EMU President Loren Swartzendruber (far right) with Fiji ambassador to the U.S. Winston Thompson and his wife Queenie on June 2, 2013, when they met with 17 associated with the South Pacific in the Women's Peacebuilding Leadership Program at EMU's Summer Peacebuilding Institute. (Photo by Bonnie Price Lofton)

South Pacific Women Challenge Abuses

In Olga Hamadi’s line of work as a human rights lawyer in West Papua, death threats are common.

Violence and human rights violations are plentiful and sorely overlooked, Hamadi said, and police and military personnel who victimize her clients often turn the blame on her. While there are many lawyers in West Papua – one of two Indonesian provinces on the Southwest Pacific island of New Guinea – only about 10 others work to unearth social injustices.

“They know what we do,” Hamadi, 31, said of the military regime in her country. “They always watch us [and] we also become their target.”

A movement exists for the province to claim its independence, which activists claim Indonesia squashed in the 1960s following a coerced vote. In the interim, Hamadi feels compelled to protect citizens with her specialty.

“If I can, I do; I never think to stop doing it, because this is a challenge for me,” she said. “I just feel I have to do something because I see their situations.”

Hamadi is one of 16 women from the South Pacific studying at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) about how to strengthen the peacebuilding skills they employ in their communities, which in addition to West Papua include Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

Serious problems, ranging from violence against women and children to underdeveloped justice systems, oppressive governments and famine, plague their home nations, said the women, who are part of the 2013 Summer Peacebuilding Institute. The institute is run by EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

Specifically, the women are partaking in the second year of the Women’s Peacebuilding Leadership Program, in which they spend part of their six weeks at EMU studying with other women. The program wraps Friday.

In addition to the peacebuilders from the South Pacific, five women in this year’s program hail from East Africa. The trips for the South Pacific women were funded through German Protestant groups, notably Church Development Service,* and the East African women’s journeys were funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“For me, it’s always [an] exciting and enriching experience to be able to share the work that I do,” said Elizabeth Krishna, 52, of Fiji, who works through the Roman Catholic Church to combat unemployment and crime and close the gap between rich and poor.

During the program, Krishna even had a chance to share her work with Winston Thompson, Fiji’s ambassador to the United States, who visited EMU on June 2.

“I felt great that he was here,” she said. “That feedback from him will go back to our minister of foreign affairs, so that’s a great opportunity.”

As important as the program’s curriculum – which included options to study such topics as reconciliation and forgiveness, trauma awareness and the design of peacebuilding programs – was the chance to learn from each other, the women said.

Hamadi and Amina Abdulkadir, of Somalia, said they recognize that many countries experience the same issues.

“[We] learn from other friends from other countries,” Hamadi said. “Sometimes we have the same situations, we have the same issues and then we learn from their experience dealing with that issue.”

Added Patricia Gure, who works to improve the juvenile justice system in Papua New Guinea: “I’m able to see what’s working for me and things I can take back from here and learn from the experiences here.”

EMU’s Harrisonburg campus also was an ideal setting, participants said.

“I thought it was going to be like [Los Angeles] or New York,” said Veronika “Nika” Maebiru, who works to protect children in the Solomon Islands. “[But] you can’t put an institution for peacebuilding in a big city. The setting [at EMU] was really relevant. … We could reflect and share.”

* EMU editor’s note: The current name of the sponsoring group is Bread for the World, Germany. This article is courtesy of  The Daily News Record (Harrisonburg,Va.), June 12, 2013. For additional information and insights into this topic, read “Dark Beatings, Not Just Sunny Beaches for South Pacific Women.”