Category: Women Peacebuilders in the Spotlight

Category: Women Peacebuilders in the Spotlight

Women Peacebuilders in the Spotlight: Lilly BeSoer of Papua New Guinea

Interview by: Hira Amjad, Cora Weiss Peacebuilding Fellow
Written by: Bianca Pabotoy, Senior Program Office for Asia and the Pacific
Edited by: Jasmin Nario-Galace, Senior Program Director
Women Localizing WPS

The Global Network of Women Peacebuilders puts a premium on its partnership with local communities. With its mission to amplify women’s and young women’s voices in formal and informal peace processes and decision-making, our programs support solutions, frameworks and mechanisms that are women-led and focused on addressing the root causes of violent conflicts and humanitarian crises.

Localizing the WPS agenda cannot be possible without the participation of local women who have made strides for peace in their homes and communities. Whether at the formal or informal level, decision-making on matters related to peace and security remains elusive for women who have proven their ability to mobilize conflicting parties, lead peace negotiations, and broker peace agreements. Witnessing this happen in multiple communities worldwide, GNWP sets itself apart by putting the lived experiences and capacities of women and young women at the center of its Localization of WPS.

In 2022, GNWP’s Localization of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda opened a new chapter in Papua New Guinea (PNG) through its partnership with Voice for Change. Voice for Change is a  provincial women’s organization working to eradicate violence, promote women’s economic empowerment, and create safe spaces for women and girls. The organization was founded and is led by a formidable woman human rights defender, Lilly BeSoer Kolts. Affiliated with the Highlands Regional Human Rights Defenders Network in Papua New Guinea,  Lilly was awarded the Pacific Human Rights Defenders Award in 2010.

At the sidelines of the annual United Nations-Civil Society Organization Dialogue held in New York last November 2023, GNWP sat down with Lilly to converse about her journey as a peacebuilder, coordinating peace reconciliation efforts mediating tribal conflicts and wars, among others, in PNG.

Women’s Roles in PNG

Growing up, Lilly was mindful of the distinct gender roles assigned to women and men in her tribe. Her experience in gender sensitivity was a personal one where she realized that tools used to tend, plant, and knead their tribal land varied depending on the sex of the worker. However, Lilly’s parents set the example of a gender-fair family. Both of her parents worked in the field. Her father was a tribe leader who paid particular attention to the elderly, women and children by distributing the best quality meat to these sectors. In the tribal culture of PNG, pigs and pig meat play an integral role in society, commemorating momentous events and even formalizing peace agreements. 

Lilly shares that she saw her father lead through example, especially in facilitating and resolving community conflicts. Her leadership training came about from shadowing her father during community-based meetings. Her father was radical in the sense that he gave Lilly land to inherit. However, traditions on land ownership remain to be passed down to the male members of the family. Because of this, Lilly had to give up the land given by her father. Land is of huge importance to tribes. In PNG, people live and die on their land. This has also resulted in the constant conflict between tribes to reclaim land ownership, which often results in the displacement of hundreds and thousands of people. 

Responding to Violence Against Women

Lilly founded Voice for Change in response to her first-hand experience facing violent tribal conflict. Tribal wars result in displacement, which subject women to an additional layer of vulnerability to sexual violence. Voice for Change has identified cases of abuse where bystanders subject displaced women to rape. As is the case anywhere, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) multiples tenfold during conflict and displacement. SGBV is both a cultural and structural issue in PNG. Intimate partner violence is not uncommon, as seen in cases of spousal rape, shared Lilly. 

Building an organization like Voice for Change did not happen overnight. Lilly shared that the seeds planted to start the organization took the form of older women interacting with male community leaders. These conversations highlighted the everyday concerns of women over food and drinks. Women bring food, while men bring firewood. Lilly came in as the facilitator of these conversations. Reflecting on this experience, Lilly shares: 

“This whole experience opened up my eyes and new pathways of understanding the grassroots problems and how deeply entrenched violence against women was in our society. I realized women were reluctant to share their stories. This dawning realization that women are marginalized to the extent that they don’t have anyone to take care of their children while they go to work in the fields every day compelled me to take a leadership role.”

Local Women for Peace and Security

In her experience facing tribal conflict, Voice for Change can attest that women seek women to intervene and mitigate conflict, whether at the household or community level. These women are the ones who endure the consequences of conflict, often uprooted from their homes, bearing the burden and caring for children affected by the hostilities.

Lilly appreciates their existing partnership with GNWP. The framework to Localize Women, Peace and Security has supported their work to be more community-centered, investing in a broader and more diverse group of community members, engaging them as active contributors and stakeholders in the pursuit of peace and gender equality in decision-making mechanisms. GNWP and Voice for Change are co-creating indigenous solutions to indigenous problems such as tribal wars and sorcery accusation-related violence in collaboration with local communities. This model of Localization puts the community at the heart of preventive response. 

United Nations Peacebuilding Flickr

“Women play significant roles in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, which need to be acknowledged and strengthened. I believe that with the support of GNWP we are creating a platform for change, community support and resilience in PNG, and this momentum is only going to build and lead to the cementing of equitable and peaceful community norms. The goal is to develop community bylaws [on the WPS agenda] based on the information collected through our community programs, which would act as guidelines for family, environment, government services or community.”

To this day, two out of three women in the country, particularly from the Highlands region, will face violence in their lifetime. This makes Papua New Guinea one of the most dangerous countries in the Pacific region for women and girls. Voice for Change provides counseling services, legal support and shelter support to survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in PNG. The partnership with GNWP    will not only help enhance the protection of women by addressing specific challenges they face during conflicts but will help build their capacities and skills to take on leadership roles and contribute meaningfully to prevent and resolve conflicts and build peace. 

GNWP’s engagement in Papua New Guinea is under its project, “From Global to Local: Localizing the WPS Agenda to Sustain Peace and Empower Women” funded through the  Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI) through its Support Her Empowerment – Women’s Inclusion in New Security (SHE WINS) initiative.