Resolve ethnic conflict in the name of Lanka’s women and children

By Nimalka Fernando

• We see the terrorized eyes of children and women living in the conflict zones. Hundreds and thousands are fleeing the areas as aerial bombing continues.

• We also see the tears of mothers as they watch helplessly as children are shoved into white vans in broad daylight in the Eastern Province. These things are happening in the ‘cleared areas’?

• Women have had to take destinies into their hands and rebuild lives and livelihoods as well as cope with the social, economic and psychological impact of two decades of war. We must understand that this conflict has added more burdens on women as they struggle to also play the role of the lost father to the children.

• Women are not only mothers they are also leaders and initiators in this country. Maybe we might have to develop a strong advocacy for another MoU to enhance women’s role, participation and image in this country.

• “Remember that every time we raise arms to commence a war, that it is done against women and children”. Even after the war when combatants relax and armed forces get a break, women and children continue to suffer as a result of the effects of the war that lingers on.

Another MOU was signed between the two major parties. The country is awaiting the results of the discussions that were resumed between the LTTE and GOSL on Saturday in Geneva. Amidst all these activities we hear the sounds of Kfirs and bombings. Sounds of exploding bombs pierce through air at Habarana and Galle. People die; women and children all over the country are weeping. Politicians are visiting funerals. The terror of the white van has reached Colombo and suburban areas. Bodies are found on the way- sides reminding us of terror that prevailed in the 88-89 era These things are happening in the government controlled territories where it is expected that ‘law and order’ should reign. The scenario is the story in Sri Lanka for the last two decades.

More than 3000 have died since December 2005. Dead bodies are arriving in Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim villages. ‘The society in Colombo’ led by media establishments is debating. Is this war? Is this violation of ceasefire? Can we call them retaliatory actions? Such discussions will continue till the sound of Kfir diminishes. Who will get the war sounds diminished?

Abductions, killings and widows

According to unconfirmed statistics, Sri Lanka has more than 48,000 widows. The female population in the country is 51%. How many widows do we have of this percentage? Nobody knows and we do not seem to care that this country is fast becoming a land of the widowed. Since the 80s we have seen violence and war predominate our politics. Be it elections or the ethnic conflict; killing, bombing and hurting others seem to be the choice. Are we making violence the Sri Lankan signature?

These incidents raise questions like from whom have we cleared these areas? The GOSL and the police have failed to investigate and apprehend those responsible. Whenever these matters are brought to the notice of the Defence Secretary, he seems to be saying that the State has the right to abduct and use the same terror tactics that it is condemning! Is he thereby taking responsibility indirectly? Why has the MOD and armed forces failed to take into custody this ‘white van’? Who are these persons travelling in white vans?

Not only have we increased the widow population, but more women and children have entered into the status of internally displaced. Today all analysts agree that war and conflicts affect children and women more than others.

[“Give space for life, Not for violence” – Courtesy: HA]

Cycles of displacements affecting women and children

According to the available statistics as appearing in the Daily Mirror, approximately 3000 lives have been lost from December 2005 up to October 11, 2006. UNHCR reports that the total number of newly displaced persons stands at 207,564, mainly from the north and east. These figures have been finalized by UNHCR in consultation with the Government Agents in the areas. Those who have fled to South India are around 15,000.

The dislocation affects women and children in many ways. Our involvement with women since the ceasefire agreement of 2002, have given insights into various experiences of women. As wives and mothers of the disappeared over the past 20-35 years, it is these women who have struggled tirelessly to trace the missing and seek justice.

The experiences of the communities displaced due to war have seen very little progress in relation to the improvement of their lives and living conditions. They live with uncertainty. Those whom I met at Mandapam in South India showed me the little bag, packed with the most important items. They have got used to ‘run away at anytime’.

The experiences of women in uniforms and war widows of the armed forces remain in a shroud. There is no proper study done to engage with these women. Of the little that has been exposed, we can ascertain that these women do not get the due respect and protection.

There are children who know only displacement. These children grow up to become adults and become displaced again, this time carrying with them the burden of their children. Ramesh whom I met in Mandapam, South India informs me that he first came to Mandapam with his father when he was five and today he is back with his son who is 5-years old. Some even failed to recognize that it was young children who died in the aerial bombing attack at Sencholai. To such an extent our minds have become inhuman.

During our visits to Kebethigollewa, Kantalai and Serunuwara we met lots of women and children. In a camp located in Kantalai (before it was dismantled), half the number of displaced were children below 15 years of age. Their crying need was milk powder for children and clothes for the newly born babies. Relief activities often ignore the specific needs of vulnerable communities like women and children.

“Young educated girls in this refugee camp assist to continue the formal education of the school children. Although a girl was teaching, there were only 15 students in the class. Other students refrained going to ‘school’ since they did not have appropriate clothes or dresses.

Not only nutrition levels, even the knowledge and skills level of these children are affected. Most often the easiest solution has been to build a temporary shed and get a young girl in the camp to run a ‘makeshift school’. But how much of proper education and training is lost in this barbaric war? We have already produced disenchanted youth and seen hatred and violence twice. Can this country afford to continue a conflict in this manner?

All children in Sri Lanka have been affected as a result of the war. Those living in the villages along the conflict zone have had no mental peace to study, as they rush to safe places in the night. Often, I have seen children from the conflict areas appealing both to GOSL and LTTE to stop the war so that they could continue with theft education peacefully. The schools in these areas are in dilapidated conditions and lack basic facilities. There are no teachers reporting to work as the areas are categorized as difficult zones’. Most of the teachers get themselves transferred back to safe areas through the assistance of a political contact in the government or in the Provincial establishment. Such has been the fate of education of these children.

Are we spending money for life or deaths?

The Budget Speech is due in Parliament for the year 2007. Recently, we were informed that an appropriation bill was presented in Parliament requesting an increase for Defence Budget. Today, the Budget for bombs, Kafirs, multi-barrels etc. and to provide sardines, dhal and rice meal for the soldiers( I saw this menu mentioned in a weekend newspaper) The Defence Budget will rise 100 percent next year to 139.6 billion rupees from 69.5 billion budgeted in 2006.

On the other hand, the amount spent for education will remain at 3.5% and for social service at 3.8% of the total budget, maybe with a fractional increase. This has been the allocation for the last 5 years.

Women groups all over the world have strongly advocated for peace. They have condemned all powers, especially US, for continuing the wars in Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan, as billions of dollars are wasted on violence while billions of women and children suffer without essential medicine, food and clothing.

We do recognize that violence will not help us solve the ethnic conflict. But there is a certain mind- set that we can solve the conflict to the advantage of the Sinhala race if we weaken the LTTE. The war has continued for the last 23 years in this manner. The predominant engagement of the State structure has been moved by this ideology. Let us for a minute think that LTTE was dealt with. But do you think that the national aspirations of the Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka could be resolved in this manner?

Even Colonel Karuna, Mr Anandasangari and Douglas Devananda affirm that Federalism is the political answer for the ethnic conflict. Our challenge therefore, is not linked to the defeat of the LTTE and the victory of the GOSL. Our challenge is to provide a political framework for the resolution of the ethnic conflict. The GOSL battle for power therefore is in vain. The Tamil community is divided only in relation to the tactic of conflict. But they are united in the affirmation for their equal rights and power sharing within the Sri Lankan territory.

New Approaches sans Women

We have seen many MOUs and Agreements being signed in the political history of this country. Banda-Chelva pact, Sirima-Shastri agreement, JR-Rajiv Agreement, Ranil-Prabhakaran MOU, Mahinda-JVP MoU etc. But the women in Sri Lanka were not involved nor were they beneficiaries of these pacts. Nor did these leaders create space for increasing women’s leadership or entrepreneurship. The low participation of women in matters affecting the country has been continuously ignored and sidelined. None of the political parties have consulted Women’s Caucus regarding these matters. The few who have struggled to come into the various decision making committees are so few in numbers, that we cannot be happy about this situation.It is regrettable that no woman politician is seated in the Select Committee related to Election Reforms. Hon Pavitra Wanniarachchi brought this to our attention at a Media briefing held by the Women Caucus few months ago. She stated; “If we are subjected to such marginalization can we expect policy decisions favouring women’s rights?” It will be an understatement to say that the media did not report the issues raised at the Caucus meeting properly. The media totally failed to give wide coverage regarding the issues these prominent women raised at this gathering based on their experiences and challenges faced.

On the day Election results are announced we never see women in the Hall seated along with big shots of the Parties who are all men. I think we can keep the Chandrika Bandaranaike argument aside. Even if Pavitra and Rosie are included in the delegation, they are kept back in the Hall number 2 that is not covered by the media. On the other hand, media personnel also run behind big male figures always for voice cuts as no woman is capable of articulating politics in Sri Lanka. But truly this reflects the male dominance and male approached to politics and governance in this country.

Could we have settled the water dispute related to Mavillaru differently? Why did the government and facilitators fail to bring women from both communities together to discuss the issue of water resources? I have seen women speaking to the TV channels about need for water. I have also seen Tamil women asking for resources as displaced, or talking about the lack of attention from the State. It could have been prudent to get the women of both communities to meet before military strategies were deployed.

For years civil society has been engaged in a dialogue with political activists regarding the necessity to develop new mechanisms for conflict resolution. I am aware that politicians, predominantly male representatives from all parties, have visited many countries where conflicts exist. Why have they not been able to raise their voices regarding the Constitutional reforms? We women from civil society have prepared large documents on electoral reforms and constitutional changes, learning from our experiences from South Africa, East Timor, Scandinavian countries and particularly India, re quotas for women.

Today, once again I saw a MoU being signed. While UNP delegation had included the sole female representative, Renuka Herath (I think UNP has more women who could have been included) sadly the President had no choice of women! Did he find it difficult to choose representatives from the galaxy in the ‘Sandanaya,’ or does he firmly believe that their place is in the house.

This writer who was present at the International Women’s Day celebrations of March 8, 2006 convened by the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment, had congratulated the President for making a very bold statement against war. Commemorating the IWD he stated ‘ My plea to the President is to remember this pledge given to all women and children is Sri Lanka.

(The writer is the President of International Movement Against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (INGO based in Japan) and Convenor of Women’s Alliance for Peace and Democracy)

[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]

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