Sri Lanka Essay

Conflict, Transition, and Women's Rights: Some Reflections on the Situation of Women in Sri Lanka


Since the Sri Lankan civil war ended, it has become possible to analyze the development taking place in the country with regard to women rights. The state of affairs in Sri Lanka is evaluable, and this facilitates the determination of whether real improvements have been taking place since the political situation began to improve. A quick evaluation indicates that the civilian population living in regions that were formerly under the control the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is yet to be liberated from the constant infringement of their rights. In fact, despite the promises of legal and political reforms, a significant number of women continue to be subjected to dehumanizing conditions, a situation which makes them desperate and easily tractable.

The whole nation is currently under the tight control of the armed forces which operate under the directions of the central government. In the areas that were formerly under the control LTTE, the military continues to impose strict restrictions on civilian movements. Moreover, people’s rights to assemble as well as several other fundamental rights continue to be infringed, and this scenario does inflict untold suffering to the members of the female gender. Traditionally, Tamil women have been used to living a communal way of life. In that case, there has always been constant assembling for the purpose of addressing the issues that affect them en masse. Had such gatherings been around to continue, the Tamil women would have assisted the authorities in resolving cases of, say, disappearances as well as the rights of ex-detainees and detainees alike.

The Rights of Women since the Civil War

Of course, some of the challenges that the authorities face emanate cultural discrepancy, a situation that can only be resolved by enhancing interactions between individuals from various cultural groups. The difficulties that Sri Lankan civilian population faces have persisted since the end of the civil war in 2009, and as it has been aforementioned, some of these challenges are easily resolvable. The Sri Lankan economy has been growing at a remarkable rate, and this is evident considering that there is a rapid blossoming of roads, bridges, and highways all over the country. The efficiency and unprecedented speed of development indicates that the government has the capacity to address the relatively low priced legal and political reforms. The lack of will has made Sri Lanka to remain teetering at the edge of transition and change.

The limited effort has made the melioration of rights to be a difficult thing to achieve. Nevertheless, a slow process of transformation is taking place in Sri Lanka. The transformation is, however, difficult to categorize, understand, and identify since it is not really a government initiative, and the government does not, therefore, endeavor to popularize the concept behind it. The concept has been the drive behind the International Day on Women Human Rights Defenders, and it has willingly been accepted by the Sri Lankan women rights activists in an amicable manner. Soon after the efforts of the women rights defenders were recognized through the allocation of their day on November 29, 2011, remarkable progress has been witnessed in Sri Lanka.

Challenges facing the Women Rights Defenders in Sri Lanka

In almost all socio-political arenas, the Sri Lankan Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) do face challenges which are unique in nature. Indeed, they appear to face these challenges by virtue of defending or belonging to the female gender. The society and its social structures, especially that serve to enforce the law, continue their patriarchal view of affairs. The view leaves women vulnerable to instances of violence and discrimination which, in some cases, happen on a daily basis. Evidently, these structures do violate the rights of women and, in the aftermath, the members of the female gender are left powerless to fight of reclaim their rights due to the lack of appropriate legal framework.
In view of the above discourse, the Sri Lankan WHRDs are faced with a distinct and tough set of challenges as they seek to fight against instances of violation. Their initiative to protect the rights of women has, often, resulted into their discrimination. Furthermore, their voices are not regarded as being significant enough to cause a remarkable change in the manner in which the authorities and the society in general, run their political and legal affairs. The international community has, however, been consistent on its insistence that the situation in Sri Lanka ought to improve. The insistence has bore fruits in the past and it is, indeed, hoped to help improve the situation in Sri Lanka.

At the 2005 Colombo international conference that focused on empowering WHRDs, the stakeholders identified four primary challenges that women human rights activists faces in Sri Lanka and other volatile nations. They include the state-sponsored violence, a situation which derails justice and accountability as well as opposition from fundamentalist movements who are out to gain politically. Others are intimidation through sexual-based aggressions, a situation which harms their reputations and bodies alike; and the difficulty in addressing abuses that have been perpetrated by powerful families or communities. The identification of these challenges is among the steps towards the resolution of political and legal challenges that face the women in Sri Lanka.

Women rights activists and campaigners are faced with an inherent dilemma as they seek to balance various cultural and societal conceptions in such a complex society as Sri Lanka. Among various communities in Sri Lanka, there are those social roles and obligations that any one of the female gender is expected to fulfill whether as wives, mothers, as well as daughters. Women who opt to assume the initiative of campaigning for human rights may not be understood and tolerated by their loved ones and families. In fact, their assumed profession is, in most case, rejected and dismissed as being unacceptable. Many WHRDs have reported to be finding themselves in situations where they are faced with tough challenges as they have to balance their personal relationships and home engagements with their assumed rights campaigning responsibilities.

In many regions of the world, WHRDs do admit to have been pressured and found guilty of being unable to prioritize on their personal lives, children, and homes due to the complex nature of their human rights engagements. They argue that the cost of changing the challenging situation that women faces is high, and it seems as if they are forced to assume the entire responsibility in an unfair manner. Although the issues are facing WHRDs are common during crises, the situation in Sri Lanka is noteworthy since, even if women do attempt to defend their rights, the state of affairs has remained similar to way it was during the civil war. Women have continued to be vulnerable to the aftermaths of the civil war as their political persecution, discrimination, and gender-based violence persists.

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The Evolution of Women Rights Activism in Sri Lanka

Throughout history, the women rights activism in Sri Lanka has been closely intertwined with three fundamental avenues: the Sri Lankan Free Trade Zone and its related issues, the civil war and its impact on women, as well as the ongoing campaign which aim to end violent persecution of women. There have been a number of strikes and protests that aimed at pressing for the demands of the workers’ rights in Sri Lankan factories that operate under the Free Trade Zone. These strikes have had a significant impact toward the evolution of rights movements in the country and it is, therefore, important to re-evaluate a number of them.

In 1983, there was the Polytech Factory Strike where several women who were either protestors or key organizers were arrested. Although the government took dehumanizing measures while attempting to quell that protest, it has remained to be landmark moment for the rights activism in the country. Recently, police inflicted injuries were blamed for the death of a 21 year old protestor, Roshen Shanaka, as he agitated for the rights of workers in the Free Trade Zone. During that protest, many women suffered injuries, a development which prompted the WHRDs in Sri Lanka to be at the forefront during the citizen’s demand for justice.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, movements focused on ending violence against members of the female gender began solidifying their prominent positions. Their goal was to promote the awareness of rights as a matter of urgency as this was the only way that women would be disentangled from the state of excruciation. The campaigns were spearheaded by a number of women who were affiliated with various social and political groups. As their activities began to be entrenched into the society and societal evolution, a lager movement evolved. The movement, during its endeavors to protect the rights of women, adopted the phrase that ‘women’s rights are indeed human rights’.

Women rights activism in Sri Lanka was greatly boosted with the appointment of Radhika Coomaraswamy for the position of the UN Special Rapporteur on gender based violence in1994. In fact, this appeared to be the turning point as it was an indication that the international community was confidence of the Sri Lankan women’s rights movement. It, indeed, strengthened their campaigns for equality and halting of gender based violence in Sri Lanka. The empowered Sri Lankan activism became evident during the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women which was held in Beijing. During that conference, many Sri Lankan women rights activist were actively involved, and they used the occasion to represent diverse issues that affected their communities.

Consequently, the newly intensified campaign that aimed at ending violence against women assumed a powerful trajectory. The development culminated in the 2005 enactment of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act by the central government. Throughout the 1990s, the escalated civil war the main issues that derailed the activities of WHRDs in Sri Lanka. Tamil women bore the blunt as they and their children were mercilessly brutalized by the warring parties, more so the national army. The tension that ensured heightened the political climate so much that the operations of the WHRDs became quite dangerous.

Few volunteers would wish to get on the ground for the purpose of evaluating the firsthand account of the atrocities that were taking place. As a matter of fact, those who dared either the army and other law enforcement agencies or the Tamil Tigers used to be punished in an unjustified manner. For instance, a young Tamil WHRD named Rajini Thiranagama, a female who lectured at the University of Jaffna, was shot and killed while standing outside her house in Jaffna. Thiranagama was an upcoming writer and activist. Her friends, associates, and family suspected that the LTTE could have been behind her murder as they were known to employ brutal strategies that Thiranagama had criticized. Thiranagama loathed the manner in which parties resulted to brutality, and so she chose to work against barbarism during her at the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna). She was, indeed, one of the founder members of that organization, a situation which appeared to justify the suspicion of the close associates. The brutal killing caused outrage among the human rights defenders worldwide. The WHRDs were particularly concerned for their safety as it became apparent that none of the warring parties could guarantee their safety Sri Lanka as well as in the region.

The vulnerability of women to a variety of atrocities, especially during war times is undeniable. Sri Lankan women, and especially the Tamil civilians from the North, have increasingly been vulnerable to instances of sexual violence. It is quite unfortunate that State actors do, at times, perpetrated such crimes with impunity. The dominance of the Sri Lankan national army and the State-sponsored paramilitary groups leave women a bit powerless since there are limited avenues to handle complaints. Women also become vulnerable since as wives and mothers, their husbands and sons do, at times, get abducted, killed, or disappeared. Although such instances have been reducing, abductions and killings for one reason or the other do continue.

Brutality against women and their loved ones have not been a preserve of the Northern part of the country. In the Southern part, a Marxist uprising that was spearheaded by an organization named Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was crushed quite brutally by the central government. Just like the women in the North, the women in the south experienced a period of cruel abductions as well as disappearances, a situation which, infamous, characterized the Marxists’ struggle. The wives and mothers of those who were disappeared, whether in the North or South of the country, became an influential factor in the activities of the WHRDs. These women helped formulate effective channels of rights activism in Sri Lanka and, as a result of their struggle; demand for justice in Sri Lanka is promising to bear fruits.

One year since the death of Thiranagama, Richard de Zoysa who used to be a journalist based in Colombo was abducted at his house and later found killed. In addition to being a journalist, Zoysa also worked as a writer and activist. Although it was unclear of who could have been behind the abduction and murder, his mother, Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu blamed the State sponsored agents. She is, indeed, a founder member of The Mother’s Front. The Mother’s Front is among the three main organisations that women founded during that time. The organization has continued to landmark the history of WHRDs movement in Sri Lanka to the present time.

The other two organizations are Family Members of The Disappeared and The Organisation of Parents. These two organizations presents an avenue through which the wives and mothers of the disappeared are involved with the activities of a high leveled Association of War-Affected Women, a mother organization that was founded by Madam Visaka Dharmadasa. Madam Dharmadasa son was, at one time, declared Missing in Action by the Sri Lankan Army where he served as a soldier. Presently, women whose sons and husbands were disappeared have become a strong voice, and should their campaigning for the rights and justice gain the international support, much of the puzzling instances of the war would be resolved.

The Challenges facing WHRDs in the Post-War Sri Lanka

Sandhya Eknaligoda, who happens to be the wife of a cartoonist and journalist named Prageeth Eknaligoda has, personifies the contemporary struggle of the Sri Lankan WHRDs. Prageeth Eknaligoda disappeared during the month of January 2010, a development that drew his wife into the struggle for the rights of women in Sri Lanka. As she goes about the struggle to find justice for her husband, Sandhya Eknaligoda is forced to establish the balance between her engagements and her personal life. For instance, in spite of the need to assume the initiative to struggle for the rights of women, Sandhya Eknaligoda is tasked with taking care of her two teenage boys. The publicity she has acquired since she began her search for justice has aggravated the challenges that her young family faces. This is because, as it was the case during the war, of the risks involved in campaigning for the rights of the victims of political and legal atrocities in Sri Lanka. Sandhya Eknaligoda is, however, determined to see that the issue of her husband’s misfortune is addressed to its logical conclusion.

Despite the obvious risks in Sri Lanka, a significant number of activists, drawn from the Northern and North Eastern parts of the country such as Mannar, Mullaitivu, and Jaffna districts have been stepping forward in their search for justice. These activists are mostly the mothers and spouses of the disappeared or killed husbands and sons. Although these women have made some note worthy advances in their search for justice, international support would enhance their activities to a great extent. International help ought to be forthcoming in Sri Lanka because it is evident that the political climate in the country has deteriorated the law and democratic order. Sri Lankan live in an environment of impunity and one that continues to perceive women as being Sandhya Eknaligoda inconsequential and inferior to men. Women are incapable of shielding themselves domestic violence, gender-based violence and discrimination, and sexual harassment. They, indeed, continue to be embattled by various age-old misconceptions since moralistic repression has been entrenched in the Sri Lankan culture from time in memorial. The blossoming and flourishing of such a culture can effectively be curtailed by the international involvement.

As stated earlier there have been some limited international involvements in the situation in Sri Lanka. For instance, the country played host to one of the most successful gatherings of Women Rights activists from all over the world. The gathering was organized by the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders (ICWHRD). During the closing session, Irene Khan, the Secretary General of Amnesty International noted that everyone, whether man or woman, ought to demand for the safety of those who happen to be defending the rights of women. This, according to Khan, is because it is the women who fight for humanity to be accorded proper recognition after men have been worn out by the war. Seven years down the line, Sri Lanka has continued to battle her own defenders of women rights despite the successful hosting of over one hundred of the leading activists from all over the world. The situation can be greatly improved by the involvement of the United Nations as well as other international organizations.

Conclusion and Recommendation

Over the two and a half decades that Sri Lanka endured a civil war, women rights was on constant infringement by the warring parties. Indeed, the situation was quite desperate in the northern part of the country where the Tamil population had resulted into waging war against the state. Women suffered a lot from instances of sexual and other gender based violence, and this impacted negatively on their confidence to handle a host of situations in their homes as well as the society. Even though the war has now ended, the state forces continue to maintain tight controls in the regions that were formerly under the LTTE. Some of the controls results into the restriction of assembling, and this means that women cannot discuss issues affecting them in an open manner.

Since the war ended, disputes have continued to cause disorderliness in the Sri Lankan society. Some of these disputes relate to the manner in which the society ought to deal with the losses and victimization that were caused by the war. With limited interaction between individuals as well as communities, it is evident that solutions are hard to come by. The Sri Lankan government appears to be either incapable or unwilling to address some of the issues that are raised by the victims of the civil war as well as those of the negative cultural fundamentalism. There are those in the government who do not wish to disturb the existing status quo and unless the international community steps in, nothing much stands to be achieved.

Women rights activists operate under an umbrella which is referred to as the Sri Lankan Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs). WHRDs have made some headway, and this has been due to the support that the umbrella body gets internationally. For instance, the 1994’s appointment of Radhika Coomaraswamy as the UN Special Rapporteur on gender based violence proved to be a major boost to the Sri Lankan women rights activism. Since then, women and women rights activists in Sri Lanka have progressed, and this is despite the many challenges that they face in their engagements. There have been various organizations whose sole purpose has been the advancement of the rights of women. Among these are the The Mother’s Front, founded by Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu; Family Members of The Disappeared; and The Organisation of Parents.most of these organizations have been operating under the high leveled Association of War-Affected Women, a mother organization that was founded by Madam Visaka Dharmadasa.

The infringement of the women rights in Sri Lanka continues, and it is for this reason why the UN and other international organizations ought to press for reforms in that country. The UN has facilitated improvement of the rights of women since the launching of the UN Women’s Rights Organization. It is, therefore, possible for the organization to assist the Sri Lankan human and women rights activists in their quest for justice for themselves, their husbands, and sons. The involvement of the UN would mitigate the impact of the embattlement that the rights activists face. The UN would also inspire other international bodies into getting involved in the Sri Lankan women rights affairs.

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