WOMEN'S JOURNEY, SRI LANKA – SOUTH AFRICA 2003
Report from the One Day Workshop - Women's Journey to Peace: Strengthening the Next Steps Forward
On the 30th January 2003, 28 women and 2 men people gathered at the Social and Economic Development Centre in Colombo to share experiences, explore issues and to strategise on effective steps forward for women and peacebuilding in Sri Lanka. The workshop was the conclusion of a three-week initiative, the Women's Interfaith Journey - a project of the Henry Martyn Institute (India) held in collaboration with the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. A 9-woman delegation - 4 from South Africa, 4 from Sri Lanka and 1 from India - travelled throughout Sri Lanka, interacting with community-based organisers, displaced and war-affected peoples, peace activists and analysts, aid workers, teachers, students and members of political and military groups. The aim of the Journey was to see and reflect upon conflict and peace-building from a women's perspectives, and to learn something of the views, efforts and responses of Sri Lankan women to the ethnic conflict that has so fractured Sri Lankan society.
The concluding workshop Women's Journey to Peace: Strengthening the Next Steps Forward was designed by the Women's Journey team in consultation with a network of women leaders and their organisations, with the National Peace Council as the collaborating partner. The aim was to highlight women's current priorities and concerns, giving space to learn from, discuss and lend support to promising new initiatives for building peace. It also provided an opportunity for the South African – Sri Lankan travelling team to share observations and learnings from their 3-week experience and for women leaders to meet, strengthen relationships and strategise for peace.
This report first summarises the contents and process of the workshop, then focuses on the findings, learnings and recommendations which emerged from each of the sessions. We have tried whenever possible to preserve something of the voice and flavour of people's comments, although this has not always been possible. We conclude by highlighting some observations about women, politics and change, and then summarise suggestions made by the group about how we can make women's actions for peace more effective.
Summary of Proceedings
The workshop opened with the lighting of a candle, remembering those who have died in the Sri Lankan and all other conflicts, and symbolising a collective belief in - and hope for - the transforming light of peace. Bethan from the National Peace Council welcomed the participants, and then each person introduced themselves to the group. Diane D'Souza of the Henry Martyn Institute, the facilitator of the workshop, gave an overview of the day's programme. She stressed that the strength of the workshop lay in the group's collective experiences and hoped that the four key presentations would help to catalyse wider discussions on initiatives, challenges and strategies for building peace.
In the first session, Kumudini Samuel from the Women and Media Collective focused on the lobbying of women's groups to ensure gender was an integral part of the peace negotiations. Then Saroja Sivachandran from the Centre for Women and Development spoke of the progress of peace in the North East in the first year since the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The group then chose to focus specific attention on the Advisory Sub-Committee on Gender. The Sub-Committee offers an important opportunity for channelling women's perspectives into the peace process. The group brainstormed observations and strategies that might help increase the capacity and power of this unique body.
Following lunch, women assembled using song and a traditional circle dance from South Africa to re-energise the group. Diana Ferris of the University of the Western Cape (South Africa) and Dulcy de Silva of the Women and Media Collective then made a presentation on the Women's Journey. Further input was then given by Dr Deepika Udagama from the University of Colombo, a member of the newly appointed Gender Sub-Committee. The group then brainstormed next steps for action, and concluded the day with words of thanks and a song of celebration.
Bringing Women's Concerns into the Peace Process
Kumudini Samuel is part of the Sri Lankan women's movement which has been involved in efforts to address gaps in the ceasefire agreement and to bring a gendered perspective to the process of building peace in Sri Lanka. Her description of significant steps in information gathering and lobbying for change, which we summarise below, offers us a number of insights.
Over the last year, the climate of the ceasefire has made a great deal of peace-building work possible. In a number of women's groups we looked at the terms of the MOU [the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the Government and the LTTE which gave the terms for the ceasefire] and saw large gaps. It was clear that this was an accord between two combatant groups: the needs of civilians, including freedom of information and the right to know, were missing. We drafted and sent a memorandum presenting these concerns to the Prime Minister, the President, the LTTE, and other key leaders. Then, looking at the issues, we decided to be proactive. We invited a few women from our international networks to travel with Sri Lankan women in a series of island-wide meetings with women's groups and their constituencies. The aim of this International Mission was to discuss people's priorities and needs - to listen to voices 'on the ground' - and to write recommendations based on what we heard. We could then lobby leaders involved in the peace process to include these perspectives in their negotiations. We wanted the resulting report to include not just identified needs but also women's concerns and recommendations about the peace process.
Summarising all the findings from the International Mission into a single document short enough to be effective was extremely difficult. Especially since we knew it was crucial to have the report so that our issues could be placed on the agenda for the third round of peace talks. We realised that if the report was ready quickly, we also could use it to gain support from members of the international community who were meeting to discuss international aid for Sri Lanka. This latter event came within weeks of the completion of our Mission. So the first recipients of the finalised 11-page report were international missions, including the UK and Norway.
To highlight the issues and increase the visibility of the report nationally, we held a rally and collected a petition that went to the Government and the LTTE along with the report. We received positive affirmation from the Government that the Peace Secretariat would take up the issues we raised. The LTTE gave us no response. The Norwegian Ambassador affirmed that the concerns we raised were important to the peace process. Having the report and a strong women's movement to push forward the identified priorities helped persuade the leaders meeting in Oslo to set up an Advisory Sub-Committee on Gender. We had never asked for a separate Committee; what we wanted was 30% representation of women in all committees. But we were given an opportunity and we've taken it.
In the discussion which followed, many points and clarifications arose. Some of the key questions were:
- How can we link up peace efforts with the most vulnerable people in need?
- How can women be more directly linked to the peace process?
- How can we help women's efforts to become more strategic and effective?
A number of useful learnings emerged for women involved in peacebuilding:
- Lobby for change before not after the fact; that is, be pro-active in identifying issues and looking for opportunities.
- Choose to lobby key people: decision-makers who have influence and can make a difference.
- Lobby for the inclusion of 30% of women on all committees.
- Internationalise a conflict to increase the number of players pressing for positive change.
- To do work collectively is very important, especially to seek out and represent a variety of voices, and to have a number of initiatives operating at different levels.
- Women gain political space by collecting and disseminating information, highlighting issues and lobbying for change; this is an effective way to bring women and their organisations more centrally into the political process.
- Address the larger issues at the root of a conflict; in the Sri Lankan context this means addressing political solutions: federalism, devolution of power and constitutional reforms.
-Remember that the peace process succeeds in increments; women's lobbying and advocacy work contributes to moving it forward another significant step.
Realities in the North East after the Ceasefire
The MOU has done nothing, we only have a piece of paper… It is true we don't have war. The fighting has stopped, but there is still war. Saroja
Why is the Government maintaining a high security zone? Why is the LTTE recruiting new cadres? Are we moving to peace or preparing for another war?
For over fifteen years Saroja Sivachandran has been working in Jaffna for women's development at the community level. She described the practical challenges of building peace in the North East - the areas that have suffered the brunt of the war. She noted that many people are not happy as their expectations of a political solution to address the causes of the war have not been met. The consequences of the war remain, including serious challenges presented by the ceasefire. Four of the most pressing problems, according to Saroja, are: resettlement of refugees and displaced persons, continued occupation of High Security Zones by the government, the lack of transparency from both sides around missing and disappeared persons, and child conscription by the LTTE. She also noted that residents of Jaffna find movement in and out of the peninsula difficult. Travelling the A9 roadway that links the North with the South, involves harassment and often informal, unequal taxation. Only a certain class of people are able to avoid this by using air travel. Saroja's discussion of the practical realities of efforts at peace catalysed a wide-ranging discussion. What follows is a summary of the observations and recommendations around a number of key points that were discussed:
Fear, Uncertainty and Lack of Awareness
We don't know what's happening, what talks are going on. (Saroja)
Although most people in the conflict-affected areas want peace, many are fearful of war returning. There is lack of trust in the Government and the LTTE. There is a lack of accountability, transparency and interim justice measures.
Ordinary people seem to have limited awareness about the ceasefire agreement. There is little public ownership of the MOU. One participant from the eastern part of Sri Lanka commented, "When we talk of peace the villagers challenge us, `Why are you coming and messing around in this issue? Our leader [Prabhakaran] is negotiating. Don't come and tell us about peace. Go and talk with the LTTE and the government.'” This is one consequence of excluding the people most directly affected by the conflict from the peace process.
While popular opinion and optimism increases towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict and the peace process, the vast majority of women in Sri Lanka have not been able to become actively involved - ‘to own' the process. General awareness about the process, the MOU and issues and agreements being negotiated remains low. The sustainability of the peace process depends in large part on those who have been marginalised and most affected by the conflict becoming actively engaged, to ensure that gender, ethnic and cultural diversity is respected and safeguarded, to protect the equal right to participate and to restore plural democratic practice. NGOs must work on increasing community awareness of the peace process and its importance.
Resettlement and Reintegration
Resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) is a major priority. Many people are not returning to their homes because they are scared war will resume and that they will lose everything again. The problems they face when they return are not being sufficiently addressed. Some returnees have received a settlement amount of Rs 65,000, but that is not adequate to rebuild a house.
The Army continues to occupy private and public land in the High Security Zones. This means restricted mobility for residents and a lack of access to land and property. The Army reportedly says it will vacate privately owned land only when enough displaced people return to re-settle the areas. Currently there are not sufficient numbers to force the Army to abide by the terms of the MOU. Although the MOU specifies the removal of land mines, this is not being done quickly or effectively enough. People cannot resettle in lands that are still mined.
Meanwhile, across the country, IDPs suffer difficulties in obtaining access to land, employment and security. Many are still unsure about why they were forced to leave their homes. Displaced women often carry a heavier burden than men being the main breadwinner in their families and are made more vulnerable.
- What strategies can we put in place to encourage people to return?
- How can people's security be ensured after their return?
Missing and Disappeared People
We cannot accept children being captured or recruited to take up arms. (Audrey)
At Human Rights offices in the North East, people come daily to ask about children who have disappeared. The LTTE denies that it forcibly enlists children, but some observers contend that this method is being used to build up their cadres. Neither the Army nor the LTTE are giving complete answers to relatives about people who are missing or disappeared.
u Can women from the LTTE and from the South collaborate on obtaining information? An effective strategy could be to have Sinhalese women asking questions on behalf of their Tamil sisters whose family members have disappeared to the Government and vice versa? This may be one way to meet the need for information without disrupting a delicate stage of the peace process.
Economic and Social Rights
In our analyses we need to look at the economics of war, for example, how do the salaries of the home guards or the army personnel contribute to the continuation of the conflict? Which economies depend on the war? (Jasmin)
Many women in Sri Lanka are living in extreme poverty. One of the most pressing needs is access to employment opportunities; also childcare facilities which support women who work outside their homes. Many of the existing inheritance and land laws do not allow women the right to inherit or dispose of land and property
- Does the multiplicity of laws strengthen democracy or does it allow discriminatory structures to oppress women?
- We live in a powerful war economy run by national and international businesses - who benefits? How? and Why?
Diversity and Division
There are differences in priorities and perceptions between groups working on human rights and women's issues in the Colombo area and those functioning in Sri Lanka's North and East. Lack of communication can lead to gaps in knowledge about ‘on the ground' realities. Differing views and perceptions sometimes splits people along ethnic lines. For example, when women activists affirm a commitment to the political, social and economic rights of Muslim women, some Muslim women argue that it is they themselves who need to identify and name their own issues for struggle. As one participant observed, Muslim women cover their head; it is up to us to decide how to formulate this or change it. We have been brought up to live a certain way. When we come into Colombo and see so many indecent cut-outs of women we find it offensive…Why is this exploitation not a focus of attention for women's groups? Why don't we bring up women's rights here?
- Given the diversity of issues effecting and of concern to women, which issues should we take on unitedly as a women's movement and which should we pursue separately?
- Can we identify priority issues that will help take the process of peace forward?
- How do we make collective decisions about these priorities?
- How is the absence of a united women's front affecting the involvement of women in the peace process?
Women's Interfaith Journey
In women coming together, meeting together, there is an easing of emotional stress. (Diana)
Diana Ferris and Dulcy de Silva shared observations and learnings from their three weeks of travel and interaction in Sri Lanka on behalf of the Women's Journey team. Their reflections included the following:
- Women often join military groups because they have no other choice to ensure their survival or to secure their rights.
- People are seldom clear - and certainly do not share a common understanding - about what ‘peace' means.
- The women's movement in Sri Lanka seems to be divided along existing societal divisions. There are also power struggles and ideological differences. Is it possible to put these aside? We need to identify issues that will bring together and unite women.
- It is important that we understand suffering as not just personal but also collective.
- One positive step in working towards recovery and healing is to air things that have happened. People want to know why and how atrocities or tragedies have taken place. If people have not done this, forgiveness can be difficult. As one displaced woman observed, 'How can you come and talk to me about peace when I have lost my sons?'
Some wider observations about women, conflict and peace-building:
” In every conflict worldwide, women are the most affected due to their marginalised role in society and their gender. The armed conflict in Sri Lanka is no exception and has multiplied the vulnerability, inequality and responsibilities placed on women. Women have been widowed and displaced, and are still at risk from rape, harassment, torture and detention. Many women have lost everything. Still they are determined to face the daily challenge of survival. Many are hopeful for the future and have a high level of willingness to forgive. This gives us hope.
” Despite the varied roles that Sri Lankan women have played during the conflict as combatants, teachers, peace builders, and providers for their communities and families, they are still ignored or excluded from the majority of peace building initiatives. Policies and programs remain either gender neutral or gender blind and the voices of women peace builders, activists or those affected by war are rarely heard within the policy dialogue.
” Women are actively involved in building and ensuring peace at many different levels: compiling and sharing documentation and recommendations, contributing to or leading campaigns, and assisting peace monitoring committees. It is imperative that women's perspectives, knowledge, skills and concerns are part of the peace process. The current climate of change and optimism in Sri Lanka provides opportunities for women's increased involvement in political life.
” There is a need for gender sensitive guidelines to be implemented by all agencies/committees involved in social development, reconstruction and rehabilitation with mechanisms for compliance and monitoring. Resources need to be made available or redirected - technical, financial and personnel - if gender issues are to be properly addressed.
The Advisory Sub-Committee on Gender in the Current Peace Negotiations
At the peace talks in December 2002 it was decided to form a Gender Sub-Committee to advise the main negotiation team on the effective inclusion of gender issues in the peace process. The Sub-Committee consists of five women appointed by the Government and five appointed by the LTTE. The Government chose its nominees on the basis of a list of women leaders compiled by national women's organisations. The LTTE chose its members from its own cadres from the North and East. In January 2003, at the fourth session of peace negotiations, the parties asked Norway to appoint a facilitator and senior advisor for the Committee and to contribute financial support.
The Sub-Committee on Gender is a limited but important first step towards ensuring that women's perspectives and expertise are represented at the negotiating table. This is an internationally unprecedented attempt to involve women in formalised peace negotiations. It builds on recent peace processes (including those in Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Burundi), and reflects a growing awareness of the need to include women at all stages of negotiations, peacebuilding and reconstruction. As Deepika remarked, 'It is both exciting and challenging to have the potential and opportunity to bring a unique, powerful and visible women's perspective to peace in Sri Lanka.'
The Sub-Committee has been given no official mandate beyond a very general invitation, 'to explore the effective inclusion of gender issues within the peace process'. This allows significant freedom to define its own mandate. The expectations of those who created the Sub-Committee seem to be that the group will focus on the humanitarian issues affecting women and children. This assumes that women's priorities are one-dimensional, limited to their role as mothers, caregivers or victims of war. To restrict women in this way would be a loss, Deepika noted, especially since a Humanitarian Sub-Committee already exists.
Even though the Sub-Committee is in some ways marginalised from the primary peace talks - having only an advisory capacity - it has the potential to promote women's perspectives and mainstream gender within the peace process. Of critical importance is whether or not the negotiators and the negotiating parties are committed to listening to, and incorporating the Sub-Committee's observations and recommendations.
Some Potential Challenges Facing the Sub-Committee:
- Finding common ground and building trust between Government- and LTTE-appointed women.
- Seeing that the Sub-Committee is supported by the network of women's organisations, which helped bring it into being; and to expand, mobilise and build stronger relationships among this network.
- Ensuring that missing voices are included. For example, the Southern Tamil community's perspectives as the Government selected non-Tamil representatives.
- Finding creative ways to meet the costs of collecting, processing, analysing and disseminating the information needed by the Sub-Committee.
- Seeing that the Sub-Committee is not used as a means to sideline ‘women's issues' which need to be mainstreamed at every level of the peace talks.
- Fulfilling the ambitious hopes for the Sub-Committee while its members simultaneously pursue their own full-time work commitments.
- Seeing that the Sub-Committee gains space to have women's voices heard, and to demonstrate the positive contribution women make to the peace process.
Recommendations for the Sub-Committee to Increase its Effectiveness:
- Address survival issues - poverty and health.
- Stress the importance of enquiries into disappearances and issues of transitional justice.
- Have Government-appointed members of the Sub-Committee visit conflict areas for meetings with women's organisations. Have LTTE-appointed members visit and meet with women's groups in the South.
- Ensure that the mandate is more than a focus on the issues facing women in war affected areas.
- Ensure mutual consultation and communication within the Sub-Committee to identify common ground.
- Find creative ways to see that missing voices (and hence issues) are represented. These include plantation women, Muslim women and Tamil women from the South.
- Speak with a clear, focused and unified voice.
- Maintain neutrality in policies and reporting.
- Focus on the future and where we go from here. By setting aside political and historical baggage and gaining some distance from past events, the Sub-Committee can offer visible and practical steps to help move the peace process forward.
- Prioritise issues into short, medium and long term, including resettlement of displaced people, land claims and disputes, unemployment and livelihood, and political and constitutional reforms to address some of the root causes of the ethnic conflict.
- Constitute Working Committees that help streamline the flow of information by focusing on specific prioritised issues. The Sub-Committee can then have access to the generated information and recommendations.
- Stress budget allocation for identified issues, so that political will is backed up with financial resources. Recommend that money be allocated to gender-sensitive organisations and women's organisations where peacebuilding work can be made more effective and sustainable. Also that all budgets should have a gendered analyses.
- Help to channel information between the North and South, and between policy and the grassroots levels. Share, consult and get feedback on the information they recieve from the media, civil society, policy makers and practitioners.
- Collaborate with and learn from international initiatives and experiences.
- Ensure that gender is mainstreamed within all aspects of the peace process - resettlement, reintegration, reconstruction and all security and development policies and programmes.
Recommendations for Women's Organisations to Help Support the Sub-Committee
- To see the Sub-Committee as a positive first step to women's inclusion in peace negotiations; a beginning not an end.
- Identify issues of concern and make recommendations for action.
- Provide information and resources to the Sub-Committee, including materials and contacts.
- Share lobbying strategies and tools.
- Provide interns and volunteers to assist the Sub-Committee in its work.
- 'Own the Committee' by strengthening relationships between the Sub-Committee and women's groups.
- Raise the Sub-Committee's visibility and influence through media (press, radio, TV), events (seminars, conferences and exhibitions), websites, discussions on peace processes, etc.
- Lobby for influential people and organisations (Government, Women's Ministry, Ministry of Rehabilitation, etc.) to support the Sub-Committee's aims - An additional benefit may be strengthening relationships across parties.
- Build support for and awareness of the Gender Sub-Committee from international women's groups; link the development to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, on women peace and security, (see www.peacewomen.org).
- Take on a monitoring and watchdog role to ensure that recommendations made by the Sub-Committee are implemented.
One theme that surfaced repeatedly at this gathering was the crucial importance of women's participation in political and decision-making processes. We record here some of the observations about women, politics and the paths of change which were made by the group:
- With a very few highly visible exceptions, women are not recognised, valued or supported as leaders in Sri Lanka. We need to lend united support to women leaders.
- Women's leadership does not emerge in a vacuum; there is a need for women to have greater training in and development of leadership skills.
- Women often vote practically; this means they can be visible agents of change.
- We need to identify and prioritise practical steps for ensuring significant women's participation in politics, including lobbying for affirmative policies such as quotas.
- Women's involvement in peacebuilding and reconstruction is an effective vehicle for women's greater access to and participation in all areas of public life.
- Women resolve conflicts everyday in the home; this is a valuable skill which we must utilise more widely. Are there other places we find women exercising leadership or making use of significant strengths? What are they?
- One of the reasons some women are reluctant (or do not gain support) to enter politics is the high level of political violence. This underscores the need to work for political stability.
- Women are often insecure and reluctant to speak out, especially in the presence of men. It is important for women to learn to tell their stories and share their perceptions and ideas with confidence. Also to create and nurture public spaces where women are heard.
- Education curriculum needs to be updated to address issues of confidence, empowerment and leadership.
- Men in Sri Lanka need to become more skilled in sharing public space and relating to women in positive ways. Women bring definite strengths to the peace process but this space is limited by the dominant behaviour of men.
- It is vital for women to be included in all the processes of political resolution which are seeking to address the root causes of the ethnic conflict, including federalism, mechanisms of transitional justice and constitutional reform. We need to insist that women are at least 30% of every committee.
- We need to act proactively, anticipating issues and processes. This means being one step ahead of events. For example, what do we as women want to see in a new constitution?
The day's discussions brought out valuable suggestions to help make women's actions for peace more effective. The following were important reminders about next steps forward:
- Pursue collective initiatives, which bring together women from different backgrounds, districts, classes, ages and ethnicities.
- Unite around key issues or common concern; e.g. demanding information for families of the disappeared, child recruitment, rights of war widows, etc.
- Build on existing initiatives rather than competing or duplicating strategies and efforts.
- Plan strategically, be effective in timing.
- Strategise events around key national and international dates.
- Build strategic alliances - with the media, corporations and businesses, the military, parliamentarians at all levels, and international communities and partner groups.
- Extend a strong network of support to the Advisory Sub-Committee on Gender to see that gendered perspectives are mainstreamed in the peace process.
- Create a database of experienced and well-qualified Sri Lankan women leaders or potential leaders as a resource to help broaden women's participation in decision-making.
- Learn from the experience of other worldwide organisations involved in promoting women in the peace process (e.g. Burundi, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, etc.)
Diane D'Souza (Hyderabad) and Bethan Cobley (Colombo), 10 April 2003
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