Agnes, Mary and Angela, risked their lives to bring peace to Kup
Agnes, Mary and Angela, risked their lives to bring peace to Kup

PNG: A group of women bring peace to their communities

“We had to do something. Someone had to start somewhere”
Agnes Sil

After three decades of brutal and bloody tribal violence, communities in Papua New Guinea’s Highlands region are now powerful advocates for peace.

For Kup, a district high in the rugged mountains of Papua New Guinea’s Simbu Province, peace came in the shape of three inspirational women — Mary Kini, Angela Apa and Agnes Sil — members of three enemy tribes who risked death to bring peace to their community after three decades of tribal warfare.

“There used to be a lot of tribal fighting here ...a lot of blood-shedding and many deaths occurred,” Angela recalls.

”When 1999 brought the “worst tribal fight ever”, the women decided to take matters into their own hands. Risking death if discovered, Agnes, Mary and Angela met in secret, hiding in bushes and between the racks of second-hand clothing at local markets, to plan a path to peace.

“We were scared, but who else was going to do it. We had already lost so much, lost our loved ones,” Agnes explains. “We had to do something. Someone had to start somewhere.”

From these secret meetings, they mobilised others to join their cause and, finally, Kup Women for Peace (KWP) was formed.

One of the group’s first actions was inviting all tribal leaders in the district to a celebration they called “welcome home”. The tribes brought food and firewood, sitting down together to share a meal and afterwards raising a peace flag.”

Kup is now in its seventh year of peace and has gone from being a deeply-divided community with one of the worst reputations for tribal violence in the Highlands, to one of peace and unity.

“I want to bring my kids up in a different environment to the one I grew up in,” KWP steering committee member Jerry Kai says. “I want them to know nothing about violence.”

Oxfam supports KWP with training in restorative justice, community mediation, leadership, human rights, gender equity and midwifery skills, has helped the group install rainwater tanks and a gravity-fed water supply system, and has also provided start-up materials and training for livelihoods projects that provide high-risk groups, especially young men or those with a history of violence, with productive alternatives to violence and crime.

One incident came in July, last year, when a young man was shot dead and two others seriously injured in the lead-up to the 2007 national elections. Under normal circumstances, a death like this would have fuelled all-out tribal war. Not this time. KWP intervened and through mediation, was able to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

Another time, when fighting erupted just over the border in Western Highlands province, KWP members spent two weeks camped out on a battlefield between the warring clans, using a loudhailer to call for a truce and talk about peace. Eventually, the clans agreed to stop fighting and asked KWP to negotiate peace agreements and facilitate compensation payments.

A return to peace in Kup has also seen the return of basic services — there are now eight schools, a hospital–health centre, a police station and even a mobile phone tower. People in Kup can now move freely through enemy tribal land and into towns, schools and other places with restriction. They no longer live in the shadow of fear.

Photo: Tom Greenwood/Oxfam
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