“Sri Lankan mothers from the “Dead and Missing Person’s Parents” organisation hold photographs as they takes part in a protest in Jaffna, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Colombo. Photo: AFP” (International Commission on Missing Persons)
Note: This piece was commissioned for and originally published in Options Magazine, 51 edition, in Sri Lanka, in 2016. The full magazine is online here. This article is published here in full with only one minor edit.
Women are still mostly invisible from many of the processes which govern and shape our societies. The matter of women in politics is not the only matter at hand – but it does unsparingly reveal the crux of the problem. Keeping women from politics is about keeping women from a serious engagement with decision-making; it is about how women’s voices are shut down and discredited, the moment they appear in the public sphere. The world, in general, does not like listening to women. The very concept of listening to women still evades many people, many conversations and many spaces. The twenty-year long fight in Sri Lanka, to get the mandatory women’s quota in all political parties contesting in elections fixed at 25% (from an abysmal 2% before) was won earlier this year, but even then, not without ugliness. Our systems have a way of disappearing women.
But they are here; they are still here. In fact, in a post-war country where an armed conflict took lives for nearly 30 years, and other cycles and mechanisms of violence before, during and after claimed their own, there are, sometimes, only women. Many households, many communities, particularly in the North and North East of Sri Lanka, are women-led. The women are, emphatically, still here.
This year, in addition to the ‘25%’ victory, women are being heard marginally more than usual in Sri Lanka. The state has engaged women directly through critical consultative processes on significant issues. One was the mechanism of public consultations on constitutional reform; across Sri Lanka, women made daring submissions to the Public Representations Committee, which addressed issues of gender equality across the board.
The second such process is, of course, the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms. The Consultations Task Force (CTF) has been receiving and reviewing public submissions since April this year. One of the key mechanisms mandated is the set-up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), and getting the OMP bill passed.
Enforced disappearances have been a deep, dark problem which Sri Lanka has had an intensely complicated relationship with. They happened in the North and North East to members of the Tamil community, with the war for nearly 30 years; they happened in the South to members of the Sinhalese community when previous governments tried to violently crush youth-led Marxist insurrections more than once. It remains one of grossest acts of violence committed on civilians in times of war and crisis, primarily because no government has ever admitted it to be true. Just recently, on the 23 August 2016, the speaker of parliament signed the Office of Missing Persons Act, making it a legal act.
While commissions have been appointed before to look into disappearances, many of those were for investigating disappearances in the South. The mandate of the OMP includes investigating disappearances in the North and North East. Finally, something is being said about the Tamil community’s losses. For the first time, steps have been taken by the state, post-war, to at least acknowledge disappearances which occurred as a consequence of the war, of war-related measures of ‘security’ taken by the Sri Lankan state and armed forces, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
However, it is clear that the problem of enforced disappearances is yet to entirely disappear from our society – with the war ‘ended’, with a new government in place, there are serious indications that it still continues. With the OMP now in motion, the new government must also take steps to abolish the dangerously exploited PTA if it is serious about dealing with disappearances.
But it didn’t take the OMP to bring the topic of disappearances into our midst. Throughout the civil war in Sri Lanka, and throughout the other moments of violent conflict, it has been women – typically mothers and wives of the disappeared – who have been the face of all the disappeared, Tamil and Sinhalese, of this country; women, refusing to disappear, standing in for their loved ones who have been made invisible.
Through organisations like Poorani, Mother’s Front and The Association of War Affected Women and Parents of Servicemen Missing in Action, mothers and wives of the disappeared have made their voices heard – in a sustained, long-term manner, over decades, North to South. They have been in the struggle for justice for a long, long time.
In their story, the story of Sri Lanka’s civil war – marked by racism, violence and the strategic deepening of ethnic divisions – is immediately made less simplistic, less black and white, less ‘us’ and ‘them’; it complicates things, and in a profound way. Tamil and Sinhalese women have come together on several historic occasions to protest enforced disappearances, when relations between the two communities have been at their worst. Even when they protested among their own communities, in their own towns, their protests stand out in history as incredibly provocative: often, the moral and emotional authority of ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ ensured that these women could express their grief and rage without fear, and with gravity. But their demands were never simplistic: they wanted them back, or they wanted the people who had killed them to be tried through fair, concrete mechanisms.
They had a clear sense of what ‘justice’ meant, long before talks of transitional justice had begun in Sri Lanka. They had understood that these questions were going to need to be answered, in order for there to be ‘reconciliation’. Decades ago, these women were already telling us that ending the war wouldn’t be enough to really end the war.
In the reconciliation mechanisms processes, it is in the spaces of these women that some feeling of understanding seems to be making itself felt; it is these women who are beginning to talk to each other, to be the first to instinctively understand reconciliation and reparation. It is them who are crossing boundaries of race and mistrust to say, ‘I understand we have a shared experience of unthinkable pain; I also understand we, as members of different ethnic communities, have experienced the war entirely differently.’ It is in them that we see most clearly the need for accountability and justice; with them, we see that without accountability and justice, we cannot begin making the journey towards reconciliation and healing.