|Thursday, 13 February 2003|
Such a long journey : The Committee of Women in Sri Lanka
Out of focus by Nimanthi Perera-Rajasingham
After years of demands, conferences, and numerous written statements to the government on the issues of women and empowerment, it seems a Committee of Women has finally been appointed. This committee is one of the first in countries of post-conflict resolution and will hopefully mean great positive changes for women of Sri Lanka. Except for countries like Ireland (through the Northern Ireland Women's European Platform), and South Africa (through the Women's National Coalition) many countries in the post-conflict era have not seen such committees or commissions.
Perhaps one of the strongest reasons for the success of such a committee may lie in the fact that women are not part of the power equation that caused the conflict to begin with in the first place. While I do not suggest that women are essentially peaceful and men violent, often those who have been at the decision making levels over the past years have been almost exclusively men. This may mean that the marginalization of women thus far can be their strength. For it is quite clear that even when women participate in violent processes, they do so at the low levels.
Arriving at such a point was no easy task for women and met with a great deal of resistance along the way. This long journey of arrival has perhaps an even longer journey ahead for the committee and for women involved in the process. The task of ensuring a gender perspective in post-conflict resolution to bring about a more gender sensitive society is definitely a challenge. Where to begin, and where to end seem unclear, and the task of women from diverse perspectives and backgrounds working together is definitely a concern. Yet, it is an exciting and invigorating time for not only for the women of this committee, but also for women in the country who desire positive change and constitutional reforms that include women as equal partners with men in the future.
The announcement of the intended Women's Committee came along with the following statement on December 5th issued by the Royal Norwegian Government.
"The parties agreed that a committee of women will be instituted to explore the effective inclusion of gender issues in the peace process. The committee will also, on a regular basis, submit proposals relating to women's interests to the sessions of the negotiations and to the sub-committees of the peace process."
Kumari Jayawardena, Kumuduni Samuel, Faizoon Zakariya, Deepika Udugama and Dr. Fazeela Riyas are the committee members from the 'southern' or government side. While Sivahimi Subramaniyam, Renuka Sanmugaraja, Mathimalar Balasingham, Sridevy Sinnathampi, and Vasanathapiraminy Somasundaram are the candidates from the LTTE side. Both these groups are set to meet for the first time in March via Norwegian facilitator Professor Astrid Helberg. What is significant about this committee is the fact that these ten women can set up a mandate of their own, and may have the power to influence not only the LTTE and the Government, but the other sub-committees appointed as well.
An obvious question that springs to mind when talking of this committee is to ask how it came into existence. What prompted the government and the LTTE to agree to a committee for women's affairs? To answer this question, it is imperative we look at some of the events of the recent years that may have strengthened the lobby for such a committee. It becomes clear also that such a committee only came about because of the persistent lobbying for the empowerment of women in the political processes, which thus far have excluded women in the most appalling manner.
A closer look at the history of the women's movement can give insight into this question. It is a notable fact that the feminists and women activists in Sri Lanka were among the first to demand a peaceful political settlement to the ethnic conflict. Throughout the last two decades women have constantly demanded an end to atrocities against humanity, and against women.
The Mother's Fronts in Jaffna and in the South are good examples of women demanding an end to violence. Another example is how when Rajani Thiranagama was assassinated in Jaffna, women activists from the south of Sri Lanka, and from India and Pakistan condemned this act, and travelled to Jaffna for her funeral, to grieve and protest against this brutal act.
Continuously throughout the years, women activists have demanded an end to violence in this country. In the early 1980s a signature campaign was conducted by 100 prominent women activists to demand an end to war. Organizations such as the Women's Coalition for Peace have demanded the same over and over throughout the years.
Subsequently, last year, there was a series of conferences and discussions to make clear the need for women to be included in the peace process. This conference in May 2002 entitled "Women, Peace-building and Constitution Making" was an important moment in our history. It saw the grouping of numerous academics and activists from around the world.
Women who had experienced violence and had worked on such issues for years came together to share their experiences. This brought to the notice of the media, the government, and the public at large the need for the inclusion of women into the various stages of peace-negotiations. Subsequently, in June we saw discussions on Sri Lankan women's interests and needs specifically.
Finally, last October women from various parts of the world met again in Sri Lanka in an attempt to delve into some of the issues relating to women and peace. Organized by Women and Media Collective, this International Women's Mission travelled widely throughout the country to look at important issues that needed probing into.
The culmination of all these efforts has resulted in women lobbying at numerous levels. Recommendations and Memorandums were made of which The Women's Manifesto is one such important statement that formulated some of the needs of women. This is an independent collective demand of women activists from NGOs like Women and Media Collective, The International Centre for Ethnic Studies, the Social Scientists Association, Muslim Women's Research and Action Forum and others. All these discussions, protests, demands seem to be finally paying off, proving the existence of a collective of women who do agitate for the interests of women in Sri Lanka.
What this committee can mean to women cannot be underestimated. It can perhaps be a watershed moment, the result of years of struggles. Finally, there is hope that women's voices will be heard in areas of resettlement, reconstruction, violence against women, land titles, compensation, reproductive rights, education and many more.
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