Helen Samu Hakena exudes a serenity that belies her extraordinary energy and inner strength that she has devoted to the cause of justice, peace building and advocating for women's and human rights and the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325.
Recognising her expertise in advancing the role and interests of women in peace and security processes, Helen was nominated to the Asia-Pacific Regional Advisory Group on Women, Peace and Security launched in Bangkok (Thailand) to mark the 10th Anniversary of the adoption of UNSCR 1325. It is the first regional group of its kind that will advise and support governments, civil society and other relevant players on the effective implementation of the resolution in the Asia-Pacific region.
Born as a 'woman chief' on September 13, 1955 in Gogohe village on Buka Island in the Papua New Guinean (PNG) province of Bougainville, Helen's parents ensured that she was raised with high ideals to lead her clan. Christian teachings on morality had a strong and powerful influence on her.
Her father was a teacher and taught in the village Catholic school. Helen attended the local primary school and then St Mary's high school. She trained as a teacher at Kabaleo Teachers' College and from 1975 taught at various primary schools in Bougainville for the next 15 years.
"It was the only job available for women at that time. I derived great joy in watching children progress to high school before Bougainville's long struggle for autonomy from PNG erupted into a civil war and a total blockade in 1990 over the destruction caused by the Australian-owned Panguna copper mine on the island."
She quit teaching as the ensuing crises halted all services. "There were no children to teach as parents kept kids home for security reasons. On May 29, the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) burnt our home in Ieta village and the next day burnt the entire village."
In the week prior to that, 11 gun-totting BRA men came to her home, threatening her and her three kids, demanding to see her husband. Helen was seven months pregnant and suffering from malaria. "I was petrified and gave birth to my fourth son prematurely on a bare floor with no medical help. I witnessed other mothers suffer before my eyes. BRA and Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) soldiers were raping women," she recalls how amidst her own personal crisis a larger humanitarian crisis was unfolding.
These events changed the course of her life and left a lasting impression on her mind. It triggered the beginning of her peace work as she vowed to ameliorate women and girls' pain and suffering. "Through my own suffering, I gained the strength to mobilise the community and women and co-founded Leitana Nehan Women's Development Agency (LNWDA) in 1992 with the motto 'women weaving Bougainville together'."
LNWDA began with providing humanitarian relief, clothes and medicines to families in the care centers in Buka. During the blockade they set up a system whereby mothers travelling to the mainland would return with medicine concealed in their baskets, hidden beneath soiled nappies, feminine hygiene products or underwear. Courses on family life and counselling services, awareness workshops on alcohol abuse and violence against women followed.
Helen, who is also a member of the Pacific Women Against Violence Network and the International Action Network on Small Arms says: "Even today, women's basic human rights are being violated and they don't have access to services like health. Domestic violence, sexual harassment, verbal and emotional abuse of women is all too common. There has also been an escalation in rape cases, but we are educating communities through our awareness campaigns and radio programs to report crime and seek justice through the formal justice system. More rape cases are being reported as women are better informed."
Helen realised early in their campaign that involving men was vital to bringing about peace. "We began mobilisation programs for combatant youths, helping them rehabilitate and lay down arms by making them aware of impact of small arms on the communities, violence against women in times of conflict and providing them counselling services. Hardcore guerrillas are now working with us and talking to communities about the impact of violence on women. Besides, our masculinity programs assist men and boys to change their behaviour and attitudes. They emphasise the distinction between sex and gender and make them aware of their gender roles and responsibilities."
Enumerating the various strategies being adopted to make the place safer and more peaceful, Helen says: "We lobby governments and groups to come up with policies on small arms. We help communities discuss issues of concern, formulate strategies to deal with them and find their own solutions."
Despite Bougainville's mostly matrilineal society (with the exception of Buin in South Bougainville and Nissan island), there is no guarantee that women will have a say in decisions about land use or who can have the right to use land.
"Colonialism and the war have eroded women's traditional leadership, conflict resolution and custodial roles. Through our advocacy work we are trying to re-establish women's roles," says Helen, who uses the local structure of chiefs to influence her people to be more supportive of social justice and to respect and work through that system.
It was the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing that provided Helen the opportunity to learn from other women in conflict situations. In 2000, Helen received the International Millennium Peace Prize for Women on behalf of the LNWDA. She was nominated to present to the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan a petition with 350,000 signatures calling for greater participation of women in decision making at all levels and peacekeeping missions. It was testimony to her dedication to peace and ability to inspire action at grassroots levels.
In July 2001, Helen spoke at the UN in New York on the suffering of women in conflict and post-conflict situations and at the UN conference on ‘Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons'. She was the runner-up for the 2004 Pacific Human Rights Award, one of the 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and she received the Individual Award on Gender Excellence in 2007.
While it is the Bougainville women who played a key role in bringing the conflict to an end, many felt they had not been part of the peace process. Helen mobilised women from all over Bougainville to speak out on the new constitution and weapons disposal and this resulted in women being included in major peace negotiations on weapons disposal and constitutional drafting.
A peace deal signed in 2001 provided the framework for the election in 2005 of an Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG). "We have successfully lobbied for more women in government. Three women have been elected in their reserved seats to the 2nd ABG House of Representatives which has 44 members," says Helen, who is also an accomplished facilitator and conducts training for police and hospital staff in Buka on gender awareness, domestic violence and other women's issues.
Helen, whose steely resolve has never faltered ddespite the constraints and disparity, says: "UNSCR 1325 is an important tool to call upon governments to implement real human security needs, which is relevant in post conflict situations like ours. It is the first landmark legal and political framework that recognises women's right to participate in peace negotiations and to influence the contents of peace agreements and reconstruction processes. Only 18 of the 193 UN member states have adopted a National Action Plan for the implementation of the resolution."
She is working to bring about a cultural shift and technology is helping reach out to people locally, nationally and internationally. "We can break the cycle of violence by putting women in positions of power. Now, women are sitting down with men and discussing land disputes, they are coming forward as local magistrates trained to hear land and domestic-violence disputes and majority of teachers are women."
She draws her strength from continued support from her family, board of directors, 11 staff members and a strong network of LNWDA counsellors in 14 districts of Bougainville. Helen's husband Kris works part-time with the agency as radio program producer, her daughter Bianca is the Director of Programs for LNWDA and other daughter Suzanne is a media correspondent with the agency while the four boys work in the Copra family business.
The only thing that tries her patience is when she has to repeatedly give the same instructions for adherence and implementation. Amidst her hectic schedule and travels, her normal day in Buka begins at 5am, cooking food for the family on wood fire as there is no gas or electric stove, cleaning and work begins at 8am to 5pm or beyond.