Heads up for women at NPC polls


An independent group comprising mostly women candidates who were affected by the war will be contesting the forthcoming Northern Provincial polls.

The group comprising 19 candidates is led by Thambipillai Iruthaya Rani. Sixteen of the 19 contestants are women. The group filed their nominations at the District Secretariat, Jaffna, on Thursday (1).

Commenting on their participation, the independent group said, the plight of the widows in the North was pathetic. “We are therefore striving to highlight the difficulties of the war-affected widows in the North,” one of the candidates, said.

Meanwhile, the political observers in the North said the plethora of issues that women and children, affected by war have been facing and the difficulties they are being subjected to, should be brought to the fore.

As such, the participation of the independent group of women affected by war is a crucial aspect in the polls for the Northern Provincial Council (NPC), political observers said.

Meanwhile, election campaigns in Jaffna are expected to begin this week. As the Nallur Kanthaswamy Temple festival, which begins on 12 August and will go on for nearly a month, is believed to be a crowd puller, election rallies in the city of Jaffna and the suburbs are expected to be held without much fanfare, sources said.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has started its campaign with pocket meetings in various parts of Jaffna.

UNDP recognizes woman activist for achievement in diverse fields


Thavachsri Charles Vijayaratnam from Kilinochchi has been honoured with the UNDP managed N-Peace Award -2013, in recognition of her unceasing efforts to improve the lives of the rural communities.

The UNDP Asia Pacific Regional Centre (APRC), in its report on selecting Vijayaratnam for the award, said, she played many roles through her social service activities in the Kilinochchi region.

“This can be seen in the many hats she wears: From serving as Secretary of the Community-level Women’s Rural Development Society, President of a women’s group, Treasurer of the Women’s Development Federation and the Secretary of the Divisional Network Committee of the Karaichchi Division in Kilinochchi.

“Vijayaratnam’s activism spans the spectrum. She has helped orphans and disadvantaged children to access education, assisted families with malnourished children to obtain support, and helped communities to obtain essential legal documents such as birth certificates, death certificates and land rights documents.

“She has also worked extensively for the advancement of women’s rights and livelihoods by supporting women-headed households to access revolving loan funds and skills development trainings. By integrating vulnerable and marginalized groups into society, Vijayaratnam paves the way for a peace that benefits all,” the UNDP said in a release.

Thavachsri Charles Vijayaratnam will be awarded the N-Peace award-2013 along with other women recipients  from Afghanistan, Nepal, Philippines, East Timor and Indonesia, at an event to be held in Bangkok in October.

SL women say no to pre-war status quo


By Kumudini Samuel and Chulani Kodikara

War is a gendered process. Post-war is no different. It may be a cliché to say that in Sri Lanka, as elsewhere in the world, the most visible and harmful impact of 30 years of war has been on women, but that is the reality. As men joined militant groups or the armed forces, were arrested, abducted, disappeared, or took flight to safer locations outside the community or the country, women were left behind to cope with fractured families and communities; multiple displacement, transition in alien spaces, such as camps for the displaced; or resettlement in distant and unfamiliar regions.

Untold numbers of women, mostly Tamil, (but including a significant number of Muslim and Sinhala women living in conflict affected areas) became de facto and de jure heads of household and were thrust into new roles, both within and outside the private domain. They became responsible for the physical and economic security and survival of their families and had to battle the cultural constraints that challenged this conflict-imposed transition. While the violence of war and attendant militarism also contributed to increase the nature and levels of violence against women, ranging from sexual harassment to rape and sexual torture they were never merely victims of the war and violence.

Frontline HR defenders

Women took up arms, fighting alongside male combatants, both within the LTTE and the Sri Lanka armed forces. As suicide bombers of the LTTE Tamil women broke every conceivable stereotype of the ‘good Tamil woman.’ But, women were also frontline human rights defenders engaging with political and military institutions on behalf of detained, tortured, raped, disappeared or executed loved ones. They were peacemakers in their villages mediating mutual co-existence with hostile neighbours. At the national level they became part of movements, such as the Mothers’ Fronts, demanding to know the whereabouts of fathers, brothers and sons who had disappeared. They also campaigned for an end to the fighting, calling for a politically negotiated settlement to the conflict, engaged with processes of constitutional reform and in 2002, demanded the inclusion of women and gender concerns in the peace process. In fact, the government of the day responded by appointing the Sub Committee on Gender Issues, with a mandate to include gender concerns in the peace process. Although the Committee could not continue its work when the peace process collapsed, it remains a significant landmark in women’s activism in Sri Lanka.

The conflict has touched and transformed the lives of myriad women. Take the story of Jenzila Majeed. In 1990, at the age of 20, Jenzila, together with the entire Muslim population living in Mullaitivu was evicted by the LTTE. She says she was most probably destined to become a teacher. As an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) living in Puttalam, she found it impossible to ignore the plight of those displaced with her and in a less fortunate situation.

Lives transformed

Together with five other Muslim men, she set up the Community Trust Fund in 1992. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to highlight the plight of displaced Muslims and Tamils, focusing particularly on livelihoods, health issues and women’s empowerment. Her work was internationally recognized this year when she became one of 10 recipients of the International Woman of Courage Award given by the US State Department. At home in Sri Lanka, she however, remains almost unknown.

Or take the story of Saila, who is the Secretary of the Taraka Widows’ Assistance Centre, in Chavatkadu, Jaffna. She lost her father to the war at eight years and her mother struggled to provide for her five children. Saila was married at 17 and widowed at 19 with a year-old-daughter. Unable to deal with the ostracization of widows, she rarely left her home in the next five years before meeting psychosocial workers from Shanthiham. Saila then trained as a psychosocial worker and began to play a leadership role at the Taraka Widows’ Assistance Centre. Gaining both economic independence and respect in the community, the group of 90 widows has been able to challenge social bias and transform their lives. They attend weddings, auspicious religious ceremonies, dress in bright coloured clothes, engage in public enterprise and deal with male officials and businessmen on equal terms.

Opening up new opportunities

Conflicts inevitably produce structural transformations for some women opening up new social, economic and political opportunities, which challenge and reframe gender hierarchies and roles. But how does one sustain these positive gender shifts in the aftermath of war? Oftentimes the end of war signals a return to the pre war gender regime and valiant efforts to ‘reconstruct gender’ in the old way.

One way to contribute to the consolidation of positive gains of women during war in its aftermath is to ensure women’s participation and representation in post-war decision-making processes. The experience of South Africa, Rwanda, and Liberia provide compelling evidence of how policy and legal reforms can contribute to women’s empowerment in post-war contexts building on the diverse experiences of women during times of war.

In Sri Lanka, however, women remain unrecognized and invisible in post-war reconstruction and reconciliation processes. The 19-member Presidential Task Force on Northern Development appointed in May 2009 does not have a single woman. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) had only one woman. This is compounded by the abysmal representation of women in formal political institutions and the continuing lack of political will to enact affirmative action to increase representation.

Given the absence of women in these high-level decision-making processes, we wonder about the content of rehabilitation programmes for ex-women/girl combatants in various rehabilitation centres around the country. Are they now being re-educated to become good Tamil women again? We wonder about the livelihood programmes being proposed for widows and female heads of households? To what extent do these programmes offer non-traditional livelihoods/vocational training options for women, do policy-makers recognize women as primary income earners? Or do they continue to reinforce gender biases and stereotypes?

While official government policy maybe taking a protectionist and welfarist approach to women in the post -war context, many women who experienced the war first hand may not be willing to go back to their kitchens and resume their pre-war gender roles. As demonstrated at the Jaffna Municipal Council elections held in August last year, women in the war affected areas in this county are ready to take up the challenge of rebuilding their communities in the aftermath of war.

Welfarist approach

From a total of 174 candidates, who ran for the 23 seats in the Jaffna Municipal Council, 10 were women. They had obtained nominations from various political parties. Three of the women won; a high 30% of those who contested. These statistics defy the national norm, where no more than 2% women get nominations at local level. Anthonypillai Mariamma, a widow who contested from the TNA and who was among the winning candidates had this to say:

“I am contesting for the municipal elections, because I think people in Jaffna must come forward after all these years to claim their democratic rights. I am also contesting to ensure that widows are not marginalized and are treated without discrimination. I was asked if I was not afraid of the violence of politics and I said, the only way to challenge the violence is for women to stand for elections and prove that violence can be eliminated from our politics.”

Ensuring gender justice in the aftermath of war does not happen in isolation. It is more often than not part of a wider process which addresses root causes of the conflict and which attempts to negotiate a new post war social order in which all people irrespective ethnic, gender, religious or other differences are ensured equality and social justice. Post-war reconstruction and reconciliation in Sri Lanka is, however, almost exclusively government led without the benefit of such a process. This is what we desperately need, an inclusive process in which all of us, men and women, can re-imagine and renegotiate the fundamental contours of this nation state in a way that the rights of all identity groups are recognized and respected.

Remarks at a Security Council Open Debate on Women and Peace and Security: Sexual Violence in Conflict



Thank you, Mr. President, for organizing today’s debate and for the priority that you are devoting to combating sexual violence in conflict. I also appreciate the remarks and presence of Secretary-General Ban this morning. And thank you, Special Representative Bangura, Special Envoy Jolie, and Ms. Adong Anywar for your briefings and your leadership on this critical issue affecting international peace and security.

The United States welcomes this opportunity to reaffirm the indispensable role of women in bringing peace and security to countries embroiled in conflict or emerging from it. Women’s active — indeed integral — involvement in peace processes and transitional justice mechanisms, including to address sexual violence, is critical to laying the foundation for lasting peace.

The resolution that we have adopted today reinforces our collective efforts to prevent conflict-related sexual violence, hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes, and provide support and justice to the survivors. It also recognizes that national governments have primary responsibility for addressing this issue.

We see signs of progress, as some national governments are making justice systems more responsive and accessible to survivors of sexual violence. For example, Sierra Leone’s new Sexual Offense Law gives stiff minimum sentences to perpetrators. Sri Lanka’s Women’s Protection Units provide female staff at police stations and privacy for women to report crimes. And this May, Somalia committed to ensuring the protection of victims, witnesses, journalists, and others who report on sexual violence — a necessity for strengthening legal cases and bringing these issues into the public sphere. Special Representative Bangura deserves special thanks for her significant work with authorities to reduce sexual violence in Somalia, Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mr. President, we applaud and appreciate the critical role that civil society, especially local women’s groups, play in assisting survivors by providing them with medical care, counseling, and a political voice, and by facilitating their access to justice. The United States is proud to support Congolese organizations that provide free legal aid for survivors as well as training to provide provincial lawyers and mobile courts-courts that heard almost 3,000 cases in the DRC last year. The efforts of local civil society remain vital and deserve even greater support from national authorities and the international community.

We also commend international initiatives that bolster national capacity on this issue. The United Kingdom and Foreign Secretary Hague, in particular, deserves praise for leading the G8’s development of an international protocol on the investigation and documentation of rape and other forms of sexual violence in conflict. Through efforts like Justice Rapid Response, UN Women and others have provided valuable technical support to promote accountability by helping to document evidence for judicial processes. And the Security Council has adopted targeted sanctions against those who commit, command or condone sexual violence in places like the DRC. We strongly encourage UN sanctions committees to expand their use of this tool to fight impunity.

Indeed, we have made strides in addressing sexual violence in conflict, but there is still a long way to go. More countries should criminalize conflict-related sexual violence. Provisions that prohibit amnesty for perpetrators must be put into cease-fire and mediation agreements. And it is imperative that the international community and senior UN officials, at headquarters and in the field, support the mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on sexual violence in conflict.

Mr. President, the Security Council must continue to treat this threat to international peace and security with utmost gravity. Sexual violence in conflict cannot and must not be viewed narrowly as just a “women’s issue,” as sexual violence remains a horrific weapon of war that destroys individuals, devastates communities, and even destabilizes countries. Above all, let us remember, sexual violence is not cultural, it is criminal.

Thank you.

Copyright (C) 2013 Federal Information & News Dispatch, Inc.

– 6/24/2013 4:23:39 PM

Gender Issues in Constitutional Reform: A Review of The Republic at 40


By Kumudini Samuel

The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice, edited by Asanga Welikala is an important contribution to the discussion on the problems concerning the republican constitutions of Sri Lanka and constitution-making projects and processes.

The volume contains three chapters dealing specifically with gender concerns in relation to Sri Lanka’s constitutional history which I subject to brief review here.

The chapter authored by Maithree Wickremesinghe and Chulani Kodikara deals with Representation in Politics: Women and Gender in the Sri Lankan Republic”. The inadequacy of women’s representation in politics has been a vexed subject for Sri Lankan activists, advocates and feminists alike and has been written about fairly extensively. This chapter extends and nuances this discussion significantly, offering a timely exploration of political representation within the Sri Lankan republic vis-à-vis its women citizens and gender issues. It asks critically if the state has indeed represented the interests of women as a collective sex/gender; looks at the dominant political representation of women within the state, their exclusions and inclusions and the problems relating to such representation.

The chapter offers new insights to dispel a number of popular beliefs – among them that women enter or are compelled to enter the political arena primarily to strengthen family or party politics; and that women only enter politics at the death of a husband or relative relying on family connections. The authors argue instead that there is an often-ignored element of political persuasion behind such compulsion and that women do exercise agency in such decisions. It also points out that reliance on family connections is a phenomenon that holds true in the case of both males and females entering politics, as parties rely on these connections to garner votes where ‘nepotism is not only a customary political stipulation but has also become an acceptable political practice.’

Interesting discussions on women’s campaigning and strategising to increase political representation historically and in the current context and parliamentary debates on the issue underpin the analysis and critiques. This is a timely analysis that melds activism, advocacy and scholarship in an attempt to understand women’s citizenship and formal political engagement and representation in Sri Lanka today. Discussing the framing of constitutions – a central theme of the book – the authors note that the republican constitutions were inherently framed to promote Sinhala Buddhist interests and had no intent to protect citizenship and rights of any disadvantaged category including women. Thus the authors note that women have not been able to rely on the republican state to deliver on their rights in the face of other dominant identity interests and politics (especially when founded on religion and ethnicity).

This deep-seated flaw in the constitution is discussed in the context of the over-dependence on formal equality, which has failed to increase women’s representation in politics at either the national or the local level. The discussion is further extended to interrogate the refusal to accept identity and difference, and a rejection of any form of affirmative action in favour of women despite the rhetoric. In a comprehensive discussion of the sexual contract of the liberal democratic project, which privileges the male subject – conceptualising equality as sameness starting with the assumption of formal equality and not with the concept of difference – the authors note the insufficiency of this approach to deal with the question of the inclusion/exclusion of women in politics and in the exercise of their citizenship.

The chapter by Susan H. Williams discusses “Gender Equality in Constitutional Design: An Overview for Sri Lankan Drafters”. Her overview includes commentary on the structure of rights, looking at the distinction between positive and negative rights, and the distinction between the vertical and horizontal application of rights: both basic issues that have profound implications for the ability of women to use and enjoy their constitutional rights effectively, and goes on to interrogate the effect and desirability of limitation clauses. The author discusses extensively the over-dependence on formal equality in constitutions and its shortcomings, and makes a strong case for adopting a substantive model of equality in constitutions. Bringing in an important insight, the author notes that constitution drafters often limit their thinking on women’s equality to rights provisions and moves on to consider many of the structural aspects of a constitution that can have critical impact on the realisation of gender equality. In this context she discusses structural provisions such as electoral systems and quotas to increase women’s representation, and decentralisation that can enhance and enable gender equality. As importantly, she notes that there is an opportunity to promote gender equality in the section of the constitution that addresses the legislative process.  Also discussed are provisions concerning the executive and provisions concerning the status of religious or customary law – here the author notes that the harmonisation of customary/religious law and gender equality is a delicate and important issue in many countries and a timely consideration for Sri Lanka. An interesting commentary is also made on the role of international law, making a call for the constitution to provide for a mechanism for women to use powerful international legal instruments such as CEDAW effectively in the domestic arena. In an important endeavour to assist future constitution drafting, the chapter reviews the Sri Lankan constitutions of 1972 and 1978 in terms of these issues.

Finally the author goes beyond review to warn that constitutions are often drafted by men who assume that the interests of women are similar to that of men. Therefore the author calls for serious consideration of the ways different constitutional choices affect women and makes a fervent case for taking women’s interests and perspectives seriously in every aspect of constitutional design and at every stage of the process. In a perceptive proposition, she calls for ‘fully internalising the simple but shocking idea that the constitution should be as much the product of women’s concerns and perspectives as men’s.’ This idea, she notes, will revolutionise everything about constitution design and drafting and enable the equal citizenship of women.

Ambika Satkunanathan writes a refreshingly different chapter in style and approach on “Whose Nation? Power, Agency, Gender and Tamil Nationalism”. The discussion is placed in the context of post-war Sri Lanka, but looks at narratives, personal journeys, reflections, strategising and activism of Tamil women who engaged with Tamil nationalism in its formative years post-independence, to those within the armed movements, and to those who chose to challenge Tamil nationalism from outside and create alternative forms of engagement.

The uniqueness and importance of the chapter is in its new empirical evidence that seeks to ‘nuance and problematise existing scholarship on women and Tamil nationalism.’ It asks if the ‘reproduction of norms in the course of women’s participation result in re-making gendered reality along new lines…Were women able to exercise agency even within very restrictive contexts, and thereby shape and even challenge the Tamil nationalist struggle?’ It thus looks at the ‘domestic sphere as a site of political resistance’ over the years of the multi-faceted Tamil nationalist struggle, arguing that women who engaged in political activism within party structures ‘unwittingly transgressed and thereby challenged traditional norms and restrictions’ on their agency, an historic legacy that allowed latter day Tamil women to leverage engagement within the militant movements. Despite this, Tamil woman remained ‘largely invisible within Tamil party politics’ even when they were active in the public sphere, and the author goes on to critique the historical inability of Tamil political parties to acknowledge women’s concerns and provide space for their political participation, a situation that continues to date.

Another interesting proposition made by the author is that the LTTE’s puritanical rules on sexual behaviour were used ‘to create an environment which was conducive for the participation of women; an environment that would be acceptable to conservative Tamil society.’

However, with the end of the war, Tamil women combatants are impaled on the horns of a dilemma.  Through a set of poignant vignettes the author records the narrations of former women combatants who trace their agency within the LTTE and their current conundrum of having to deal with the securitised state that continues to perceive them as the enemy ‘other,’ and a resurging conservatism within Tamil society that also seeks to erase them from history for the very ‘transgressions’ they were once valorised. The author suggests that this is to be expected in a community that sees themselves under siege, and makes a strong case for recording ‘Tamil women’s civic and political activism in the past to mobilise women to become active participants in social change’ in the present.