Bougainville: A lost generation
How can the youth of one of our nearest neighbours overcome a brutal history of conflict and seize their future? We’re working with our partners and young people in Papua New Guinea to achieve just that. We speak to our Program Manager in Bougainville, Cosmos Piri.
Where we are right now is the middle of this particular story.
The beginning dates back to the 1990s in Bougainville, a now autonomous part of Papua New Guinea, with almost a decade of civil war killing tens of thousands and displacing many more in a region with an already long history of conflict.
The aftermath of the conflict has seen an entire generation miss out on education, and opportunities for jobs are limited. Young people and women are largely disenfranchised. Violence is still rife and gender based violence and discrimination, already a big problem in the area, has worsened and seen women stripped of choices and opportunities.
In three years’ time the people of Bougainville will forge their own future when they take part in the 2019 referendum and decide whether they want to remain a part of Papua New Guinea.
It’s the middle of this story for Bougainville, but it’s just the beginning of Plan International Australia’s journey into Papua New Guinea. We’re one year into a new program designed to give the youth of Bougainville the chance to choose their futures, both as individuals, and as young citizens of the region. It’s just one of the programs that make up our new focus in the Pacific region.
“We’re trying to focus on building capacity for youth leaders.” Cosmos Piri is Plan International Australia’s Program Manager in Bougainville. Cosmos’ own story as a boy growing up during the civil war is like many of his peers. It’s reflective of the impact the conflict has had on an entire generation.
“I was 16 at the time the Bougainville crisis happened. A lot was destroyed. Infrastructure and community governance structures and formal services like education and health – all that was destroyed.
“For myself as a youth trying to complete my education – we were affected also. We were forced to move out because the rebels were attacking communities so we had to travel eight hours to the camp to another care centre where we would find refuge.
From then on I’ve looked for opportunities to continue with my education where lots of others my age weren’t successful – I got lucky.”
Cosmos (front-left) and the team.
Conflict, displacement and the destruction of education services resulted in a ‘lost generation,’ for whom violence has been normalised and a lack of education means learning isn’t necessarily valued. These attitudes are impacting on the next generation. “Some of the lost generation are parents already, so their children are becoming a lost generation again.”
It’s now falling to this new generation of youth to overcome a host of challenges that are deeply embedded culturally and systemically. Realising this, Cosmos returned to Bougainville after his studies: “I had to go back because I had seen what had happened back in Bougainville.”
Cosmos brings to Plan International Australia years of experience working with local and international NGOs to help give the youth of Bougainville the opportunity and tools they need to take control of their own lives. He’s now heading up our new Bougainville Youth Initiative, which works with local partners in three key areas:
1. Getting youth into work
We’re helping students in their final year of school prepare to enter the workforce. We’re piloting three vocational schools, placing outreach workers in each to provide training with students and scope out opportunities for employment. “Giving youth another chance – that’s exciting for me,” says Cosmos.
2. Giving young people a voice
The 2019 referendum will give the people of Bougainville the chance to have a say in the future of their region. We’re working with our local partner to inform young people of their right to share their voice and have a say through awareness training and outreach activities like a music festival to reach young people through song. This is so important, as often the voices of young people aren’t prioritised over older members of society.
3. Empowering women
Though there are areas in Bougainville that are matrilineal, with land inherited by women, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a say. We’re assisting young women who are left out of school, equipping them with the knowledge they need to demand their rights and make decisions, especially in regards to their bodies. The program also focusses on building their confidence and getting back into school.
A focus on the Pacific
The program has just completed its first year, and with the first year will come learnings and insights as we work with the youth of Bougainville to tackle a host of entrenched challenges. It’s an incredibly exciting time for Plan International Australia, to be involved in an important period in Bougainville’s history, and ensure its young people can play a role in its future.
Our work in Bougainville is part of Plan International Australia’s growing work in the Pacific. We see a unique opportunity to work with our closest neighbours, who are deeply impacted by conflict, poverty and the effects of a changing climate. “These issues are on our doorstep. Plan International Australia’s focus on the Pacific – I think that’s exciting,” says Cosmos.
We want to get the world to take notice and we’ll be sharing more of our work in the region with you in the coming months and years. We’re really only at the beginning of this particular story, and we can’t wait for you to be a part of it.