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Do women play a role in Sri Lanka’s ‘reconciliation’?: Gender dynamics in the transition from war to peace

A mother displaying the photographs of her sons who are missing during the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) session in Trincomalee, December, 3-5, 2010. Photo courtesy Centre for Human Rights

Introduction

In order to understand the ‘role’ of women in such a vital process of social transition, we have to understand the place of women in our society – their position, their status, their condition.  This conference is being held at a time when the country is shaken by a spike in reports of sexual violence against women and girls in the South of the country. Over the past few years there has been a phenomenal rise in civilian acts of violence specifically against women:-

To date, there has been a remarkably muted responses from society in general, whether from the politicians or from key sectors of policy implementation. There are, admittedly, strong laws in place in the country; those who are outraged by the repetition of these horrendous acts of sexual violence on a nation-wide scale, are demanding why these laws are not being implemented in relation to this serious social challenge.

When we examine the State response to other equally significant social challenges, such as poverty, for example, we can see that huge efforts have been made – institutions set up, distribution networks spread across most of the country through Poverty Alleviation Programmes, mobilizing low-income women and men through various programmes for economic empowerment of the poor. Similarly, the challenge of insurgency, both North and South, has been met with a massive, hugely costly, State and societal response. However, we are yet to see any significant level of concerted national focus of policy or political action when it comes to ensuring protection from violence of all kinds for women and girls through effective implementation of laws or operational institutional structures and programmes.

The response to this social violence has to come not only from women and girls to protect themselves (in whatever way they can) but more importantly, from larger society and, especially from the institutions and officials with powers to deal with such violations. In the case of the increase in violence against women, the perpetrators are found to be men. This reality is key to our understanding of the gendered nature of social relations: violence against women is not only a women’s issue; it is a societal issue that stems from differences in power and status between women and men in society and, also the perceptions of power and access to power among women and men.

Gender Dynamics

Since we are discussing the role of ‘women’, a category of gender, we must, naturally, then understand the gender dynamics of our society and, especially, the gender dynamics within the larger, specific, social processes of war and peace-making that we experience in the country. To understand the role of women in peace-making – a multi-track process -,it is critical that we understand the social norms and practices that in effect underpin the positioning of women and men in the economy and the polity. The concept of ‘gender’ as I have noted in previous publications, ‘is different from sex; it is fundamentally based on notions of socially ascribed identities…. It is the relationship between the individual’s identity as a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ and the ensuing social recognition of each person’s ability to make decisions regarding what is deemed ‘important’ or ‘influential’ that makes the concept of gender key to understanding the distribution and the impacts of ‘political’ power.[1]

Gender is a very useful concept when analyzing the ‘roles’ that women and men are expected to take on in the economy, in the political sphere or within the home. It answers questions such as, ‘why is the labour force in the plantation sector, the garment industry, in overseas  employment in West Asia, predominantly women?’[2]. There is no biological handicap that make men less efficient at using sewing machines, for example, or as cooks/waiters, caring parents or farmers. Prevailing social norms place men as heads of households, as the key decision maker in the family despite women’s equal or at times higher economic contributions to many households. Extensive research into these aspects of gender in Sri Lanka has been carried out by institutions such as the Centre for Women’s Research (Cenwor), the University of Colombo, Institute of Policy Studies, the Women and Media Collective, the Social Scientists’ Association and several other bodies.

In the entire global society, over the recent half century, there has grown a consensus on the general dynamics of gender in society, the specifically unequal nature of social, economic and political status between women and men, and the globally prevailing under-privileged and dis-empowered condition of women because of this inequality. Sri Lanka has commitments to a number of international instruments such as the CEDAW Convention, the Beijing Platform for Action, UN Security Council Resolutin No. 1325, and the Convention on the Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families.  As a socially advancing nation, we have in place a Women’s Charter (1993) and an Act for the Prevention of Domestic Violence; we have a Ministry of Women’s Affairs and a National Committee on Women. Institutional and policy frameworks are very much evident that show State commitment to recognizing and enhancing women’s rights and gender equality.

The Sri Lankan government, as a part of its commitments is required to report every four years, for example, to the UN CEDAW Committee on the Status of Women. Non governmental organizations prepare Shadow Reports to the UN CEDAW Committee which are civil society contributions that non state parties are invited to make to complement the Governmental reports. Often these reports are prepared in partnership between the state institutions (Ministry of Women’s Affairs) and non governmental organizations.

Despite these policy interventions, gender inequity in state and society remains very strong and embedded in the social structure. The whole nation has undergone various fundamental changes – from protectionist economy to global market integration, from non- war to devastating ethnic war and now to a situation of an absence of war. Despite these sweeping changes in six decades post-colonial nationhood, all these massive efforts of social change by State and society has as yet not ensured gender equality at all – not even at some levels of governance, administration or social practice. The current wave of sexual violence by men against women must be seen in the light of the sustained inequality and subordination of women in our social structure.

Hence, when we examine women’s roles in a post-war situation, we have to recognise not only that the category ‘women’ include women from the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities but also that their ethnic identities encompass other identities as widows, single parents, siblings and as mothers – gendered identities that continuously position women as the subordinate gender. Thus, any pragmatic understanding of ‘roles’ women are playing or can play must necessarily come through an understanding of these pre-existing, multi-faceted and gendered identities of women in society. It is these identities that define what role women already play as wage earners in the household or, as peace makers in the community, and can further play as the country moves into a state of absence of war and seeks a sustainable end to the social rivalries between ethnic communities.

Women Roles: backbone of the Household and the Economy

In the economic sphere, beginning from almost two centuries ago with the advent of the colonial plantation economy to our 21st century market economy today, women have remained the key national labour force as plantation workers, garment industry employees and overseas migrant workers. All three sectors are vital pillars of our national life today. There are hundreds of thousands of women who are in the informal sector, in urban and rural sectors. At the same time, women are the backbone of the family and household often doing far more as ‘carers’ than even their socially ascribed roles as Mother and Wife. As an economic-anthropologist myself, I argue that once the enumeration of the national workforce includes an economic value to the household work primarily carried out by women, the data on women’s labour force participation, currently estimated at 32.2%, would increase several fold.

However, given the prevailing socio-economic and political environment that continues to locate women in the low wage sectors, there is, to date, no comprehensive assessment of the contributions of women to the national economy. This, in turn, continues to deny visibility and due recognition of the extent of women’s engagement in both within the household and in the wider society. This denied visibility is in addition to the inherent, pre-existing structural subordination of women.

Women in times of war and in advocacy for peace

Women have played an extremely significant role during the period of the war. We can see them falling broadly into two categories:

It is undeniable that women, whether in the North and East or in the South have had to bear the brunt of the fall-out of the war. They have seen their spouses/partners, lovers, sons, daughters disappear or die as a result of the war. Hundreds of thousands of women in the North and East have been forced to move from one location to another as the war progressed; women are a significant component of the IDPs, having to negotiate housing, food, care for children, personal security, finding income earning activities. In the South, there are thousands of women who are also widows of the State armed forces personnel, having to take on responsibility for their families, to re-define their social identities and to find ways in which they can manage their lives. Thousands more suffered from the deaths of their spouses, children and lovers during the Southern insurgency of the 1980-90s.

As participants in war, women took on the role of insurgent fighters or as State soldiers; they were trained in warfare whether the training was used in the battlefront or as support service cadre off the battle field. During the war, there was deliberate action by (predominantly male) political leaderships to mobilise women – as militants or as personnel of the armed forces. Other women were mobilised in social support networks (mothers/wives/sisters /lovers/elders, etc) of soldiers or insurgents. The point here is that the visibility of women in these roles was through being moblised by others and less through women taking the lead or, equally participating, in formal processes in articulating a rationale for war, for joining the ranks of insurgents or soldiers or, for advocating for an end to war.

There was a marked absence of women at decision-making levels in either the political movements that waged insurgency or, the political institutions (government, political parties) structures that conducted counter-insurgency or, in the formal structures and bodies that were put in place either to politically negotiate an end to the conflict or to, at least, end the insurgency by military means. The one exception, of course, is that of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was the sole female ‘Leader’ during the period of the war. It has to be recognized also that her vision, at one stage, included a comprehensive peace-making initiative – a sustainable end to the overall ethnic conflict through constitutional reform.  The striking absence of women in general in positions of authority and decision-making in the insurgency and counter-insurgency has to be noted because this signifies gender inequality within structures of politics and governance, a factor that has to be taken into account when we are pressed to examine women’s role in post war Sri Lanka.

It is through the examination of women as peace-makers that we see leadership of broad groupings of women, both in the North and South. Women as victims of violence and as survivors have long mobilized themselves to resist violence by peace advocacy, social conciliation and negotiation.  These interventions, which I shall briefly highlight below, are clearly efforts by women specifically as women.

The (Northern) Mothers’ Front (1984)

One of the first such interventions came about as a response to the increasing violence and militarization of the North by both sides of the war. The Northern Mothers’ Front came together in 1984 to protest against the deaths and disappearance of young men. These protests took the form of silent marches, sit-ins and public pickets by hundreds of women. As Samuel observes,

‘The (Northern) Mothers’ Front was arguably the first women’s organisation from the North that called for political negotiations to solve the ethnic crisis. They sent petitions and appeals to the state, political parties and concerned organizations….a Memorandum ‘Appeal for Justice 1985’ called on ‘citizens to work toward an end to the violence and to resolve the ethnic problem to enable all communities to live in peace and harmony’.[3]

Women for Peace

In the South, women came together to form ‘Women for Peace’ in 1984 and comprised women from a cross section of society: from trade union members, women’s rights and human rights activists, politicians, lawyers, doctors, and journalists, to women representing different religions, teachers and writers. In 1984, Women for Peace collected 10,000 signatures calling for peace and for political dialogue between the government and the Tamil political leadership at the time. Women for Peace was also ‘possibly the first women’s organisation in the South to highlight the issue of internal displacement. This was done following contact with organsations in the Vanni that were engaged in the resettlement of displaced plantation and hill country Tamils in the area’.[4]

The (Southern) Mothers’ Front

The formation of this organisation was a direct result of the conflict that took place in the South in the late 1980s and early 1990 when women as wives, mothers, sisters came together to protest the deaths and disappearance of young men and women due to the political violence that prevailed at the time. Samuel (2006) notes the words of one of its founding members, Mrs. Manorani Sarvanamuttu, whose journalist son, Richard de Zoysa, had been abducted and disappeared during this period, ‘Make no mistake, our aim is peace, our method is peaceful. We have wept alone and have come together for comfort. From this has arisen our desire to collectively seek peace in our country’.[5]

Other organized initiatives by women.

The list of women’s leadership in advocacy for peace, for a political resolution to the ethnic conflict, against assassinations and disappearances, are many. Both International Women’s Day, March 8th, and the regular 16-day campaign against violence against women beginning on 25th November and ending with International Human Rights Day on 10th December, have been used by many women’s organizations for over 2 decades to highlight women’s concerns and women’s advocacy for peace. In the year 2000, women numbering more than 2000 gathered under the banner ‘Towards a Peaceful Society free of War and Violence’ in a demonstration organized by the Sri Lanka Women’s NGO Forum and the Mothers and Daughters of Lanka. Organisations such as the Sinhala Kantha Abhivurdhi Sanvidanaya, the Association of War Affected Women, Women’s Coalition for Peace, among others, actively campaigned, ranging from meetings with key decision makers, public statements, and advocacy marches, to social service such as providing economic assistance to women in ‘border’ villages. These efforts are but a few examples among a myriad of interventions that categorically displayed the role women in peace-making across ethnic, class, religious and regional divides. Exchange visits between women’s organizations in the South and the North and the East strove to maintain, build amicable relationships between the ethnic communities even amidst war and despite war rhetoric by both sides. .

Despite these serious grass root level initiatives by thousands of women across the country, formal processes towards resolving the ethnic conflict and ending the war remained out of reach to most women’s organizations. There was little or no acknowledgement of a ‘Role’ for women in the ethnic conflict other than that of female combatant, victim of war or war widow. The gender dynamics of war and peace-making appeared to have closed the doors to even to a hearing on what women had to say.

Recognition of Women’s Agency in Formal Processes

In 2002, building on the decades of such multi-dimensional, if poorly acknowledged, action, women’s organizations strategically adopted a different approach to have their concerns noted at the negotiation table while the peace talks between the Government and the LTTE was taking place. An International Women’s Peace Mission was facilitated by the Women and Media Collective to meet with women living in conflict affected areas in the country and learn of their concerns, needs and the aspirations.  The Mission comprised ‘internationally renowned women human rights activists and a group of women from all the conflict affected areas in the country. Data gathering teams visited Jaffna, Kayts, Vavnuniya, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Mannar, the border villages of Polonnaruwa District and the Puttalam District.[6]

A comprehensive report was compiled and this Report was the basis of lobbying with all parties to the conflict and was also presented to the international Donor Consortium that was part of the peace process in 2002. The result of this exercise was a recognition of the importance of women’s role in peace-making and of women’s skills and capacities in providing evidence of the challenges and strengths of women surviving a war as well as promoting possible responses to address these issues. For the first time in the history of modern peace negotiations and reconciliation, the Sri Lankan peace process at the time included a Sub Committee on Gender Issues that comprised representatives appointed by both parties to the armed hostilities.

Conclusion: Facilitating Women’s participation and contribution to peace-making

I have taken this time to place in context the social dynamics within which women have to negotiate continuously in order to have their voices heard, to see that their issues are understood and to explore avenues to ensure their representation at decision-making levels. The very fact that the women’s movement pushed these initiatives through, despite being ‘outsiders’, is evidence that women are already taking on the role of reconciliation very seriously. I hope that my presentation and argument clearly establishes that wherever  the currently unequal power structures locate them, women are yet stakeholders in the transition from war to peace. What they most need is recognition and valuation of their roles.

I would consider this very conference to be a positive signal that there are doors at policy-making level for women to enter and participate. This is indeed important given that, since 2002, there has been little if any, credible efforts to recognize the gender dynamics in war and in peace; such a recognition would only lead to a multi-stakeholder focus at policy level and in implementation.

As has been argued, women do have a role to play in peace building and do so as the circumstances demand. However, much of women’s interventions remain perceived to be happening on the margins, illustrating the extent of the gap between women’s capacities and women’s representation in decision-making processes. A prime example, is of course, women’s representation in the political arena. In Sri Lanka, since independence in 1948, despite reforms to the country’s Constitution and the adoption of a system of proportional representation, women’s representation in the political arena has been unacceptably low for a country that has the highest overall social development indicators in South Asia. In 2011 there were only 5.8% of members in Parliament are women, 4.7% in Provincial Councils and a mere 1.7% in Local Government.[7]

This lacuna in the structure of governance in the country is perhaps one of the most critical issues that need to be addressed today if we are to meaningfully acknowledge and better benefit from women’s current activism in peace-making and facilitate new openings for their specific contributions.

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The is the Executive Director, Women and Media Collective, Sri Lanka. This was a presentation at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute Conference on ‘The Role of Women in Reconciliation’, 23 July 2012, Colombo.


[1] Kottegoda, S. (2010). ‘Gender, Power and Politics’, In, Power and Politics in the shadow of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. SIDA Studies Np.25.

[2] It has to be noted that women receive lower wages than men even in these low wage sectors of the labour market due to the ‘institutionalised’ perception that women are secondary earners compared to men.

[3] Samuel, K. (2006). A Hidden History: Women’s Activism for Peace in Sri Lanka: 1982-2002, p.29. Social Scientists’ Association, Colombo.

[4] Ibid. p 13

[5] Ibid.p 21

[6] Ibid. p.56

[7] Kodikara, C. and Samuel, K. (2012). ‘Changing Minds: Nominations and Votes for Women’. The Women and Media Collective. Colombo.

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