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

The power and promise of national exercises like the LLRC lie in the way that they can access the voices of those who have not traditionally been heard, and use them to build a more representative and inclusive collective memory. Yet for Sri Lanka’s Tamil women, the LLRC simply reaffirms bad old habits, writes Jo Baker [i]

In the lead up to the release of the report by Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), strong concerns have been publicly raised about the value of a process that aims to build a clear picture of the conflict, without fully including or representing those who were most directly affected. This has led to important questions regarding who has been heard, how their concerns have been addressed, and whether they will feature fully in a final report and its recommendations. While such questions have focused on vital themes of accountability, ethnic discrimination and political will, often in relation to internationally-agreed standards, they have been resoundingly quiet in a criticalarea: the space and consideration being given to women.

Many governments in countries recovering from conflict are now taking stronger steps to include women in transitional instruments, such as peacekeeping strategies, reparations programmes and truth commissions, to better secure lasting peace and improve their standing at home and overseas. This is underscored by a legal commitment: non-discrimination is an inalienable human rights obligation, and a founding principle of the domestic legal and international legal order. In the mid nineties and early 2000s South Africa and Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) uncovered the shocking, previously unrecognised scale of crimes against women during apartheid and internal conflict respectively, and then responded with reparations and reform to address them. A few years later, commissions in Sierra Leone and Timor Leste built strongly on these improvements by broadly consulting women in their design and procedures, as I explore below.

These steps and others show a growing understanding that women’s concerns, needs and abilities have historically been a low state priority, and that women face greater difficulties in accessing state machinery. They recognise that they generally experience conflict and displacement differently to men and, in outnumbering them as survivors, have greater post-war roles and responsibilities, and different needs. And they show an improved understanding of the ways that truth commissions (TCs) and commissions of inquiry (CoIs) have long worked from a male standpoint, producing a ‘partial and narrow truth’ (Nesiah 2006), and excluding women from an instrument meant to shape future priorities and practices in the country.

It is therefore critical to ask what the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has done to ensure that the LLRC – or any other memory-building or truth telling instrument – serves Sri Lanka’s women as well as its men; particularly minority women, who have been most deeply and directly affected by the war, and who are most deeply and directly discriminated against in general. Many will point to the floods of women who have clamoured to access the LLRC (as they have for a series of Sri Lankan CoIs). But have they truly been able to effectively use these mechanisms on a par with men? And have they been accepted as victims in their own right, or rather as mothers, sisters and daughters of victims? When Sri Lanka’s efforts are measured against international standards on non-discrimination, or against other recent commissions elsewhere in the world, a marked failure emerges by its government to uphold key human rights standards, via its massive exclusion of the female minority voice. Among all the critical assessments of the LLRC and discussions on transitional justice in Sri Lanka, this element should be receiving greater attention. As noted recently by, Valkyrie, a Groundviews columnist, in one of the few commentaries on this issue:

“For the Tamil women … ‘The not telling of the story serves as a perpetuation of [the conflict’s] tyranny’ which has the potential to provoke deep distortions in memory and the organization of everyday life later on. The fact that these are narratives which cannot be heard and cannot be witnessed to, is what constitutes a ‘mortal death blow to the survivors.’” [ii]

The following article looks at the need for gender-sensitive truth commissioning in Sri Lanka. It draws on international standards, examples of best practice elsewhere, and criticism of its past and current CoIs, before proposing ways to place Tamil women more centrally within the transitional narrative. It is abridged from my academic legal paper ‘Reconciling Truth and Gender: Lessons for Sri Lanka’, soon to appear in the coming issue of Sri Lanka’s Law and Society Trust Review, and currently available on my website. Please refer to the original for full referencing.

Part One: Disadvantage, compounded

Before looking at the how the GoSL should be addressing both gender and ethnic discrimination in its truth telling, it will be useful to briefly outline the intensified disadvantage that still confronts women in the country – particularly minority women. The chosen focus for my report was mainly on women from the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu minority in the North and East, since they make up the majority of the survivors most severely affected by the last chapter of the conflict. This is however a vast and complex topic, and I look forward to the emergence of many deeper and more nuanced studies.

A multiple bind

Minority women in Sri Lanka fall at the crossroads of a sidelined gender and a sidelined ethnicity. During both war and peacetime this has meant greater challenges for them in education, employment and civil participation among many areas, which creates greater dependence and much higher levels of vulnerability. Minority women suffer the discrimination and disadvantages faced by all women in the country, for which the state is directly responsible (please refer to the 2011 Concluding Observations of the CEDAW Committee, its shadow report by the Women’s Media Collective, or The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2011, released last week), for example in the greater barriers to accessing justice through the police or courts. However they also experience the restrictions of stricter community traditions and customs. These tightened during the Sri Lankan war – as they have in other countries’ internal conflicts – with Tamil women cast as bearers of a threatened culture and therefore often more closely monitored. There is evidence that many lost control over how they behaved, dressed and who they married, despite the other forms of ambivalent (and arguably temporary) empowerment brought by the LTTE (De Mel; Rajasingham-Senanayake; Sornarajah; Abeysekera; see Part II Section ii of my report for elaboration).

Vulnerability to violence
Secondly, it is important to consider the particular experience of such women during and after the conflict: a combination of being unable to leave the ‘wrong place, at the wrong time’, being of the ‘wrong’ ethnicity and as is increasingly understood, of the ‘wrong’ gender.
Unlike many conflicts, rape and sexual violence do not appear to have been deployed as a tool in Sri Lanka’s war, but it has nevertheless been reportedly commonly perpetrated by state agents throughout, particularly in areas directly affected by conflict– therefore excessively victimising Tamil women (Wood 2006, 2009).[iii] The military has replaced most civil administrative systems in the North and East despite the well-documented link between militarisation and violations against women. Reports of the increase in sexual assault throughout high-security zones also cite a rise in prostitution, trafficking and STDs, since women – often without male partners, a place to live or a means of income – are being obliged to interact with male Sinhalese soldiers as part of their daily routine (ICG 2011).

Yet their ability to address these issues is low. As women, particularly minority women, they face more intense social pressure and rejection, and since the administration is not perceived to be safe or gender sensitive, protective or judicial action is extremely hard to come by. This produces a discriminatory environment in which minority women can be targeted without consequence. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has reported that young, so-called low-caste women among ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka are more vulnerable to sexual violence, and that they ‘expect’ resistance and entrenched patriarchy “all the way from officials at the police stations, to the hospital personnel and the judiciary.”[iv] Meanwhile other women face uncertainties as to the fate of loved ones, stigmas related to widowhood or their political affiliation, and tremendous new roles and responsibilities, in situations such as displacement, where resources are scarce and security concerns extremely high. Injured and/or traumatized themselves, most such women are primary carers for other maimed and traumatized persons. They thus they bear specific needs and concerns that any post-conflict initiative, without applying a gender-lens, will be entirely unable to effectively address (Iqbal 2010: or please refer to Part II Section iii).

Barriers to expression

Just as the route through the courts has been hampered for such women, so has their route through civic means. Censorship and emergency regulations have affected all Sri Lankans, but those with the least access to the public domain are now even less able to express their needs and grievances, for example, through communal gatherings, which have been severely restricted in certain areas under emergency legislation. As Groundviews’ Valkyrie notes of Tamil women: “oral narratives are their only means at their disposal to record their experiences, trauma and survival mechanisms… these women have no space within the dominant narrative to place their stories on record.” [v] This is taking place in a narrative that is already masculine by default, has been intensely masculinized by conflict, and which – as Valkyrie notes – has seen the needs and experiences of Tamil women politically appropriated by both the State and the LTTE throughout the war. Part of the function of any truth-telling or reconciliation instrument should be to rectify and counter such gross imbalances.

Part Two: Reconciling truth and gender: Lessons for Sri Lanka

With these aspects in mind, I move onto truth commissioning, and why only a dedicated commitment to corrective measures – as understood in Sri Lanka’s international commitments – could begin to serve women equally and legally in a truth telling process. Although this comment may only be the tip of the iceberg in this area, it can at the least, highlight the gap between state practice and international standards, and avenues for further action.  To do so I will draw on accounts of past and current Sri Lankan experiences of truth-telling (or ‘lesson learning’), and practices recommended by human rights and transitional justice experts, with examples from other more successful commissions.

Although Sri Lanka’s CoIs and its LLRC have not explicitly featured truth-telling in their mandates, their aims align with those of many truth commissions:  to gather a credible picture of human rights violations during the course of the conflict through the often-public testimony of victims and witnesses. They are therefore strong indicators of State practice in this area.


On the most direct, technical level, sex discrimination has been linked to the greater difficulty of female victims and witnesses, compared to men, in accessing and engaging effectively with truth commissions, resulting in the underreporting of issues that disproportionately affect them. As mentioned, obstacles include lower levels of education, economic independence and experience in the public realm, along with responsibilities that tie them to the home or to insecure forms of informal employment; made worse by the increased vulnerability of women to intimidation or obstruction, and in so many cases now, by displacement, widowhood or disability. Gender-sensitive operalisation and outreach are therefore critical to secure women’s access to truth commissions.

While Sri Lanka’s various inquiry mechanisms have been approached by a large majority of women, with strong efforts made by some commissioners in the 1990s to facilitate their physical access, many have been revictimised by ill-treatment, or the lack of support or protection given by the State. The LLRC and past CoIs have been linked to accounts of reprisal, pro-government bias and intimidation, and there has been no adequate State efforts to counter this, nor to adjust a narrative that has previously branded the mainly female Sri Lankans campaigning for investigations into disappearances as unpatriotic The LLRC has also been roundly criticized for its lack of victim-centred methodology and its failure to address the emotional needs of victims. Reports from the International Crisis Group (2011) and Amnesty International (2011), for example, tell of ‘desultory’, ‘curt and dismissive’ staff chastising women for crying, and requesting written submissions in the place of oral testimony, which has been linked to a particular lack of tolerance for female testifiers. According to the UN Panel of experts, submission forms were in Sinhalese and English only.

To prevent discrimination as internationally understood (see Part 1, Section ii of the original study), a convincing truth mechanism would both need to arrange effective protection throughout and after a commission, and provide women with gender-sensitive guidance for the duration of the procedure. The range of best practice runs from statement-taking and information-gathering by trained female officers, to appropriate levels of privacy in testimony, as detailed at length in World Bank and ICTJ guidelines (2006; Nesiah 2006). Protective psychological measures may include having mental health professionals on standby. Women should be able to choose private testimony, be interviewed away from other family members where possible, and staff should be trained to pick up on the cues that a woman may give if she has experienced forms of violence that she considers shameful. Recent truth commissions have dedicated public and private thematic sessions to women’s testimony of their experiences, expectations and needs, which in the case of South Africa for example, began with special preparatory workshops. This improved the healing function of the commission for women, while allowing them to discuss the shifting gender roles, and the new pressures on female breadwinners. (Nesiah 2006). One of eight national public hearings in Timor Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) was on women and conflict; it included a broad range of women and covered issues from coercive birth control, to humanitarian concerns (Wandita et. al, 2006).  Furthermore, in contrast to allegations that the current LLRC has failed to create a supportive environment or bear the costs of witnesses, best practice dictates that technical assistance overcome difficulties that are more likely to inhibit women. (UN Secretary-General, 2011) This would include compensating their transport or child care costs, for example, or any money lost to absence from work, since so many work in the informal sector.

It has become quite recently understood that women are generally less ready to testify about violations against themselves than those against family members, and women in Sri Lanka have been no different. This has resulted in the severe underreporting and therefore under-consideration of the range of violations against women. To counter this, encouraging measures will be needed to inform the female population about their status as victims, the full spectrum of harms – including gendered harms – and their rights within a commission mandate.

Women often testify at great personal risk, of a physical, psychological, but also a markedly social nature, as mentioned above. While reprisals have certainly affected both men and women in Sri Lanka,[vi] and are ill-guarded against (ensured by parliament’s failure to enact the bill for witness protection in 2008), the stigma associated with sexual violence and other violations is a critical barrier for female testifiers, and can result in their estrangement from family members, and even the mistreatment of their children. This needs to be countered with community-targeted education projects. However it should be noted that in Sri Lanka this stigma can be viewed as led by both community and State, when considering the GoSL’s keenness to deny allegations of war crimes, including those of a sexual nature. This has placed a sector of vulnerable and violated women out of reach of assistance, and outside the national agenda.

A comprehensive outreach strategy is critical to any public truth or inquiry process, and must be sure to address all communities equally in a manner that they understand. According to accounts of the 1994 CoIs, victims would frequently testify without comprehending the goal or the outcome of the inquiry, and the LLRC has been criticized for its minimal public information programme. This speaks of the need for a media strategy to target different groups. For women this would offer reassurance that the process is safe and sensitive, let them know what will be expected of them, and very importantly – what they can ultimately expect themselves. This should involve information about evidentiary thresholds and how to write an adequate application (as recommended by the UN Panel, which cited the LLRC’s lack of Tamil language forms as evidence of its ‘basic modalities’).  NGOs have also condemned proceedings as ‘neither safe nor gender-sensitive’, and have highlighted inadequate Tamil translation and a bias toward hearing (male) community leaders. Past recommendations such as those from the World Bank and ICTJ, have included the wider use of community networks, which Tamil women are more likely to encounter, trust and understand, advertisements in local dialects in publications and programmes commonly read and watched by minority women, along with the use of NGO-run workshops – rather than, for example, using a government mouthpiece. These considerations extend to the dissemination of any final report.


Yet the exclusion of women goes beyond procedure and access, to issues that run deeper. By applying a gender lens, scholars such as Vesuki Nesiah have begun to question why “some facts emerge as critical to the historical account and others fade into the backdrop of the private or domestic arena, and where some actors’ agency is recognized and privileged and others fade into the anonymity of spouses, mothers, and sisters” (Nesiah 2006  Mandates).  In arguing that there is no such thing as a gender-neutral truth, such writers argue that a State must acknowledge the human-rights dimensions of women’s experiences and give more space to gendered forms of ostracism and violence. This line of argument has been much influenced by advances in international criminal law, which have contributed to the growing recognition that crimes against women cannot be isolated from a political context.[vii] The realisation of non-discrimination in the operation of truth commissions therefore applies to the scope of violations covered in truth commission mandates, to their defining of a victim and their framing of truth.  Appraisals of past Sri Lankan mechanisms have not shown them to be ahead of the curve, by any means.[viii]  Any Sri Lanka-based CoI tasked with building a truthful picture of the conflict would need a mandate that empowers its commissioners to address and counteract the prioritizing of the male experience.

Some such progress has been seen in truth commissions without gender being explicitly mentioned in mandates. For example, in South Africa (initiated in 1995) and Peru’s TRCs (2001), commissioners pushed the envelope by interpreting gender-neutral language on torture and ill-treatment in a way that could address sexual violence. They began to link it directly to conflict and to the State’s failure to combat sex discrimination, recognising that State forces had targeted vulnerabilities tied to women’s gender.  Rape gained a higher profile as a conflict-related violation, and thanks to the work of women’s activists and academics in South Africa, it was excluded from the list of crimes subject to amnesty. In certain Sri Lankan CoIs too, despite narrow mandates, some commissioners attempted to consider aspects of women’s experiences. The Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces (WSSP) CoI on disappearances in 1994 produced a short chapter on women in its final report that touched on the victimisation of women as abductees/detainees and as those ‘left behind’, and was able to raise some questions regarding  its observations that: “the climate of impunity existing during the major part of the period under scrutiny lead to the victimisation of women as much as men,” and that “some of the personal scores seem to be linked directly with the femaleness of the victim.”[ix]

Yet without dedicated expertise or clear guidelines, these efforts have left much unexplored and under-implemented, and they leave proceedings open to the bias of commissioners.  A narrow understanding of sexual violence for example, has meant that other violations and their effects have been regularly overlooked and their gendered roots and consequences left unexplored. This has advanced, according to Nesiah, a “partial and narrow truth” (Mandates 2006). She and others give the example of South Africa, where women’s experiences under apartheid saw rape receive much attention, but the ‘ordinary violence’ and deprivations that women experienced in the private sphere as a result of apartheid, largely ignored. These ranged from gender-specific violence and intimidation, to black and coloured women’s access to state services and basic provisions for living (for example during forced removals or under the group-area legislation that segregated living and working conditions).

In past Sri Lankan CoIs, most of these issues have barely arisen. The limited recommendations and perfunctory analysis of WSSP commissioners on the situation of women ‘left behind’ falls far short of current best practice, [x] and as with other commissions, women receive barely a mention in the rest of the report. Yet this remains one of the better examples to come from Sri Lanka. Although commissioners controversially decided to look at the rape and murder of girls who had been abducted from their homes by persons looking for their fathers or brothers, and they noted the involvement of gender-based ‘personaI scores’, there was little room to take this further. Its mandate excluded disappearances that arose from personal disputes and other forms of physical injury, which are the areas in which most violations against women tend to fall, and it did not allow for the necessary resources or expertise.  The LLRC has similarly given no explicit space to gender-based crimes, and few have been reported officially.[xi] According to Sri Lankan legal researcher, Ambika Satkunanathan: “We all hear stories, anecdotes… but sexual violence remains one of the least documented violations from this conflict.”[xii]  As a result women are consigned by their state to suffer indefinitely in silence.

In contrast, recently designed truth commissions have begun to build an explicit reference to gender into the legal instrument that creates them, ensuring dedicated staff, resources and guidelines – and many of the procedural improvements described above.  This has produced deeper investigations into the privatized and structural harms that come from conflict, and for the proper cross-distribution of these findings in the report and any follow up action. In Peru for example, a gender unit was partly funded by the UN Office of the High Commission of Human Rights. Although the mainstreaming of gender wasn’t hailed as a complete success, it was well represented in the final report and in its recommendations, which included a chapter on gender analysis and another on sexual violence against women (Guillerot 2006). Though it came as an unpleasant surprise to Peruvian society at the time by establishing the grave scale and range of the violence perpetrated against women during the conflict, the country was able to move forward with a programme of reforms and rehabilitation. In South Africa a similar unit was sparely funded and had to restrict itself to low-cost initiatives, and could therefore only mainly reach women who wished to come forward. (World Bank 2006)

To avoid discrimination a commission must investigate violations that were made possible by the war-fuelled environment of violence and impunity, in public, but also in the private realm where most women, due to social convention, are situated and too often overlooked.  One report for example, notes a growing culture of sexual and gender-based violence in the post-conflict period, with widowed mothers in particular being targeted, not only by the army, navy and military police, but by other male civilians (SuRG 2011). Rather than excluding ‘private harms’ therefore, as instructed by the 1994 CoIs, a mandate would include the impact of such violence in relation to women’s different socioeconomic circumstances; social ostracism, for example, or the effect on her chances of employment, and her family’s welfare. By doing so it would be much less at risk of recommending measures for reform and reparation that only suit men – which is another emerging field of study (see particularly, recent work by Ruth Rubio-Marin).

As a further illustration, given by a World Bank report (2006): to enquire into the gendered implications of disappearance in Sri Lanka would be to explain not only how acts of kidnapping, torture, rape or murder were able to take place, but also to account for the kinds of violation and hurdles to justice that women have experienced as they searched for disappeared relatives. The needs of female-headed households during displacement and periods of militarization would need to be identified, along with any other rights that may be violated due to the loss of their loved ones, whether related to health, employment, family life or education. This route leads to a holistic and healing process that equally addresses survivors, and which satisfies Sri Lanka’s international commitments.  Analysis by Peru’s TRC saw the prioritising of a new Declaration of Forced Disappearance, which the Ombudsman’s Office released if a claim was made and a disappeared person not found. This was recognized and hastened for the disproportionately positive impact it would have on women as the majority of survivors, in terms of their rights to property, inheritance and remarriage. Itholds significant parallels to the difficulties of Sri Lankan families, many female-headed, on obtaining death certificates.

Finally, for these issues to be addressed without sex discrimination, the time span of an inquiry would need to include periods of significance to women. In the case of Sri Lanka, this would include the months following the war, during which reports of human rights violations against IDPs in and outside of internment camps by military personnel were frequent, yet which the LLRC’s time frame excludes.

Composition and consultation

The underrepresentation of Tamil women in the public sphere and in past truth-telling exercises in Sri Lanka goes against best practice on firstly the composition of its panel, and secondly the need for broad consultation with women’s groups, as articulated in soft law provisions such as the UN’s 2005 Updated Principles on Impunity. The design of the mandate and procedure cannot be legitimately inclusive if drafting decisions take place in forums that lack input from women, along with other marginalized groups.

The presence of just one female Tamil commissioner out of eight (alongside just one other male Tamil), makes the LLRC composition ‘seriously deficient’ according to the UN Panel of Experts, and does not represent the diversity of Sri Lankan society – particularly those most directly affected by the conflict. Both Tamil commissioners meanwhile have been reported as less active or vocal than the other six, giving testifiers the impression of being marginalized themselves (CMTPC  2011). Civilian women have perceived a lack of interest or sympathy in their stories in comparison, they allege, to the (mostly male) officials or elite actors invited to take part. They have been berated for grieving publicly, passed over if unable to quickly compose themselves, and commissioners have suggested that in the interests of efficiency, one woman be chosen to represent others. Other reports tell of women being ‘driven away’ en mass. These are strong indications of a gender-related disregard for women’s experiences, and of bias in the methodology for selecting witnesses.

Problems of representation are arguably reflected in the final reports of Sri Lanka’s All Island and the WSSPs CoIs. Both were headed by female commissioners and both, though insufficiently, made some mention of women’s experiences, in contrast to the all-male North East CoI panel. Nevertheless, international standards require that stakeholder groups be proportionally represented (for example in the Beijing Platform for Action – which articulates the UN General Assembly’s definition of gender balance and perspective in special mechanisms). This is increasingly being seen. In Sierra Leone, for example, three out of seven commissioners were women. In Timor Leste two of seven were women, determined through public consultation and special sessions with women NGOs; regional commissioners were typically balanced between men and women, and led district teams of two male and two female statement takers, and a male and female victim support staff member; and the male executive director was supported by a female programme manager – an experienced activist in the field of gender and human rights (Wandita et al 2006).

Yet because gender balance does not guarantee a panel’s full understanding of the complexities surrounding the relationship between human rights, gender and ethnicity, the participation of experts in gender analysis and other related fields (such as anthropology and social psychology) is an important measure to prevent discrimination. In the same vein, the close involvement of women’s groups  is critical from the appointment process onward, and can help facilitate the periodic training of staff in gender sensitization, as well as inspire women’s confidence in the exercise. Before gender training in the Sierra Leone initiative, for example, some staff would question female victims of sexual violence about the clothes that they were wearing when attacked, and why they were outside alone, at night, showing clear discriminatory attitudes (World Bank 2006). Proactive outreach to communities, and coordination with survivors and victim’s groups, as seen in the kind of women-only public consultations and research projects pioneered in Timor Leste and Sierra Leone, can also forge closer links to victims and guard against discrimination by utilizing further expertise on gender – particularly in operational design. In Timor Leste, which was established under the interim UN government, women were mobilized and widely involved as civil groups, as experts on the steering committee and as commissioners at national, regional, and district levels, as well as partners on research projects and healing workshops. The gender training of staff in Sierra Leone, by UNIFEM (the UN’s former women’s agency) and other groups, contributed to broad contribution by women, and a final report that called for significant reforms to improve women’s participation in education, in political and social life, and community initiatives to encourage acceptance of the survivors of rape and sexual violence. Such initiatives are absent, and appear little considered in Sri Lanka during the transitional period.


It is clear that women are affected by discrimination in truth commission mandates and procedures on an individual and a community level. However the product too – the final report – can have a great national impact, and is crucial for the full value of the process to be diffused throughout a society. There is little scope here to consider the kind of historical analysis needed in a truth commission’s report, its evaluation of institutional responsibility or its recommendations in approaching gender, power and victimisation, as covered by scholars such as Fionnuala Ni Aolain and Catherine Turner; Christine Bell and Catherine O Rourke; and  Ruth Rubio-Marin. It is also notable that neither the warrant of the LLRC or the Commission of Inquiry act require the publication of a final report, though one has been promised.  Yet it is important to realize that any discrimination in a truth commission’s mandate, composition and procedure will be carried onward in any reforms or reparations that it proposes, reducing the likelihood of for example, of gender-appropriate health care, rehabilitation, welfare payments or opportunities in the civic sector. And by cutting women from the process, the state is cutting them from the historical record and its benefits; from  consideration in the post-conflict agenda, and in any ‘lessons learned’. As mentioned, the final reports of certain commissions have included a special chapter on gender – some like Peru’s more successful than for example, South Africa, or the short chapter in Sri Lanka’s WSSP CoI. However increasingly, calls are being made for gender to be mainstreamed throughout the whole document to prevent women’s issues being ‘ghettoised’. If the purpose of a truth commission is to build a nation’s collective memory of a period, to leave more than 50% of those affected on the periphery of this memory is a gross act of discrimination, not only at that point in time, but extending far into the future.


Truth-telling can offer opportunity amid crisis for those whose voices have not traditionally been heard. For Sri Lanka’s minority women, the opportunity is being dishearteningly wasted. By failing to uphold key human rights standards in its memory-building response to the conflict, the GoSL appears content with returning to and retrenching practices that have long violated the spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights held by Tamil women. Sri Lanka’s challenging political climate will limit the practical contribution of the recommendations made above. Yet with greater attention to the equality framework and corresponding best practice, I have tried at the very least, to highlight avenues that can begin to counteract the historical exclusion of Tamil women and place them more squarely, and legally, within the post conflict narrative – while also urging those who challenge Sri Lanka’s transitional justice mechanisms, to do so with sex equality in mind.  I find both aims illustrated in a 2011 report on Sri Lanka by the International Crisis Group – made without overtures to gender – which observes:

Rebuilding relations among those communities and getting to a point where each has some real understanding of what the others have gone through should be a central goal…  It may be several years before the country is able to have a truly inclusive and representative process, but it is something Sri Lankans should be able to look forward to.


Selected bibliography

Abeysekera, Sunila (2007) ‘Implications of Insurgency on Women: The Sri Lankan Experience’ in Ava Shrestha; Rita Thapa eds. The impact of armed conflicts on women in South Asia, Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

Amnesty International (September 2011) When will they get justice? available at http://www.amnesty.org.uk/uploads/documents/doc_21824.pdf

Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (2010) The State of Human Rights in Sri Lanka in 2010 available at http://www.humanrights.asia/resources/hrreport/2010/AHRC-SPR-010-2010.pdf

Baker, Jo (22 August 2009), A Thankless Task, South China Morning Post, available at http://www.jobakeronline.com/articles/a-thankless-task/

Coalition of Muslims & Tamils for Peace & Coexistence (15 July 2011) Two Years On: No War but no peace for women still facing the consequences of the war, available at http://cmtpc.wordpress.com/author/cmtpc.

De Mel, Neloufer (2001) Women and the Nation’s Narrative, New Delhi: Kali for Women

Guillerot, Julie (2006) ‘Linking Gender and Reparations in Peru: A Failed Opportunity’ in Ruth Rubio-Marin (ed.) What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2006.

International Crisis Group (18 July 2011) Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever, Brussels: International Crisis Group

Iqbal, Rajani (23 October 2010) Women in Postwar Reconstruction and Reform in Sri Lanka, a presentation made at the Third Annual Conference of the Tamil Women’s Development Forum in London.

Nesiah, Vasuki (2006) Gender and Truth Commission Mandates (paper presented at Open Society Institute (OSI) forum on Gender and Transitional Justice, February 7, 2006), available at <www.ictj.org

Nesiah, Vasuki et al. (July 2006)  Truth Commissions and Gender: Principles, Policies, and Procedures,  for the International Center for Transitional Justice, available at http://ictj.org/ (last accessed 13 Sept 2011)

Rajasingham-Senanayake, Darini (2001) ‘Ambivalent Empowerment: The Tragedy of Tamil Women in Conflict’ in Ride Manchanda (ed) Women, War and Peace in South Asia, Beyond Victimhood to Agency; New Delhi: Sage Publications


Ruth Rubio-Marin (ed.) What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2006.

Sornarajah, Nanthini (August 2004) ‘The Experiences of Tamil Women: Nationalism, Construction of Gender and Women’s Political Agency, Part III,’ available at http://issues.lines-magazine.org/Art_Aug04/nanthini.htm#_edn1  )

Sri Lanka Supporting Regional Governance program (SuRG) (May 2011), Post-war support for widowed mothers: a gender impact assessment, Colombo: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

The World Economic Forum (2011) Global Gender Gap Report, available at http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-2011/

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (4 February 2011) Concluding comments to the combined fifth, sixth and seventh periodic reports of Sri Lanka, CEDAW/C/LKA/5-7, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/co/CEDAW-C-LKA-CO-7.pdf

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (11 February 2011)  Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention: Combined fifth to seventh periodic reports of Sri Lanka,  CEDAW/C/SR.971, United Nations, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/CEDAW-C-SR.971.pdf

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (11 February 2011)  Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention: Combined fifth to seventh periodic reports of Sri Lanka (continued), CEDAW/C/SR.972, United Nations, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cedaw/docs/CEDAW-C-SR.972.pdf

United Nations Secretary-General (31 March 2011), Report of the Secretary General`s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/4db7b23e2.html

United Nations Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity (8 February 2005) E/CN.4/2005/102/Add.1

Valkyrie; (25 April 2011) National security’ in post-war Sri Lanka: Women’s (In) security in the North, Groundviews, available at http://groundviews.org/2011/04/25/national-security-in-post-war-sri-lanka-womens-in-security-in-the-north/

Wandita, G., Campbell-Nelson, K., and Leong Pereira, M., (2006)Learning to Engender Reparations in Timor-Leste: Reaching Out to Female Victims’ in Ruth Rubio-Marin (ed.) What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2006.

Wood, Elisabeth Jean (2006) Variation in Sexual Violence During War  available at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/cpworkshop/papers/Wood.pdf  and (2009) Armed Groups and Sexual Violence: When Is Wartime Rape Rare? Politics Society; 37; 131,available at http://www.polisci.upenn.edu/CPW/2010-2011/Wood_01.11.pdf

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World Bank (2006) Gender, Justice and Truth Commissions, Washington DC: World Bank


[i] Jo Baker holds an MA in Human Rights Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and formerly ran the Urgent Appeals advocacy programme at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. A selection of her other academic papers, advocacy work and articles can be found at www.jobakeronline.com

[ii] Valkyrie (25 April 2011) citing Dori Lamb, quoted in Elizabeth Jelin (2003) State Repression and the Labors of Memory, p63,65http://groundviews.org/2011/04/25/national-security-in-post-war-sri-lanka-womens-in-security-in-the-north/

[iii] This itself, argue many scholars, is suggestive of strong and damaging gender stereotypes, brought on by sexual objectification and impunity for crimes against women.

[iv] Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (2010) The State of Human Rights in Sri Lanka in 2010 available at http://www.humanrights.asia/resources/hrreport/2010/AHRC-SPR-010-2010.pdf, p46

[vi] Though they can be gendered, as covered by MCM Iqbal, Secretary to several Presidential Commissions of Inquiry in the early nineties. In my interview with him, A Thankless Task (Baker, 22 August 2009), he describes the case of a Sri Lankan mother who was raped by police and had her one remaining son abducted by them, in retaliation for testifying in a CoI.

[vii]  With critics such as R. Manjoo and V. Nesiah highlighting, for example, the way that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission ignored violations against women locked into the segregated private sphere under apartheid, from their accessing of State resources to their vulnerability to ‘ordinary’ violence.

[viii] Interviews with MCM Iqbal, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Ambika Satkunanathan (see full bibliography for details).

[ix] Sri Lankan Presidential Commission of Inquiry (September 1997) Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa, 11.4, available at http://www.disappearances.org/news/mainfile.php/frep_sl_western/

[x] Compare with Guillerot’s (2006) appraisal of Peru’s TRC report for example, p136-194.

[xi] Conversation with Ambika Satkunanathan

[xii] In conversation with the author 2011


Long Reads

Long Reads brings to Groundviews long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign Policy, The New Yorker and the New York Times. This section, inspired by Longreads, offers more in-depth deliberation on key issues covered on Groundviews