Women as peacemakers during conflict

Women as peacemakers during conflict

Women continue to play a critical role in ending conflict in the Pacific, in many cases, by acting as go-betweens with the warring factions. In the Bougainville war of the 1990’s, women went into the jungle to negotiate with the local Bougainville Revolutionary Army. Some women also went into the bush to take their sons back. In the 1998-2003 ethnic conflict in the Solomon Islands, women too, helped to resolve the conflict.

In a matrilineal decent system, a person’s ancestry is traced or identified through the mother’s lineage. Property and power are also inherited through the mother. But, there isn’t much difference in the role women in matrilineal systems can play in conflict resolution compared to that in a patrilineal system. However, experience shows that in matrilineal systems, a woman’s voice can be respected in the height of a tension. In a tribal war or a family argument, you will often hear both men and women use women’s names to calm a situation, for instance, “olsem sista blo yumi tufala nao bae iu faet!”

I come from Guadalcanal, one of the five provinces in Solomon Islands that actively practices a matrilineal land tenure system. I am also a distant relative of Harold Keke, the warlord and leader of the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army, and also the most notorious rebel leader in the Solomon Islands. As the war went on, I sought to establish communication with Harold Keke. I managed to find my way out and eventually I was able to speak to him from Honiara. I informed him that a group of us women were hoping to meet with him in person. He agreed that we could go.

We felt that if we could speak to him in person, he would listen to us and stop the lawlessness that was going on at that time. So in the height of the ethnic tension, I travelled to Peochakuri village in the southern part of Guadalcanal to meet him. The trip consisted of five women: Aunty Prudence Chasi, late Susan Kukiti, Gladys Robo, late Grace Manea and myself. Late Grace Manea was from Malaita province. The conflict was between the people of Malaita and the people of Guadalcanal.

On arrival, we found out that we were not allowed to go ashore. We were told that we had to go through security, which meant we had to be checked by militant commanders. We waited for two long hours in the boat. It wasn’t easy waiting in a floating boat.

It was a real challenge to go and talk to the warlord

After two and half hours, the chief commander finally arrived. He informed that Harold Keke was not available, but that he would meet us the following day.

We now had to find somewhere to sleep for the night. A sister of mine approached me and told me she couldn’t have us sleep or stay at her place as she feared for her safety. At first, I couldn’t make out what she was saying as she wasn’t speaking loud enough for fear of being reported to the warlord. She told me to speak to my uncle’s caretaker and ask his permission to spend the night at his place. I did as I was told. It got a bit more frightening when a few women came and told me that they didn’t know what was going to happen to us.

At about 9:45 a.m the next day, we met with the warlord at Inakona village where he and his followers were based. It was a real challenge to go and talk to the warlord; he had so many followers and he owned high-powered weapons that his men carry around with them, even in the church when they attend prayer meetings. The place looked like an army base. Hostages were also kept there, many of them were church and community leaders. Also there were men who were in charge of the corporal punishment. It was quite terrifying but we felt that our message was very important and it had to be delivered. We were confident that being mothers, and coming in peace, Harold Keke would respect our voice.

Our team negotiated for him to prioritise and ensure the safety of the women and children of Guadalcanal in the conflict. He agreed. He also acknowledged the fact that both militia groups were now in a no-trust relationship and that a negotiation situation between the warring parties had to be reached.

We spent four days at his place before returning to Honiara. We were putting together our report to present to the Solomon Islands Christian Association (SICA) when news broke out that a team of 10 mercenaries from Kwaio in Malaita who had gone over to search out Harold Keke had unfortunately been caught and killed by Keke and his men. This was just immediately after our visit. Shortly afterwards, Harold Keke surrendered.

Image: An IFM guerilla at a waterfall in the Moro Movement area, Weathercoast of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 1999.

This article was written by
Betty Gigisi

Betty Gigisi has worked across communities in the Solomon islands with a focus on peace and reconciliation, gender equality and women in leadership and decision making. She is currently undertaking a work placement at the Pacific Institute of Public Policy.