The ‘Women’s Question’ in Sri Lanka: A Reflection in 2017

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(Written originally for and published in ShishtaLanka – DecentLanka – February 2017, in translation in Sinhala)

What is the role, and what is the status, of women in Sri Lanka today? Where do we stand? These are the primary questions I asked of myself when I began writing this essay. It seemed a good moment, at the beginning of a new year, at the close of the second year following what we believed to be a watershed general election, to reflect.

Sri Lanka has lived through several centuries of colonial rule, three decades of civil war, natural disaster and most recently, 8 years of authoritarianism. In January 2015, the Sri Lankan people effectively voted out a racist, corrupt, authoritarian regime and voted in the ‘Yahapalanaya’ (good-governance) coalition government, on the promises of transparency, accountability, an end to corruption and cronyism, long-term, thoughtful resolutions to our conflicts and a peaceful, inclusive future. Where do we stand? How far did we get? And so, it seemed a good time to reflect.

Last year, two key wheels were set in motion: one is a discourse on transitional justice, and the other, a call for constitutional reform. Two committees were appointed by the government to hear the people’s demands and concerns on both these matters: the Public Representations Committee (PRC) to consult with the public on constitutional reform, and the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) to hear the people’s suggestions and ideas on transitional justice processes and needs. The final reports of both those committees now remain in the public domain after being officially handed over to the government. Whatever the intentions of this government may be, they can now remain permanently a point of reference for what the people want.

Many interesting things arise out of the findings of both these committees but important to note was the role of women. Women made significant contributions to both committees across the island. Working together, over 20 women’s groups and over 70 women’s rights activists from around Sri Lanka made submissions to the PRC, highlighting women’s concerns and shaping suggestions for a new constitution that would strengthen women’s rights across the board. Women and Media Collective (WMC) notes, ‘Within the discussions there was an overall sense that the socio-economic rights of the people must be established. These include the right to life, education, health, water and shelter to name a few. On the other hand provisions pertaining to women on violence, equal wages, land and property rights, sexual and reproductive rights, political participation and electoral reforms and establishing a women’s commission were brought forward.’[1]

The CTF too received a significant portion of its submissions from women; women across Sri Lanka were particularly concerned about justice in relation to missing persons, with the wives and mothers of the disappeared taking an active role in this process, demilitarisation, justice for victims of sexual violence during the war, and having safe spaces for mourning and memorialisation.

The role of Sri Lankan women in this precise moment – post-independence, post-war, and post-authoritarianism – in building a peaceful, inclusive and democratic Sri Lanka, is critical. More critical, however, is that the need for women’s direct and dynamic engagement with these processes is acknowledged.

I see the role of women as two-fold in the present context:
a) Women, post-war, and their role in transitional justice
b) Women and their increased political participation and representation

It is 2017. We have seen change and we have also not seen change. We have felt hope and we have also felt disappointment. We feel uncertain, while we want to remain optimistic. However, 68 years after independence from colonial rule and 8 years after the so-called end of the war, we have to ask: what is our role, as people? Have we done enough? Have we given each other enough?

And through it all – as Kumari Jayawardena notes – ‘The women’s question is always with us.’[2]

The war, Sri Lankan women, and their role in transitional justice

In The Broken Palmyra, [3] Chapter 5 is titled “No More Tears Sister: The Experiences of Women, War of October 1987”. This was perhaps one of the earliest insider-accounts to document, sometimes verbatim, the experiences of women in the North of Sri Lanka, during the early years of the war.

Chapter 5 in The Broken Palmyra documents rape and sexual violence, the way in which the enforced disappearances of young men affected the lives of women, and the relationship between women and the struggle for Tamil self-determination. While this was one of the first such accounts, it certainly was not the last to attempt an exploration of the ways in which the Sri Lankan civil war uniquely affected (and affects) women, and the ways in which women experienced the war. It took many years for any special focus to be placed on the experiences of women in war in Sri Lanka; it took many more to normalise, to some extent, a gender focus in discourses on war and peace.

Neloufer de Mel captures the range of roles that women play/played during and after the war, quite aptly, when she writes: ‘The women, of varying ethnicity and age, had experienced the war in a variety of ways, whether as mothers of sons and daughters in the Sri Lankan army or the LTTE; mothers of army deserters or soldiers missing or killed in action; women combatants and ex-combatants; women survivors of rape and torture by military personnel; war widows; wives and caregivers of disabled soldiers; or victims of numerous displacements, sudden heads of households and single parents. In many cases, women laboured under a multiplicity of such conditions.’[4]

And even so, even while women have been so central to the war-narrative, to the war-reality, and experience the war in every imaginable way – and some unimaginable ones – women’s stories and realities are often erased or sidelined in favour of the heroic, masculine narrative of war and combat. Women’s stories and experiences could perhaps offer us a more nuanced look at what happens in a war – and yet, time and again, we are happy to brush them aside for a more convenient narrative of war as glorious, war as necessary.

It is in the female experience of war that women are transformed into important agents of change in a post-war context. This, too, we are happy to ignore. Women, as mothers and wives, sisters and daughters, fighters and lovers, leaders and survivors, carry important power post-war, to shape and transform their own lives, as well as the trajectories of their communities. But, eternally cast as ‘victim’, women can often go unheard in peace processes and transitional justice processes.

Radhika Coomaraswamy and Dilrukshi Fonseka write in their introduction to Peace Work[5], ‘It is one thing to acknowledge and account for the overwhelming difficulties faced by women in times of war. It is another thing, however, to remain fixed to a one-dimensional conceptualisation of women as victims of war.’

They argue that this conceptualisation of women as victims is a disadvantage in three distinct ways: one is that it erases the reality of female militarism and the role of women combatants in war efforts; that ‘women are also capable of horrific violence’. Second, they argue that it does not account for the ways in which women may benefit from the circumstances of war, by acquiring new roles and/or new power within the home, community etc., and finally, that it does not allow for us to see the full potential of women in peace-building efforts. This last one is the most important to reflect on, in a post-war era, when transitional justice processes have been set in motion. Women are critical to real peace-building.

In my article for Options magazine “The Women Are Still Here: The Mothers and Wives of Sri Lanka’s Disappeared and the Trope of Reconciliation”[6], I asserted that women have a critical role to play in Sri Lanka’s process of transitional justice and in any processes that will take all Sri Lankans towards healing. They always have. As those who have suffered and survived the consequences of the war, short-term and long-term, in unique and cruel ways, women have always played a remarkable role in our history as seekers of truth and justice. Mothers and wives of the disappeared, South and North, have been at the forefront of the fight for justice and accountability for the last two decades. As community leaders and heads of households in a post-war landscape, Sri Lankan women make crucial economic and political decisions for their families and communities. Sri Lankan women have been called on to carry on living and ensure the survival of others in the worst of times; for this, they have had to be creative, resourceful, resilient and powerful, often – and this is perhaps uniquely female – working together with each other and strengthening bonds of community.

A feminine narrative of war could truly aid healing and transitioning – it is the female narrative of resilience, survival, solidarity, family, perseverance, entrepreneurship and resourcefulness in hard times versus the masculine narrative of war – a binary dichotomy of victory and defeat, heroes and terrorists, which serves only to antagonise those grieving and to remove culpability from ‘the victors’. The feminine narrative is rich, and deep and complex. It is perhaps, better suited to fuel a real search for truth, justice, peace and meaning. We have to make space for this narrative to be heard and recognised. It may be our only real shot at a peaceful and inclusive future.

Sri Lankan women and political representation

Sri Lanka gave women the right to vote as early as 1931, much earlier than most other countries, and of course, gave the world its first woman head of government, with the appointment of Sirima Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike as Ceylon’s prime-minister in 1960.

However, Sri Lanka still remains hopelessly behind in terms of the equal representation of women in all levels of politics. While Sri Lanka boasts a relatively high ranking in many development indicators, in comparison to other countries in South Asia, we still suffer from an abysmal low number of women in politics, at the local and national levels.

While we gave the world its first head of government, and her daughter too became our President in later years, it’s good to remember that these are not necessarily signs that Sri Lanka, has, in any way, met patriarchy head on, though we are quick to say they are indeed such signs. Major women leaders in our societies, as we have seen across South Asia, are typically either wives or daughters of beloved male leaders and members of wealthy, old dynastic political families. The pattern seems to go that they sweep in to power subsequent to an assassination of said male relative: Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Sirima and Chandrika Bandaranaike.

This is not to detract from the important shifts in existing power structures for which they were invariably responsible. But as Kumari Jayawardena notes, ‘…there is no point just electing a few women who, even at local level is somebody’s wife or relative.  We have done studies on local government, and found that many of the women who contested Provincial Councils and pradeshiya sabhas, had a link to a man – a husband or uncle or somebody who got assassinated, leading her to enter politics.’ [7]

We refer to this as the ‘Bandaranaike Syndrome’, and Jayawardena asserts that the Bandaranaike Syndrome can be seen not just at the level of national politics, but at the local, rural levels too. ‘The ‘Bandaranaike syndrome’ at the top, comes down to village level politics: where the name is known and they are from influential political families and have been engaged in political work themselves, women are accepted and their entering politics is not opposed. These women politicians keep talking about the legacy of the man who brought them the winning seat.’[8]

This is where a conversation about quotas becomes important.

The struggle for quotas for women in politics has thrown light on many layers of problems. There are many levels at which women are held back from succeeding in the world of politics: one is at the level of self-selection – socio-cultural and socio-economic realities ensure that women often themselves do not believe that they are worthy candidates or could enter a life of politics; the second is at the level of the party, where parties systematically discriminate against women candidates and rarely if ever nominate women; finally, it is at the level of the electorate, where a combination of a lack of visibility in relation to other campaigns, and conditioned sexism and social biases towards male authority prevent women from being elected by the public.

To advocate for an increase in women in all political spheres is to attempt to address all these problems holistically and simultaneously. Women’s groups have been lobbying political parties to be fairer in their selections, capacity-building women leaders to contest in elections and take up office, and attempting to change the biases of the public, for decades.

In 2011 Chulani Kodikara wrote, ‘Recently the Sri Lankan government has also sought to explain away the low levels of political representation of women to the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), attributing it to women’s own choices, their preoccupation with multiple roles, the high costs of electoral campaigns and the lack of confidence of political parties in the ability of women to win votes.’[9] Unfortunately, these are the arguments we still hear: ‘women don’t come forward’; ‘women have too many other responsibilities’.

In 2015 and 2016, with the election of the new government, however, the women’s movement was more hopeful than it had been in awhile. The news that President Maithripala Sirisena in his 100 day Work Programme, was proposing that legislation would be introduced to ensure at least 25% women’s representation in Provincial Councils and Local Government, was received with optimism. This was approved in parliament in February of 2016. In 2015, the cabinet also approved a 30% quota for women at the Provincial Council level.

However, in the fight to procure women more political representative power, we are still up against many challenges, least of all the unchecked and unquestioned male privilege and sense of entitlement of most male politicians, a sheer lack of will from political parties to give women a chance, the poison of a viciously patriarchal political culture, and deeply-rooted social and cultural biases against women in power.  It is in this realm, in the realm of politics, that we sometimes find ourselves up against the basest forms of sexist ideology. It is often here we see it all laid bare. Kodikara writes, ‘The paradox of strong development indicators and weak political representation of women is a sign of enduring patriarchy, reinforced by political and judicial elites.’ [10]

Kodikara wrote, in an extensive stock-taking study about women in politics in Sri Lanka, ‘A major barrier to equal representation of women in political institutions in Sri Lanka is the current political culture, the male model of politics and the lack of internal democracy within political parties.’[11]

Women have to be able to make decisions; women need their fair share of real, meaningful power. Women need the opportunity to make decisions that matter, for themselves, their communities, and their country. It is only a true and lasting change in political culture, which will allow women the opportunity to enjoy and exercise more power and thus engage in more critical decision-making, at all levels. Until women are given the space to engage with and contribute more fully to nation-building and decision-making, until the full potential of women in nation-building is not recognised, Sri Lanka will remain behind socially, economically and developmentally. Women need to be recognised for their full potential as unique and extraordinary agents of change and transformation; only then, can we all truly tread the path of real progress.

 

 

[1] Women and Media Collective: http://womenandmedia.org/womens-submissions-to-the-prc-on-constitutional-reforms/

 

[2] The Hindu: “There was a gap about our part of the world”, Meera Srinivasan (Jan 01 2017)

[3] The Broken Palmyra: The Tamil Crisis in Sri Lanka – An Inside Account: Rajan Hoole, Daya Somasundaram, K Sritharan, Rajani Thiranagama (UTHRJ, 1988, 1990)

[4] Militarizing Sri Lanka; Popular Culture, Memory and Narrative in the Armed Conflict: Neloufer de Mel (SAGE Publications,2007)

[5] Peace Work; Women, Armed Conflict and Negotiation: ed. Radhika Coomaraswamy and Dilrukshi Fonseka (Women Unlimited & ICES, 2004)

[6] OPTIONS 51 (Women and Media Collective, 2016)

[7] OPTIONS: “What does women’s political participation mean in 21st century Sri Lanka? | An interview with Dr. Kumari Jayawardena” (WMC, 2013)

[8] OPTIONS: “What does women’s political participation mean in 21st century Sri Lanka? | An interview with Dr. Kumari Jayawardena” (WMC, 2013)

[9] Open Democracy: “Sri Lanka: where are the women in local government?”: Chulani Kodikara (Open Democracy, 2011)
https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/chulani-kodikara/sri-lanka-where-are-women-in-local-government

[10] Open Democracy: “Sri Lanka: where are the women in local government?”: Chulani Kodikara (Open Democracy, 2011)
https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/chulani-kodikara/sri-lanka-where-are-women-in-local-government

[11] Equal Political Representation of Women in Sri Lanka A Stocktaking Report for the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment and the United Nations Development Programme: Chulani Kodikara (Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment, Sri Lanka and UNDP, 2009)

 

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