Groundviews

‘What is represented and what is made invisible’: Women and Transitional Justice Processes in Sri Lanka

Nineteen year-old Maheshwori Devi Bishwokarma is pregnant with her second child. Despite being three days past due, Maheshwori continues to work herding goats, scratching out a living in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. Her husband, who lives and works in neighboring India, comes home once a year.

Photo via Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

During a recent conversation about campaigns to eliminate violence against women, and the participation and role of women working at the community level in these campaigns, particularly their ability to influence and shape the form and manner of these initiatives, a friend, who for many years has worked on issues of violence and justice, mentioned she was concerned about ‘what is represented and what is made invisible’ in the narratives about these campaigns. Her question, which pushes us to probe whether initiatives to eradicate violence against women are inclusive, participatory and responsive, can be extended to ascertain the nature of broader transitional justice processes as well.

After the presidential election of 8 January 2015, there has been increased discussion within civil society on issues of transitional justice, i.e. accountability, truth-seeking, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. The government too has expressed willingness to deal with these issues, although the means and methods are as yet unclear. As the discourse and process move forward a number of actors, both local and international, have enthusiastically pledged their support to the yet to be determined processes. While the space to openly discuss and work on these issues is welcome, it would be useful to recall lessons learnt from similar experiences in the past, such as the 2002 peace process, with regard to inclusion, public participation and transparency, so that local initiatives which have been built through consistent and concerted work by community activists under challenging circumstances, and have contributed to strengthening community participation and trust, are not disregarded, destabilized or damaged. This is particularly true where women’s community based initiatives are concerned.

Sexual violence/exploitation of women during and after the armed conflict in Sri Lanka has garnered a lot of attention. Yet, locally it has been challenging to document cases of sexual violence that took place during the war since women are reluctant to speak of it openly due to numerous reasons, including fear of reprisals from perpetrators, particularly if they happen to be state actors, social stigma and belief they will not obtain any redress. Even when they share their stories, most often they do not wish these stories to be made public. The silence they maintain, particularly following the end of the war, was possibly their way of normalizing life and switching to survival mode in the militarized and repressive post-war phase. They may also maintain silence due to fear of losing control of their stories once they are in the open. When a story of sexual violence becomes public numerous actors including the state, the diaspora, human rights activists, and political parties amongst others, capture the story, which is then portrayed and used in different ways to further varied agendas.

More importantly, women in the conflict-affected areas should not be viewed as passive victims waiting for others to ‘recover’ their stories. These women have faced unimaginable challenges and have a nuanced understanding of the truth they have to share and truth they have to hide in order to navigate their lives, both within the private and public spheres. In relation to women affected by sexual violence, but also more generally, while harm done has to be acknowledged and redress provided, it cannot be denied the perpetuation of victimhood can be disempowering and create dependency. Given the lack of options, in many instances women use the dominant paradigm of victimhood to gain space to makes their voices and stories heard, particularly to directly address those in positions of power and authority. In order to avoid writing history in victimhood, the ‘good victim’ should not be trotted out to perform and tell her sad story and cry; instead women should be empowered to become change agents. Enabling them to speak for and about themselves, at their convenience, within their comfort zone, instead of others speaking on behalf of, or speaking about them is the first step in this process.

Determining eligibility for reparations is a process that defines victim categories and could exacerbate or ignore the harm suffered by certain victim-survivors over others. For instance, in the case of disappearances, in Sri Lanka, like in other contexts, the families left behind face innumerable challenges and women, many who for the first time in their lives have become breadwinners for their families, find it extremely difficult to fulfill the basic needs of their families. There are instances women were forced to declare their husbands dead in order to access benefits or compensation due to economic pressure. Despite this, reparation is often provided only for the disappeared person and not for the harm caused to the family member left behind. While Guatemala and Peru recognized the impact of disappearances on family members, the South Africa process, perhaps unwittingly, created a hierarchy of victims by categorizing them as primary and secondary victims, and providing reparations only if the primary victim was dead. Providing reparations to those who were impacted by the disappearance also raises a number of questions. For instance, is harm suffered that is related to searching for loved one such as sexual abuse and harassment of women family members by those they encounter during the process of searching for the disappeared person, such as the military or police, part of the disappearance or a separate crime? As the report by the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) on the impact of disappearances on women points out, this illustrates the gendered impact of disappearances and could be viewed as part of the crime of disappearance, but reporting it as a separate violation might strengthen women’s ability to access redress and services. In Sri Lanka, women who have faced sexual harassment, extortion and even sexual abuse in their search for the disappeared family member have not come forward to lodge complaints; they have instead approached trusted community organisations and activists to receive either emotional, livelihood or medical support. Reiterating the need to focus on families as well the person who was the victim, the International Criminal Court in its recent decision in the Lubanga case stated that those who suffered direct harm as well as those that suffered due to the impact of it are entitled to reparations; the criteria used to determine eligibility should be whether there was a close personal relationship between victim and indirect victim.

Determining eligibility for reparations programmes can also result in the construction of a hierarchy of suffering and crimes; political violence for instance will trump socio-economic violations. Therefore, focusing on specific violations and victims can result in the system and structures that sustained discrimination, marginalization and violence being ignored. Where women are concerned, the specific crime that receives the most attention is sexual violence while other violations and issues of concern to the victim-survivor, such as socio-economic issues, are sidelined. The link between economic vulnerability sexual violence however cannot be ignored because in the conflict-affected areas economic needs are pushing women into exploitative relationships with both the military and civilians. For instance, in the North, due to the difficulty faced by women completing the construction of houses provided via the Indian Housing Project (IHP), there have been instances they have depended on masons and contractors who have entered into relationships with women, exploited them financially, and after a few months absconded.

In Sri Lanka, preventing those in the North and the East from marking the end of the war and remembering those who lost their lives has meant memorialization and who can be remembered has been a contentious and controversial issue. Arthur Danto, philosopher and art critic, quoted in Marita Sturken’s paper on Vietnam Veterans Memorial points out, ‘We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget…While a monument most often signifies victory, a memorial refers to the life or lives sacrificed for a particular set of values’. The statues of soldiers and guns one sees dotted all over the North are therefore monuments, built to remember the war victory, not memorials to commemorate the lives lost and the suffering and trauma of the war affected population, particularly those caught in the last stages of the armed conflict. Where memorialization is concerned, some studies say women prefer on-going initiatives such as archives, oral history projects, gardens etc., rather than large, concrete structures that make no attempt to include or relate to the affected person. Where women are concerned while memorials may remember public violations, such as disappearances and extra-judicial killings, they ignore the continuing and private violations- poverty and psycho-social needs experienced as part of the above mentioned crimes.

Memorialisation can also be a driver of new conflict if memorial cultures are stuck in entrenched ideological positions since remembering sustains antagonism and solidarity. Personal trauma, such as sexual violence, is mobilized for political reasons and can be manipulated by different interest groups. As Lorraine Ryan states ‘collective memory is fluid and dynamic…a reflection of the collective identity of a group or nation, as a consequence of which it constitutes an immensely valuable tool in any power consolidation process’. As stated above, when political identity is based solely on victimhood and the individual’s story is politicized, the victim then loses control of the narrative.

All this reiterates the need to respect women’s community initiatives and establish a consultative, participatory, inclusive and transparent process that can ignite conversations, begin to re-create trust, and most importantly provide space for the lived realities of those affected by the armed conflict to be placed in the public sphere. This in turn will help shape any transitional justice mechanism that is established to ensure it does not make invisible that which should be represented, but instead is responsive, relevant and holistic.