On June 15th 2019, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville held a non-binding referendum to help determine whether it gains independence from Papua New Guinea. This marks a significant step in the peace process after the decade long conflict. Women were a vital part of the fight for peace, however, outside of the three reserved seats for women, they have not achieved substantive political representation. The 2016 Community Government Act, with its progressive gender equality measures for local level government, holds great potential for women’s leadership in the region.
This thesis asks what the effects have been of new equality measures in local governance structures on gendered social and political relations in Bougainville in the build-up to the 2019 referendum. It argues that women find themselves at the intersection of cultural conservatism, Christian worldviews and gender inequality in contemporary political processes. Working within a specific historical context, they must carefully negotiate these overlapping political practices in strategic ways if they want respect, recognition and political voice. Women use their cultural, religious and maternal identities in strategic ways to motivate them and justify their inclusion in decision making roles. At the same time, patriarchal attitudes, religious interpretations and women’s traditional role as mothers have been used to justify their exclusion from the political sphere.
Through the theoretical frames of intersecting inequalities and inclusive citizenship two parallel journeys are considered. One is the struggle for women’s representation and the other is paralleled at a regional level with Bougainville’s own battle for self-determination and independence. Both struggles are connected and are framed as a journey or an ongoing moment of ‘becoming’. One that continuously arrives, building upon what came before, but never quite being complete. It draws on Probyn’s notion of longing to (be)long to explain the drive that propels both women and Bougainville in their connected but non-contiguous journeys towards belonging and acceptance.