence as it occurs on the ground.  It is ironic therefore that these contributions are rarely recognized when decisions are made about who should participate in formalised, peace negotiations.  It is also ironic that these formalised efforts tend to occur in a way which denies the importance of the very resources that women draw upon so successfully to legitimate their peace advocacy. Respect for the norms of nonviolence that exist within Pacific Islands cultures, and within articulations of religious faith, are of remote importance when conflict resolution begins between ‘protagonists’ and ‘negotiators’ on foreign warships (another irony) or ‘neutral’ international sites, as has been the practice in regional conflict resolution in the past decades.

Against this backdrop, the development of a Regional Action Plan for UNSCR 1325, recently adopted by the Pacific Islands Forum, is significant and reflects the culmination of a decade-long effort led by women’s organisations across the region to draw policy-makers attention to the women, peace and security agenda.  As with any policy development of this kind, however, the challenge lies next in persuading regional and national policy makers to focus on implementation and not to imagine that Forum acceptance of the 1325 Regional Plan means that all the work has been done.

To this end, there is need for broader and deeper reflection on the issue of participation as it is pertinent to promotion of the women peace and security agenda in the Pacific Islands.  Solid commitments towards building a more secure, peaceful and prosperous region, depend upon women’s participation, not just as communally focussed peace negotiators at the pointy end of a crisis.  Rather, structures need to be in place which provide women with a stable political and economic platform from which they can issue meaningful challenges to conflict-related forms of gendered insecurity and more general instances of injustice.  If the principle of participation is respected, there can no longer be acceptance of a situation where women are marginalized from institutional decision-making, accounting for a paltry 3.4 per cent of the region’s parliamentary seats.  Likewise, there can no longer be acceptance of women’s economic marginalization, their over-representation in subsistence agricultural production or their limited presence in the cash economy and subsequent ghettoised employment in low-skilled, low-waged, and low-prestige employment sectors.

Evidence from New Caledonia provides good reasons for thinking about the relationship between women’s political participation and the achievement of a gendered peace.  Women in this francophone territory have gained a regionally unique level of political representation (roughly 50%) thanks to electoral parity laws that were adopted in the territory in 2001.  However, beyond a simple statistical increase in women’s representation, these laws have also enabled women political representatives to mobilise public resources to fund a series of agencies specifically devoted to women’s well-being known collectively as la secteur de la condition féminine.

The existence of these agencies, operating at both the national and provincial level, and the explicit attention they pay to the issue of women’s security, contrasts starkly with scant attention paid to gender issues in most other Pacific Islands countries. The lessons to be taken from this example are instructive for a region where debates on women’s protection and their participation are conducted in a cloistered fashion and ignore the extent to which women’s participation – economic and political – may underpin efforts to enhance women’s security. When there are mechanisms in place to assist women’s participation in decision-making, the issue of gender and security can become a national political priority which attracts public resources and encourages women to resist their ‘everyday’ exposure to discrimination, disempowerment and violence. Across the rest of the region, women’s exposure to violence persists at alarming, and according to some reports, increasing levels.  Rethinking what is meant by participation and its centrality to the realization of the women peace and security agenda in the Pacific will be critical for the promotion of UNSCR 1325 into the future.

Nicole George

University of Queensland