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PNG’s informal women’s network of human rights defenders

Mary Kini and Rashmii Bell
Mary Kini and Rashmii Bell - undaunted by the barriers, women striking out in the interests of all women


BRISBANE – In her essay ‘Cross-border conversations: the networks women create’, Urvashi Butalia reflects on the landscape of women’s networks.

Published in ‘Griffith Review 59: Commonwealth Now’, the essay centres on women’s volunteerism, solidarity, sharing and organisation through a template formulated in Lahore, India, and since, duplicated a hundredfold globally in various forms.

Urvashi Butalia, the founder of India’s first feminist publishing house, describes how in early 2000 a group of Pakistani women travelled across the border to visit a group of their Indian counterparts.

The journey was undertaken in a spirit of friendship and conflict-resolution and its mission was to discuss how they might resolve key issues in their present-day cross-border conflict – a continuing crisis the women identified as fuelled by a complex history and a legacy of colonialism.

First Britain’s rule in India, the subsequent partitioning of India and Pakistan and then the struggle for independence by Bangladesh.

Unlike formal structures of national governments and international agencies, women’s networks are informal initiatives.

They function with relative independence away from the influence of national politics, open dialogue being enabled through a focus on solidarity.

Although approaches to issues may differ, an overriding dedication to the larger picture is what unites the women domestically and internationally. The larger picture might be a movement or an idea - such as ending violence against women, dismantling human trafficking or addressing drug addiction.

Upholding a fundamental tenet of feminism, networks strive to operate without hierarchies. Members are encouraged to speak up freely and without an obligation to the conservative diplomacy demonstrated by governments, whose dialogue is often premised on power.

A recent radio interview by ABC broadcaster Emma Griffiths aired a discussion between women working in peace-keeping and conflict resolution.

Facilitated by Griffiths, Mary Kini (Papua New Guinea), Agnes Titus (Autonomous Region of Bougainville), Sharon Bhagwan Rolls (Fiji), Mariana Katzarova (Bulgaria) and Gulail Ismail (Pakistan) engaged in an hour-long discussion.

They shared insights and ideas of the significance and necessity of cross-border networks for women taking an active part in conflict and peace-keeping, whether as combatants, medical personnel, journalists or negotiators.

Mariana Katzrova is the founder of Reach All Women in War (RAW in War) and her vision stems from the historical trend of women and children experiencing war crimes but not provided with an opportunity to tell their stories of bravery and courage.

Through its work, RAW created the Anna Politskovskaya Award whose 2017 recipient was Gulail Ismail. Prior to her murder in 2006, Anna Politskovskaya’s human rights activism through her journalism and writing, earned an international reputation for relentless reporting from Chechnya.

Gulail Ismail’s award-winning work centred around encouraging young people to attend school in opposition to the demands of extremist groups (such as the Taliban) that they engage in militarism and warfare. This is a cause that put Ismail under constant intimidation and threats of violence or death.

WOW Festival handbookMary Kini from Papua New Guinea is the co-founder of Kup Women for Peace (KWP) and a recipient of a UN Pacific Human Rights Award for her work in mediating peace during conflict. KWP has an alliance with other domestic associations including Kafe Women’s Association, Kedu Seif Haus and Nazareth Centre for Rehabilitation, which is steered by Agnes Titus in Bougainville.

Deemed “a mother of Bougainville’s women’s movement”, Agnes has dedicated nearly 40 years to the cause of empowering women.

Hearing these women speak provided me with a clear picture of how the cross-border solidarity principle of women’s networks had aided their work as human rights defenders, particularly given the alarming expansion of sorcery accusation-related violence.

Speaking on the reason for establishing Kup Women for Peace, Mary Kini described that. in times of tribal warfare, men had given little consideration to women and children, including families being displaced, disruption of children’s schooling and psychological trauma and other consequences of warfare.

Mary explained that women from Kup banded together, mobilising to “say NO in the midst of men”. She emphasised this as an act of courage in response to a voiced need in a society that doesn’t encourage women to speak out.

With financial support from Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, KWP continues its advocacy and contribution to human rights defenders networks. International solidarity has been expanded through its partnership with Queensland University of Technology and a collaborative project called ‘Yumi Sanap Strong’.

It also relies on Amnesty International Australia crucial in instances of sorcery accusation-related violence when, as Mary Kini described, “response from national government is slow”.

When asked about her source of motivation to continue, Agnes Titus was succinct and clear: “I believe in women”.

Agnes said Bougainville’s society is matrilineal which offers more leverage for women compared with the cultural tradition of the PNG Highlands and has accelerated momentum for their cause. She described a childhood where peace was valued and a civil war in which Bougainvilleans were very aware what the struggle was for.

This is in stark contrast to Mary Kini’s experience with KWP in the Kup region of Simbu where it took close to five years before the men accepted the reason for the organisation’s work. Mary said that, due to traditional norms, women speaking out against harassment or assault is shunned. Stigma persists to override an individual woman’s right to speak out against a perpetrator.

When exploring how women’s networks of human rights defenders may be supported, Mary said “when we talk about women in solidarity, we need to feel for each other”. This will prove crucial as KWP’s focus in 2018 turns to establishing a regional desk to advocate the implementation of a Human Rights Commission for PNG.

So, in the spirit of unconditional solidarity, the MWTE project team has offered to contribute through literary activism to this cause undertaken by KWP and the women’s network of human rights defenders.

This article was prepared for the My Walk to Equality Writer Fellowship 2018 sponsored by Paga Hill Development Company. The fellowship commenced in mid-March and will conclude at the end of September 2018. Attendance at the Women of World Festival was an activity under the fellowship, as was the purchase and reading of ‘Griffith Review 59: Commonwealth Now’. Information and regular updates of activities undertaken by Rashmii Bell may be found at or via Twitter @amoahfive_oh


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