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Tribal conflicts threaten women
– by Anggia Anggraini Burchill
PNG is a vast South Pacific archipelago burdened by poverty, although it is very rich in natural resources. In the highlands of PNG, tribal conflicts occur frequently. Women and children are particularly threatened by violence.
Traditionally, fights between tribes erupt over land disputes, the bride price of women or the possession of pigs. For instance, the ongoing Tigibi tribal war broke out in 2013 over a family quarrel, first fought with bows and arrows and later escalating into shooting with semi-automatic assault rifles. Crops were destroyed and villages left empty. “When the other tribe attacked, they burned down our house and vegetable garden. We had to run for our lives,” recounts Alice Bibe, mother of four small children, who used to live in Tari Town in Hela Province.
The proliferation of guns has exacerbated these tribal conflicts. Furthermore, governance structures at all levels are weak, leading to a breakdown of law and order.
One more recent cause of inter-tribal violence concerns the allocation of royalties from extractive industries operating in the region. A huge $ 19 billion Exxon-led liquefied natural gas (LNG) project is located in the highlands. Many promises were made to the tribal people about jobs and profits for the local economy. The LNG company build its pipelines through tribal land. However, the royalties to landowners and levies to communities remain far below the promised sums. Some people are perceived to get wealthy while others are not. Jealousy over assets like cars arose. This issue has fuelled a strong sense of discontent in the poor region, resulting in rising tensions.
Fighting leads to displacement, but host communities in other areas not always welcome the newly arriving families. Many women are widowed which exposes them and their children to exploitation, sexual assault and food insecurity.
Despite their vulnerability, however, women in PNG play a prominent role in conflict resolution. They are perceived as “neutral”, since their connection to a local group is commonly through marriage rather than descent. “Women are more easily accepted as advocates for peace,” says Sarah Garap, director of the women’s organisation Meri I Kirap Sapotim.
Women also draw on indigenous customs of peacebuilding like gift exchange. They are usually the first to return to communities in the aftermath of conflict and act as the pioneers of peace and reconciliation.
Anggia Anggraini Burchill is a gender and protection specialist with UN Women. She lives in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.