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Global/Local Interactions and Women’s Participation in Conflict and Peacebuilding in Bougainville

Citation: George, N. (2016). Light, heat and shadows: Women’s reflections on peacebuilding in post-conflict Bougainville. Peacebuilding, 4(2), 166-179.

The recent “local turn” in peacebuilding has brought with it greater attention to the way in which global and local influences interact to create peacebuilding outcomes. Focusing on the gendered dimensions of these global/local interactions, the author adapts the work of other scholars who develop the concept of “friction” to point out how these interactions can create not only new possibilities but also new forms of exclusion, restricting women’s roles to those seen to be “acceptable” in terms of prevailing gender norms. The author draws on this understanding of friction to frame her analysis of women’s participation in both conflict and peacebuilding activities in Bougainville, a contested region in the South Pacific (under Australian and later Papua New Guinean control) marked by secessionist resistance and a decade of armed conflict in the 1980s-1990s. She investigates, therefore, the “light and heat” that the friction of global/local forces can produce in the form of women’s peacebuilding agency but also the “shadows” that it can produce in the form of unrecognized forms of women’s agency and victimization.

Although recent attention to the “local” in peace research and practice has resonated with feminist peacebuilding research—especially with regards to recognizing (women’s) local agency, resilience, and expertise—feminist insights complicate an unmitigated celebration of the “local,” as they point to the ways in which “local” actors frequently rely on traditional gender norms (e.g., masculinist protection) to justify violence and consolidate power. Consequently, in wartime contexts especially, women who choose to resist dominant local gender norms may be marked as threatening to the community’s cohesion and security. Or, women may find space to organize for peace, but only insofar as this organizing stays confined to well-established local gender norms (for instance, peace work as an extension of their roles as “dutiful mothers, wives, or daughters”). In such contexts, global forces—such as the passage of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2000 and the corresponding Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda—may seem at first glance to serve an undeniably useful purpose, creating space for enhanced women’s agency in conflict situations. Through analysis of 20 interviews with Bougainvillean women leaders, as well as second-hand sources and development agency documentation, the author provides a more nuanced perspective on this global/local dynamic, examining how women activists in Bougainville narrate their experiences of/in the conflict, interpreting these in light of both the global WPS agenda and local norms and traditions.

First, although the author notes Bougainvillean women’s varied participation both as conflict participants—in nonviolent resistance and in the secessionist rebel movement—and later as peacebuilders, she finds that the particular combination of global and local forces in this case “shine[s] frictional light and heat” exclusively on the role of women as peacebuilders in Bougainville. In interviews, women often emphasized this role, drawing on both local norms—like their “maternal responsibility,” tied to their Catholic faith through the image of Mary, that entailed an “obligation to protect Bougainville and its people”—and global norms enshrined in UNSCR 1325 to buttress their participation in peace work. Peacebuilding became a way to re-energize traditional forms of matrilineal authority that had been degraded over the course of the armed conflict, and women peacebuilders also drew on their common identity as women to bridge political differences across Bougainville. In addition, women and/or women’s organizations were involved in formal peace negotiations, were given representation on various transitional governing authorities, have become beneficiaries of international peacebuilding/development aid, and have been active in re-integration work for ex-combatants, among other activities.

Second, however, the author finds that the “frictional light and heat” created by global/local forces here, through almost fetishizing women’s peacebuilding, has cast shadows on other forms of women’s agency and victimization in the conflict. Most importantly, it has eclipsed the leadership role women took in various forms of resistance earlier in the conflict, both nonviolent and violent. Although this history might uncomfortably disrupt the dominant narrative about women as peacebuilders, the author points out how recognition of this other aspect of their participation is critical to establishing women’s “political acumen” and skillful leadership capacities, which could empower them in their pursuit of political leadership positions. By contrast, these political skills are not highlighted when women are cast simply as “natural” peacebuilders following their “feminine reflex to conflict.” Additionally, the current global focus on women’s agency has contributed to eclipsing the violence many women have experienced due to their peacebuilding activities. This lack of attention to the victimization of some women further romanticizes women’s peacebuilding and discourages a more complex understanding of women’s experiences in/of the conflict.

Friction: “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” in contexts of local/global interaction, “lead[ing] to new arrangements of culture and power.” To help us think about the new possibilities that can come of friction, Tsing reminds us that “[a] wheel turns because of its encounter with the surface of the road; spinning in the air it goes nowhere. Rubbing two sticks together produces heat and light; one stick alone is just a stick” (Tsing 2005).
Tsing, A. L. (2005). Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Contemporary Relevance:

Whereas other research examined in this special issue focuses on the centrality of gender hierarchies to war-making and therefore the necessity of employing a gender lens in order to fully understand questions of security, this research brings our attention instead to the experiences of actual women in conflict zones. In particular, how do interactions between global and local forces in specific contexts create new possibilities for women’s agency and power while limiting others? The key problem that must be tackled here is how to provide women with access to power in a world where activities and characteristics marked as “masculine” are still more highly valued than those marked as “feminine,” while not reinforcing those very gender hierarchies in the process. The widespread image of “women as peacemakers”—whether enshrined in UNSC Resolution 1325 or in local norms about “maternal responsibility”—gets easily tangled up in this problem. On the one hand, there is clearly much to be celebrated about women’s capacity for building peace: often women are able to find sources of commonality even amid fierce political or other divisions due to the position they may occupy in society as mothers or caregivers and therefore their capacity to see the “other” side’s combatants as other mothers’ children and to empathize with the pain felt by those mothers. This is precisely the kind of humanization that is needed in the midst of armed conflict to deescalate violence, even if struggle and/or negotiation is still required around the substantive issues at stake.

On the other hand, as so many feminist peace scholars have pointed out, since both women and peace are marked as “feminine” and therefore are still largely devalued in relation to what and who is considered “masculine,” their mutual association can simply serve to reinforce the apparent weakness of both. This is the point the author is making when she draws attention to the way in which simply highlighting women’s “natural” impulse towards peacebuilding—and not women’s participation in forms of resistance, as well—can decrease their chances of being seen as capable political leaders worthy of elected office. Just as is the case in many countries like the U.S., where military service provides an advantage to those seeking political office, involvement in especially armed forms of confrontation is seen to be a test of character, a sign that someone “has what it takes” to be a leader. As we know from Wibben’s research (analyzed elsewhere in this issue), these militarist values are deeply enmeshed with a particular kind of masculinity, lending both men and military options a kind of automatic power, reinforced by their mutual association (in an opposite direction of that found in the mutual association between women and peace). In other words, if women want to gain access to power in the world as it is—where value is still distributed according to gender hierarchies—then it is extremely challenging to find a way to do so without at the same time reinforcing masculinist values and characteristics like militarism.

Talking Points:

  • The “friction” created through the interaction of global/local forces in particular “post-conflict” contexts can produce and highlight new forms of women’s agency and power, especially those conforming to favored gender norms, while also sidelining other forms of agency and victimization that may contradict these.
  • In the case of Bougainville, women leaders emphasized their peacebuilding role in the conflict, drawing on both local customs and norms—like their “maternal responsibility”—and global norms enshrined in UNSCR 1325 to buttress their participation in peace work.
  • While the particular combination of global/local forces in Bougainville has nearly fetishized women’s peacebuilding role, it has sidelined other aspects of women’s experience in the conflict, such as their earlier active participation in nonviolent and violent resistance and the victimization that some of them have experienced due to their peacebuilding activities.
  • Although greater recognition of Bougainvillean women’s earlier participation in resistance activities might uncomfortably disrupt the dominant narrative casting women as “natural” peacebuilders, this recognition is critical to establishing women’s “political acumen” and skillful leadership capacities, empowering them in their pursuit of elected office.

Practical Implications:

If women are to find avenues for agency in conflict situations that are truly empowering (and that may very well push up against accepted gender norms), the challenge, as noted above, is to identify those avenues that do not simultaneously celebrate militarism and reinforce gender hierarchies as they provide access to power. One approach would be for women, and those who publicize their work, to highlight the political leadership skill required of the peacebuilding activities in which they may be involved—activities that take intelligence, daring, and risk-taking—rather than casting these activities as a natural outgrowth of womanhood. Interestingly enough, doing so might entail, for instance, highlighting the violence to which some women have been subjected due to their peacebuilding activity—an experience that the author notes has been pushed into the shadows in the case of Bougainvillean women. The key, however, would be to emphasize not women’s victimization but their perseverance in peacebuilding activities despite and in the face of danger—much how military activity is valued, at least in part, due to the risk it entails and therefore the courage it requires. Such a framing would allow women to earn recognition for their bravery and perseverance with the crucial difference that peacebuilding activities—unlike military activities—do not also require them to participate in killing, nor do they reinforce militarist forms of masculinity. Not only does such an approach support women’s access to power—enabling the electorate to better see women as qualified political leaders—but its recasting of peacebuilding as a courageous and intentional activity and its unwillingness to endorse militarism both also help create the conditions to sustainably transform the broader gendered values and structures that make war possible.

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