Interview with Helen Hakena, Leitana Nehan Women's Development Agency

Tuesday, October 1, 2002
Chris Richards

Retribution, retaliation and revenge - understandable feelings from those who have been made to stand in mute witness to the rape of their daughters, mothers and sisters. But after nine years of such war crimes in Bougainville, throughout its fierce independence struggle from Papua New Guinea, determined women like Helen Hakena are swimming against tides of hatred and creating waves of peace to carry women on to safer shores. The people on Bougainville's 30 South Pacific islands are skilled at crafting solutions out of conflict. When, in 1988, they forced the closure of the Panguna mine (the biggest copper mine then operating in the world), Papua New Guinea (PNG) blockaded the islands. Nothing except the PNG Defence Force (the PNGDF) could get on to the islands: no medicine, no communication, no supplies of any kind.

'We were very resourceful - very creative - throughout the blockade,' says Helen Hakena. 'We lived off the land. The communities around the mine salvaged what they could and built a hydro-system and made solar light. We used coconut oil when the diesel ran out to keep our Toyotas, Nissans and chainsaws running. It decorated our hair, burnt our lanterns and helped heal our sores. Bush remedies replaced medicines. Elders taught in schools about local produce. We learnt how to look after ourselves.'

It is this same lateral approach - and this same refusal to give in - that Helen Hakena is now using again to tackle the culture of violence that was born and bred by the blockade. From 1990 the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) - at war with the PNGDF - targeted anyone they thought was against Bougainville's independence.

'I was a teacher before the crisis,' she explains. 'Our home was the first to burn on the island of Buka. My village was burnt down the next day.' But before the village was set alight, the BRA took 15 of the women into the forest. Two of them later reported having been raped. 'From then on, gangs of BRA and PNGDF soldiers were raping women as a tool to show communities they were a force to be reckoned with. They were doing these rapes in front of communities and families. The men put ball-bearings on the foreskins of their penises; these were very bad rapes indeed; very bad internal damage.'

In direct action against the difficulties she confronted during the blockade, Helen started the Leitana Nehan Women's Development Agency in 1992. Originally opened to supply clothing and essentials during the blockade, over 1,000 women who were raped by soldiers have sought help from the agency since then. Bougainville has a population of just 30,000. That such widespread rape can happen in a matrilineal society (where - in theory at least - women have independent status because land rights pass through themselves and their daughters) says much about the power of a gun. Helen wants to make the theory a reality once more.

'The crisis here started about land rights: the Panguna mine, its destruction of the environment and the lack of compensation it gave to communities around the mine. Up until the crisis, decisions about who could use land may have been made by women at the back, but it was the men at the front doing the talking.

'By 1995, we [at Leitana Nehan] had changed our focus. We brought young men together with young women to talk about the effects of the blockade and speak openly about the use of rape and guns. The result was a common understanding of each other's fear and a resolve to build awareness amongst the community. We organized a silent march [banned during the blockade]. A thousand women in black marched through the streets of Buka with their banners to protest about the war and the rapes. We were stopped by the PNGDF twice and asked: "Who is your leader?" We said: "All of us are leaders. We all own this march." The soldiers couldn't arrest anyone.'

The blockade is now over. UN peacekeepers are helping to disarm the community and have collected 1,900 guns. Justice through the courts will ensure a short-term check on violence. But women like Helen Hakena are working for a cultural shift.

'We can softly and silently break the cycle of violence by putting women in positions of power,' she says. 'Now, women are sitting down with the men and discussing land in dispute. They are coming forward as local magistrates trained to hear land and domestic-violence disputes. Before there were none. The majority of teachers are now women, who will educate our children that you can't use violence and force to get what you want. We have successfully lobbied for more women in provincial government. Of eighteen members, four are presently women and three more places have been set aside for us in the next election. We are asking women to contest still more seats.' She says firmly: 'We want gender balance in all things.'