Bougainville is celebrating this week, and with very good reason. The historic creation of the first autonomous government marks a new era in Bougainville’s history, however it is also highly significant that three women have been elected to the new parliament.
While President-elect Joseph Kabui, of the Peoples Congress Party, has vowed a new day has dawned for his people, the women of Bougainville already know this as an undisputable fact. From the horrors of rape, murder and a myriad of human rights abuses that occurred during the appalling years of the conflict in Bougainville, a number of women have fought with passion and courage to ensure the next generation is protected from the many injustices they have suffered.
Women were vital to the peace process and instrumental in holding communities together during many years of blockades, isolation and persecution. They rallied to move medical supplies across rugged terrain where lives were constantly in danger. They mobilised to provide education, health clinics and support facilities against all odds while sustaining food production in remote mountain hideaways. They risked life and limb to participate in key talks that brought about this historic outcome of autonomy. It brings with it a realisation of freedom for the people of Bougainville who not so many years ago could have been forgiven for believing it may always elude them. The courage and wisdom of women in Bougainville, as in other Pacific Islands, should not slide under the radar in international politics- there are far too many lessons to learn from their perseverance and strength.
Although women make up less than 10 per cent of the new government the very fact that there is representation is welcomed by the many networks of women who worked tirelessly to get them there. Many feel this is a precedent that will allow for increasing numbers of women to step forward and participate in subsequent elections.
Three seats were reserved for women, which in itself encouraged women to contest the elections. Unfortunately many women did not realise that they were also eligible to contest the other seats meaning that a number of seats not contested this time around may well be considered by women in the next elections in 2010. There are also reports that some women were pressured to stand aside and make room for the men - there is still a way to go before all women are respected for their abilities - however the beginnings are there and it is truly a time of great rejoicing by women all over the Pacific.
Those women who were successful include Laura Ampa of South Bougainville who has made history as the first woman from Papua New Guinea to be elected in the new parliament for the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. Ms Ampa is married to a Bougainvillian man, adopting Bougainville as home in 1981. She campaigned in her electorate on a strong platform of continued diligence with the weapons disposal program. This is an area of great concern to many in Bougainville who see the completion of this program as critical to maintaining law and order.
Education and health are also high on Ms Ampa’s agenda, in particular the need for literacy education for women. Raising literacy levels is a strong weapon in the fight against all forms of abuse. People gain much needed access to information that not only informs but empowers individuals to take action in their own lives as well as their communities. Health in the south is a real and ongoing concern for Ms Ampa. As we in Australia debate the inadequacies of our own health systems it is worth acknowledging the task of the new Bougainville government as they grapple with problems such as there being no doctor available at all to citizens in the southern districts. Buin District Hospital does not have a single doctor, the hospital does not have its own transport and health care is severely affected by the lack of proper medical equipment and drug shortages.
Joining her in leading the women of Bougainville into a new era of political participation is Magdalene Toroansi, representing the Central Region, and Francesca Semoso, representing the North Region. Ms Semoso has called for a time of reconciliation between leaders, believing a reconciliation ceremony involving leaders such as Joseph Kabui, John Momis and Francis Ona as suggested by members of the audience during campaigning, would be timely and beneficial to the new government. Ms Toroansi has defined the issue of self-reliance as a key factor in Bougainville’s future development and is particularly interested in building up a human resources skills bank to aid economic growth.
Coming so soon after our own National Reconciliation Week we can look to the messages the women of Bougainville espouse of unity, community and equality for a hint of what may be needed in our own country. These women have much to be bitter about if they so choose, but instead they prefer to actively engage in nation building in a way that will see future generations avoid the problems of the past and reap the benefits of their own experiences.
Laura Ampa, Francesca Semoso and Magdalene Toroansi understand the need for respect of human rights. They also understand that they are meaningless without taking seriously corresponding responsibilities. That is why they entered the political arena. Clearly these are women of vision with a deep belief in a positive future for the country they love. As a nation of the Pacific region we should support them - politically, morally and practically. As fellow citizens of the Pacific region we should embrace them as they step up to be counted as women exercising their democratic right to contribute to the building of a new and peaceful Bougainville.
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