Where are the women in the Sri Lankan peace?

If and when peace comes to Sri Lanka, the new structures of political relations must be designed to preserve and advance the gains made by women in the last two decades.

The two parties to the separatist conflict in Sri Lankan—the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the federal government—have been negotiating the political future of the country since a ceasefire agreement was signed by both parties on 22 February 2002. This adds a new dimension to the work of the women's movements in Sri Lanka. Though these movements have been active in confronting the conflict over the last two decades, the transition to a potential military and political peace poses new dilemmas in framing women's concerns. The Sub-Committee on Gender Issues that has instituted within the negotiating mechanism is only one such forum for articulating and placing these concerns within the framework of constitutional and political rights. In addition to this, they will have to consider other important issues that lie outside this framework of rights which will inevitably surface in the post-conflict period.

In countries around the world that have been stricken by protracted conflict, women have been actively involved in campaigns for peace. In Northern Ireland, feminist writers have documented the efforts of women's groups from both sides to organise on working class lines, while the 'men' were negotiating a 'settlement'. Similarly, one of most striking peace campaigns, the "Women in Black", is active in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as well as in the former Yugoslavia. In Peru, women's organisations persistently lobbied the state to end the war and establish democratic processes. They used the media and other networks to promote peace, and were also directly involved in humanitarian work. In South Africa, women campaigned actively against measures that restricted their mobility in addition to struggling against the apartheid regime.

Sri Lanka's women, too, have been campaigning for peace since the early stages of the conflict. Women's activism in Sri Lankan has involved multiple organisations representing different agendas and identities, which have sometimes come together strategically to lobby for certain common causes.  Kumudini Samuel, the human rights activist and a co-ordinator of the Women and Media Collective in Colombo, has documented in detail the activities of the Mother's Front of the early 1980s, (which campaigned for peace and demanded the return of their sons who had disappeared in the North), and of the left-oriented Women's Action Committee, formed in 1982, which took up issues such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1979), the release of women political prisoners and the rape of women in the North and East. Since those early efforts, with the repeated failure of peace negotiations, the demand for peace by women's groups has only grown stronger, and their activism over the past two decades has varied from lobbying for legal reform to following up individual cases of wartime violence against women. Mothers in the North have come together to demand the return of their 'disappeared' sons and mothers of the soldiers in the Sri Lankan military have actively sought  information about their sons missing in action. Groups have also been working on the special humanitarian needs of women living in the conflict areas. These groups have developed links across ethnic communities and expressed demonstrated solidarity with each other's demands. In many ways, women have been negotiating peace for years in Sri Lanka, even during the period of massive violence.

Despite this history of activism, women have been excluded from the official peace process. Since the 1980s there have been six attempts to resolve the North-East conflict through negotiations. In 1984 there was the All Party Conference in Colombo. This was followed the talks held in Thimpu in 1985. In 1987 the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord was signed on the initiative of the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. In 1989-90 talks were held between the President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE which resulted in the expulsion of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. The last round of negotiations was initiated by the current President Chandrika Kumaranatunge in 1994. After a gap of eight years the sixth attempt was launched by Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe in February 2002. In all these attempts, women have been excluded from any key negotiating role. (The only woman who has been present at every round of the current peace negotiations has been Adele Balasingham, the wife of the former chief LTTE negotiator. However, she has not claimed to represent a women's agenda for the LTTE at the peace table.) Only the parties responsible for war and its accompanying atrocities are negotiating the terms of the peace, while those who have been lobbying for peace and campaigning against human rights violations over the past two decades find themselves marginalised in the formal process.

This is of a piece with historical trends across the world, of course. In more recent years, however, there have been encouraging examples of women succeeding in securing a place in formal negotiations. In Liberia, women forcibly intruded into the all-male negotiations in Accra in 1994. The six women who stormed the Accra conference won official observer status by the second day of talks, and later succeeded in having a woman included in the five-member Council of State.  Subsequently, this council was headed by a woman, Ruth Sando Perry, the first African woman head of state, as part of the revised Abuja Peace Accord of August 1996. Women have also used international agencies such as UNIFEM to facilitate their participation in formal peace processes, as in Burundi.  In the case of Northern Ireland in the 1990s, women's groups came together to form the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, a political party which participated in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and which was allocated representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Perhaps the most significant example of women's involvement in formal negotiation processes in a "Southern" conflict comes from South Africa. Women were party to the negotiations and three formal bodies were put in place to represent women's concerns—the Office on the Status of Women in the Presidency, a Joint Monitoring Committee in the Parliament, and an independent Committee on Gender Equality.

The sub-committee

Though in the current Sri Lankan process women have been excluded from any negotiating role, one development of significance was the establishment of the Sub-Committee on Gender Issues (SCGI) during the fourth round of talks between the government and the LTTE in Thailand in January 2003. At the third round in December 2002 in Oslo, both the LTTE and Sri Lanka government agreed in principle to establish a women's committee to explore the effective inclusion of gender concerns in the peace process.  During in the fourth round, the representatives to the committee were agreed upon and it was officially constituted. The Sub-Committee is composed of five members nominated by the government of Sri Lanka and five by the LTTE.  However, the SCGI has no mandatory power and its role is provide advice to the main negotiators. Curiously, it was given few formal instructions from the negotiating table — the only sub-committee associated with the negotiating mechanism to be given the freedom to formulate its own terms of reference. This unusual autonomy was also reflected in the choice of the government nominees, who are not members of either the Sri Lankan administration or of any political party.  Their Tamil counterparts are, however, are all members of the LTTE, and it is not yet clear what degree of autonomy they enjoy. Significantly, SCGI members have decided to work as a unified body, lobbying unanimously with other entities in the negotiating mechanism to include gender concerns.

The apparent independence of the SCGI could be seen as providing valuable freedom for the women in the committee to formulate their agendas. However, as the women nominated by the government have noted, this has also meant a very limited interaction with the state and in formal negotiation process. There are as yet, no formal mechanisms for the SCGI briefing the negotiating parties on its concerns, and the real influence that the Sub-Committee has on the overall peace process is questionable.

It is also important to look at the issue of ethnic representation in the SCGI as among other things, it goes to the core of the conflict in the island. Among the five government nominees, three women are publicly perceived to be ethnically Sinhala and two to be Muslim. (It is another matter that these women may not necessarily fit into such neatly simplified categories, but this is how they have been defined in the public perception.) The LTTE nominees are all recognised as being Tamil women. The fact that the Tamil representative is publicly perceived to be exclusively from within the LTTE ranks is extremely significant, and has led to much debate within the women's groups in Sri Lanka.  Many Tamil women who have been working for women's rights in the different women's movements for many years were irked that the LTTE cadres had taken on the role of sole representative of Tamil women, whilst the government nominees were all "non-Tamil". According to government sources, the LTTE had objected to all the Tamil women nominated by the government, which was what led the government to nominate alternative "non-Tamil" women. Responding to this composition, some women were of the view that the government nominees should refuse to serve on the Sub-Committee to protest against the exclusion of non-LTTE Tamil women. They argued that there are non-LTTE Tamil women's groups which understood the needs of the different civilian communities, as a result of decades of experience in campaigning for rights and peace among civilian populations. A strong lobby, however, felt that the SCGI could be a voice that carried the demands of the different women's groups (especially Tamil women's groups) to the negotiating table, and towards this objective it was justified to make a strategic compromise on the question of representation. After all, the Sub-Committee was the only access that women had to the peace process so far. Meanwhile, the five government nominees should be accessible and transparent to all other groups, and should have a participatory open system of discussing issues to be addressed by the larger sub committee of 10, as well as feeding back details of the sub committee's discussions to this larger plural constituency.

Some critics began to feel that the government nominees, who are predominantly from women's rights and human rights backgrounds, were compromising the strategic interests of the women's movement as a whole by being co-opted by the two parties to the conflict. This would undermine protests against issues such as child recruitment and the intimidation of civil society in the North and East by the LTTE. However, as one government nominee explained in personal communication with this writer, they have to tread carefully and negotiate sensitively and innovatively with the other members of the Sub-Committee on how such issues can be addressed in the future.

The class dimension of the body has also been questioned. As one woman pointed out, at a meeting with the government nominees, the latter are predominantly Colombo-based, middle class women and there was no representation of women who have been living and working through the conflict. At least the LTTE nominees were representative of the different regions within the North and the East of the island.

The strategic and the practical

It is important for the future of women's activism in Sri Lanka to examine the nature of the compromises entailed by participation in the SCGI and what benefits will accrue from it. Is it more important to stick to the principles of human rights, women's rights, representation and participation, and keep influencing the peace process from the margins, voicing anger and criticism against the flaws of the peace process? Or is it more important to try and move into the small spaces emerging within the peace process even if they are flawed and circumscribed, to try to expand them? A third option would be to evolve innovative strategies and use as many mechanisms as possible, both formal and non-formal.

Even as these existential questions of purpose and method remain pending, there are other more immediate matters to be resolved. An important challenge for the women in the SCGI is to put forward a common agenda that addresses the concerns of all the members.  As the feminist scholar Maxine Molyneaux, speaking in the context of the movement in Nicaragua and the problems of mobilising women, points out, in forging common platforms, tensions quickly emerge between the "strategic gender interests" and the "practical gender interests". Strategic interests are those concerned with underlying structural inequities, while practical interests are oriented towards more immediate material conditions. As is evident from the debates and disputes surrounding the SCGI, women's movements are never homogeneous. Class, ethnic, religious, caste and political factors influence the work of the different women's groups. The issues that are most commonly experienced and real to most women across these divides are the practical gender interests, such as basic needs and economic needs. And these interests are the ones on which it is easier for different women's groups to unite.  Accordingly, the SCGI has, to begin with, put forward very practical demands upon which both major groups within the committee could agree.

As put out at a meeting between the government nominees and women's groups following the first and second sittings of the Sub-Committee, the concerns of priority for the women from the LTTE are primarily practical gender interests that stem from the realities of women who have experienced conflict at close quarters for over 20 years. These primarily involved issues of relief, health, infrastructure and rehabilitation.  However, the LTTE nominees have also raised 'structural' issues that fall into Molyneaux's category of "strategic gender interests", such as equal representation of women in decision-making processes and violence against women. The government nominees have been guided by documents such as the Women's Manifesto 2001 and the Memorandum to the Government the LTTE and the Norwegian Facilitators from Women's Organisations of Sri Lanka, which present a similar combination of practical and strategic gender interests, but are often couched in the language of human rights. The question remains of how far LTTE members and the women's rights activists nominated by the government can agree to raise fundamental structural issues (or strategic gender interests) such as the subordinate power structures in the communities, violence against women by both the parties to the conflict, issues of justice and accountability, freedom of speech and political activism of women. How the tension between these two types of gender interests will play out remains to be seen.

The recent changes in the peace process are also significant for the Sub-Committee. The earlier mechanisms for rehabilitation and governance established by the LTTE and the government have been effectively dissolved. The two parties are negotiating new proposals for an interim administration to replace these.  It is still unclear where the SCGI currently stands in relation to these new proposals and what role it will have with regard to a future interim administration.

Given this complex background and uncertain future, it is crucial that civil society and women's groups actively lobby with the formal systems. What the conflict resolution experts calls 'track-two activism', needs to play a more prominent role in the peace process. It was when international lobbies demanded some form of involvement of women in the peace process, that the two parties hastily put together the SCGI. But, the Sub-Committee is just one mechanism and it only provides a narrow entry into the formal peace process. Non-formal organisations and groups must innovatively include themselves at the different levels of the peace process, since there are many post-conflict reconstruction concerns that require the participation of the people of the North and East.

After the war

Very often issues of very great significance for the post-conflict situation are ignored in the process of building peace and unless these are addressed with the necessary urgency, the basis for a lasting peace will be undermined. Among the realities that must be considered is the empowerment of women that occurred during the conflict—such as taking on public roles within the community or becoming the sole breadwinner of the home. In the post-conflict phase, there should not be a sliding back.  After the Second World War, women were compelled to leave their employment and to renounce the new status they had acquired in society during the war. Most went back to being housewives. Even when reconstruction and rebuilding of conflict-affected communities is framed within a rights-based framework, these aspects are still thought of within a patriarchal ideology due to the absence of women with the requisite consciousness in key decision-making positions. Even though women have taken on key roles during conflict, their contributions are seen to 'accidental', 'unusual' or 'anomalous' and in most cases when peace is negotiated and implemented, it is assumed that women would go back to their previous subordinate roles.

The failure to validate women's new roles has much to do with how women are represented as victims. Sepali Kottegoda of the Women and Media Collective discusses, in her work Female Headed Households in Situations of Armed Conflict, how the state categorises women who head their own families as 'vulnerable women' or 'destitute women' or 'unsupported women', not giving recognition to their own agency or capacity in their new roles. Therefore, it is crucial that there are women within influential bodies to give a gender sensitive perspective to designing post-conflict policies, so that hard-earned advances made by women made during the past two decades are not lost. Noted South African author, Antjie Krog emphasises this point with regard to the post-apartheid experience. She notes that the African National Congress (ANC) introduced a quota system for women to all its decision-making bodies as part of the new South Africa, giving recognition to the decades of women's political activism against the apartheid regime. It is because of this policy, says Krog, that South Africa is one of the countries with the relatively high levels of women's representation in parliament. In its own perverse way, conflict opens up the scope for a greater women's role in the society and economy. It will be unfortunate, if the peace process reverses this trend in the pursuit of a return to normalcy.


Another concept popular in liberal civil society discussions at the present time is that of 'reconciliation'. Some countries where negotiations have taken place only between the warring parties have opted for a policy of forgive and forget, as in the case of El Salvador and Nigeria.  Scholars such as Ana Ibanez and Murray Last, who have analysed these situations, argue that this policy has not worked as intended. The Nigerian civil conflict was resolved over three decades ago by 'forgetting' the crimes committed by all the sides. As Last observes, "There was no public judgement on what had been suffered, no reparations, no apology; almost no one was held to be accountable for what they had done".

Last notes that the subjects of 'hurt' and 'injustice' were pushed to the 'private' domain, where the process of memory and recovering went on in churches, town unions and family networks. Similarly, in El Salvador, not only was 'forgetting' imposed on people, there was also a condoning of the violence that had taken place. However, as Ibanez notes, even after many years the memories never died in people's minds. It is, on the other hand, heartening that in Peru, after many years, there has finally been an acknowledgement of the violence and killings that took place in the 1980s, due to the conflict between the state and the Maoist group, Sendero Luminoso. The president of Peru accepted the report of the Truth Commission, which had worked for two years documenting the disappearances of over 60,000 people and other human rights violations, and made a public pronouncement that the perpetrators would be prosecuted.

It is still not clear what direction the Sri Lankan peace process will take—whether like Nigeria and El Salvador, the parties to the conflict will decide not to address human rights violations or whether like Peru, they will be compelled to admit their accountability to victims.

Within Sri Lankan civil society, the debates around reconciliation have both applauded and criticised the South African experience. Peace movements, religious movements, human rights activists and psychosocial workers have all been examining the need for processes of reconciliation. For women activists, it is important to maintain a feminist perspective within these discussions. The South African experience itself was clearly designed in such a way that meant many women were unable to approach the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to narrate their own experiences of gender-related violence. Many of the women who had suffered such violence were inducted into important government positions or were prominent businesswomen. Antjie Krog notes that they had strong public roles and could not talk about their very private experiences of sexual violence during the apartheid within the framework of the TRC. According to Sheila Meintjes, the South Africa Commissioner of the Commission on Gender Equality, who spoke at the conference on Women, Peace Building and Constitution Making in Colombo in 2002, out of 21,000 cases presented to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission only a tiny fraction were by women with specific accounts of gender-related violence. Clearly, specific attention needs to be given to developing sensitive and supportive processes for hearing women's experiences, so that there can be a systematic acknowledgment of these violations as well.

It is not only important to push the two parties to recognise and put into place a system of accountability and justice, it is also vital that these mechanisms are framed within a gendered perspective. Therefore, it will be important for Sri Lanka's women's groups to intervene in the design of processes for reconciliation and/or justice in order to enable women's specific experiences to be addressed.  Women's understandings of issues of justice, suffering and what they want in terms of setting to rest past violations, have to be further explored and brought into these debates.

The remains of the war

There is evidence that in post-conflict situations, violence within communities may actually increase compared to earlier levels. This has been the experience in Bosnia as well as in South Africa. This violence also takes on a specifically 'gendered' dimension, for example in the rise of domestic violence or sexual assaults (as in the case of South Africa). In the Sri Lankan print media, there are increasing links made between violent crime and army deserters. It is important to recognise the link between decommissioning when it takes place and the incidences of violence. Then there are other questions: If an interim administration in the North and East were to be solely controlled by the LTTE, will there be any decommissioning on their part?  Will the systematic assassination of other Tamil political figures by the LTTE continue? Given the increasing level of violence in politics, what space will there be for women to enter the political arena in the North and East or the rest of the island?

The complexities involved in decommissioning women militants or soldiers become apparent when one examines the current process being elaborated for child soldiers in Sri Lanka. The current debates have clearly treated child soldiers only as 'victims' and have been pushing for the (temporary) institutionalisation of these children within transitional centres. It appears that this process may completely negate their experiences of 'agency' and power within the movement, although these may be central to their sense of competence and self. There is also a potentially devastating stigma that may be attached to them in terms of both their temporary institutionalisation and subsequent re-integration back into society.

It is possible that a similar disempowering process may be in store for women militants. Ana Ibanez, describing the experiences of women guerrillas in El Salvador, states that for most women, being decommissioned was a very difficult process. Most of the men and women in the movement felt most competent in warfare. They were also used to the regimentation of camp life.  Decommissioning meant that they were separated from their fellow cadres. Reunion with their families was very difficult. The skills of warfare (such as intelligence work or use of weapons) which had been glorified during the conflict were looked down upon once these women re-entered civilian life. Women combatants in Sri Lanka may face similar challenges of devaluation of competence and the renegotiation of entirely new roles in a society from which they had been relatively isolated. Although the LTTE's female cadres seem to look forward to a strong role for women in future political processes, it is yet to be seen whether they, through the Sub Committee on Gender Issues or other fora, will be able to significantly influences the policies governing decommissioning of women cadres. Similarly, the fate of women in the state military apparatus in still unclear.

Women, more than any other constituency in society, are faced with the difficulties of engaging with an evolving peace process that consists of structures and mechanisms that have been pre-designed by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE.  In the Sri Lankan case, the peace process is largely inaccessible to civil society actors and lacks transparency or people's participation. The final peace deal is likely to be negotiated between the two most serious violators of human rights in the conflict. However, even though women have been engaging with a peace process that has fundamental limitations, this has not stopped women's activisms outside the peace process. The lobbying of international donors, political actors and other community leaders continues. The strongest contribution the women's movements have made for peace so far has been the links built across ethnic, caste, class and political divides. Women have been building peace during conflict and continue to do so as part of their daily work, whilst remaining largely independent of petty political manoeuvrings. However, the real challenge facing women activists is to find ways of exerting real pressure on the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to incorporate their perspectives in forging a just peace – which is one that respects women's rights.

"Post-conflict history"

In the post-conflict situation in Sri Lanka, how will the conflict of the last two decades be represented in historical accounts? If there is one victor, usually the history of the conflict is written by victor. In the Sri Lankan case, both parties play a somewhat equal role in the negotiation process. If the negotiations establish two separate units of governance, will there be two separate accounts of history written by the two key parties? Currently, in areas controlled by the LTTE, the historical accounts of the conflict have been shaped by their ideology. LTTE cadres have been exalted and elevated to martyrs to be commemorated. Schools have photographs of the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in their classrooms, accompanied by a map of Tamil Eelam. There are also accounts that documents discussing the history of the 'cause' of the liberators and narrations of the conflict, have been given to many schools by the LTTE in the East. In similar fashion, state supplied textbooks have pointedly omitted any account of the current North-East conflict. And, the 'official' history of Sri Lanka in the government-issued textbooks endorses the idea of the glorious past of the Sinhala-Buddhist civilisations, leaving out historical accounts of the Tamil, Muslim and Burgher communities.

How will representations of history be recorded in a post–conflict situation? And how will women be represented in the historical accounts of the past two decades? Will the LTTE only record women martyrs for their cause? Will women's activism and peace movements be forgotten? Will women's struggles against and triumphs over the brutal realities of conflict be suppressed? Will the human rights violations committed during the conflict and during the peace process be erased from the records? It will be interesting to see what role bodies such as the Sub Committee on Gender Issues have in representing women's histories and personal accounts of the conflict in its aftermath.

(This paper was originally presented at the Peace Studies Programme of the South Asian Forum for Human Rights)

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