#NoMoreImpunity || Blog Symposium || Women’s Participation in Transitional Justice



Sumadhu Weerawarne-Perera

The experience of war and violent conflict is a gendered one. Its impact on men and women is different. The first round impact of violent conflict includes death and disability, impacting mostly on men, sexual and gender-based violence, widowhood, loss of income, assets and related security and displacement and migration.  The second round of impacts centres on adaptive responses or what victims or victim-families and communities to deal with the consequences of the first round.  These include the necessary induction of women in to civic and economic activities, the attempt to ignore the impacts of violence-related trauma in the effort to inadequately move-on and resultant impact on the women themselves and children.[i]

The possible third round impact relates to state responses to those issues that gave cause and arose out of violent-conflict.  In determining and designing these it is evident that the experience of both men and women during, due to and post-war must be taken into account. But the engagement of men and women in post war contexts is different. Patriarchy determines the space for women’s participation, the depth of women’s participation and the value and relevance accorded to women’s thinking and opinions. Just as much as women made little or no contribution in terms of decision making in the war effort, formally they are not being drawn in equal and representative terms to the transition/ reconciliation process. Most victim survivors of conflict are women – war widows in the north and south, but their participation in determining post war responses is minimal. And the engagement of men and women from a gendered lens is also limited or non-existent.

The presence of women in parliament went down from 5.7 per cent at the last general election.[ii]  This necessarily means that even in terms of numbers women are severely underrepresented in key decision making bodies which determine the policy direction of the government in relation to transition from war to peace.  When Parliament converted into a Constitutional Assembly for the first time in April this year it was with the aim of enacting a new constitution.   Accordingly, 7 deputy chairpersons and 21 steering committee members were elected by the Constitutional Assembly.  Only one of them, a deputy chairperson, is a woman.  Not one of its 21 members of the steering committee which is responsible for coming up with the draft constitution was a woman.   The Prime Minister informed Parliament that appointments for sub committees will be carried out after receiving the report from the Committee on Constitutional Reforms Public Representation before end April. No objections were raised by the opposition when appointing members for the Constitutional Assembly. [iii]

While there is a recognition in Sri Lanka today that a peaceful and just society requires multi ethnic and multi religious representation in decision making, there is still no recognition that men cannot, and should not, seek to represent the  interests of the entirety of society, when more than half of the population of Sri Lanka are women.

The exclusion of women from decision making in Sri Lanka at the highest levels through what appears to be a bi-partisan consensus in the Constitutional Assembly is not a positive sign for a transformation of the polity or its governance. There is a need for civil society to encourage more and more women with qualifications to come forward for public life.  There is also a need for the government to use, as a living and active policy, every opportunity for affirmative action in favour of women, such as in the constitutional reform process and the Constitutional Assembly.  A gendered-response is fundamental to effectively address post-conflict –problems and to build necessary resilience in communities and sustainable peace in the country.  However, efforts so far see limited women’s representative or effective participation.  This is concerning as a generic response without taking into account the heterogeneity of experiences across gender and other disaggregates like geography, ethnicity, age and social class may prove to be non-effective further fuelling the existing problems and cleavages.

On the other hand, the picture is not totally bleak.  At the local government level, legislation was introduced early this year in March to increase the participation of women with a dedicated quota of 25 per cent. This will clearly contribute to improved representation in terms of numbers, at least at the local government level and give some level of voice to women. This has yet to come into effect as no local government election has been held since then.   In addition, the government has announced that the Provincial Councils Elections Act No. 2 of 1988 is to be amended to include a 30 percent quota for women during the nomination of candidates.[iv]  However, the government has also stated that no similar quota will be provided at the parliamentary level and that the expectation is that increased women’s representation in higher levels of governance will take place through the upward mobility of women from the local level.

The basic analysis is from the point of view of inclusion that women represent women best and must necessarily be included in all decision-making processes.  Sri Lanka is today in a post-war transformative state. The transitional justice mechanisms that the government has pledged to set up, including the truth commission, office of missing persons and office of reparations will necessarily see women playing a major role as victim-survivors.  The first of the government’s transitional justice institutions to emerge, the office of missing persons, has special provision for gender concerns in it “to issue from time to time, rules and guidelines, which may include gender-sensitive policies, to be followed by all staff of the OMP relating to the exercise, performance and discharge of its powers, duties and functions.”[v] Those women who participate in these and other decision making forums need to empowered and on par with their male counterparts.  There is a need to be focused on capacity-building and inclusion of women in the transition and reconciliation process.

Sumadhu Weerawarne-Perera is a journalist and communications consultant.


[i]    Violent Conflict and Gender Inequality: An Overview by Mayra Buvinic, Monica Das Gupta, Ursula Casabonne  and Philip Verwimp, H i C N Households in Conflict Network, The Institute of Development Studies – at the University of Sussex – Falmer – Brighton – BN1 9RE, http://www.hicn.org

Click to access HiCN-WP-1291.pdf

[ii]   https://www.parliament.lk/lady-members

[iii] Ensure equitable women’s representation in constitutional reform’ National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, http://srilankamirror.com/news/item/10008-ensure-equitable-women-s-representation-in-constitutional-reform

[iv]   http://www.srilankanewslive.com/news/politics2/item/8259-provincial-councils-elections-act-to-be-amended


#NoMoreImpunity || Blog Symposium || Trials of Sexual Violence in Conflict against Men



Anjali Manivannan


It is common knowledge today that rape and sexual violence are weapons of war. What is less commonly known is that war puts both women and men at risk of rape and sexual violence. In the post-conflict era, transitional justice processes must wrestle with achieving accountability for mass atrocities, including sexual violence crimes, and the challenges inherent in finding meaningful ways to redress victims. This contribution will discuss the obstacles to and effectiveness of justice for male victims of conflict-related sexual violence in the context of prosecutions—with the caveat that other transitional justice mechanisms, like truth commissions, also tend to significantly sideline these victims. Conflict-related sexual violence against men is a salient topic in many war-torn and postwar countries today, including Sri Lanka, which is presented here as a case study to highlight the complexities of the issue. Prosecutions of this crime are necessary to both provide accountability for Tamil male victims of sexual violence and end impunity for gross human rights violations.

Sexual Violence Is a Weapon Used Against Both Women and Men

The use of sexual violence against men dates back to ancient times and remains a widespread and recurring war tactic.[1] Against men, conflict-related sexual violence may be even more widespread than we think; unfortunately, due to enormous under-reporting, statistics are limited. Conflict-related sexual violence can terrorize and traumatize males as much as females and is committed against the backdrop of patriarchal norms of dominance, power, and gender. Perpetrators of sexual violence against men use it as a tool to emasculate or feminize, homosexualize, and prevent procreation, the last of which is also one of many reasons women are sexually violated. All three motivations aim to privilege perpetrators over male victims, in keeping with the patriarchal frameworks that are arguably even more entrenched during hypermasculinized situations like war.

Conflict-related sexual violence against men takes many forms. The reality of the harms suffered goes against popular perception, which holds that sexual violence against men is analogous to the experiences of women and takes the form of rape. Instead, conflict-related sexual violence against men includes not only oral and anal rape by perpetrators or “enforced rape” between victims, but also enforced sterilization, including castrations; sexual slavery; forced masturbation; enforced nudity; and other violence to the genitals, such as genital beatings.[2] Given this wide range of sexual violence harms, when the conception of sexual violence against men is reduced to rape, non-penetrative acts are mischaracterized as non-sexual violence. Misidentification of these crimes ignores numerous victims and conceals different gendered experiences of sexual violence. It also reinforces stereotypes of men as perpetrators and women as victims, instead of addressing the varied positions of men and women during war and postwar periods. Moreover, a complete picture of human rights violations, against men and women, sexual and non-sexual, is necessary to determine the form and substance of transitional justice to move the country forward.

Victories and Shortcomings of International Criminal Trials for Male Victims

Under international law, victims have a right to remedies and reparations for human rights violations. This includes the right to effective justice, which may be fulfilled through prosecutions of perpetrators. Accordingly, criminal trials are an important, arguably essential, component of transitional justice. They mete out retributive justice, contribute to ending impunity for mass atrocities, and potentially deter the future commission of such crimes.

Unfortunately, most of the time, conflict-related sexual violence against men is not prosecuted. When it is, this crime is rarely characterized as sexual violence with attached consequences.[3] Thankfully, this appears to be changing, particularly at the International Criminal Court (ICC). In March 2016, the ICC handed down a landmark decision in the Bemba case, in which the accused was found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including rape.[4] Bemba had the first indictment charging sexual violence against men as rape and the first conviction for rape based on the testimony of male victims in international criminal jurisprudence.

The sexual violence against men in Bemba concerned rape. There is still, however, a need for progress in non-rape crimes of sexual violence against men. For example, in the ICC’s now-dropped Kenyatta case, the Pre-Trial Chamber rejected the prosecution’s charges of forcible circumcision and penile amputation as “other forms of sexual violence.” The Pre-Trial Chamber ignored the sexual nature of these acts and their intent to destroy men’s identities and masculinities, ultimately subsuming these crimes into “other inhumane acts.”[5] In this respect, we have not come far from the first international criminal trial for sexual violence and sexual violence against men: the Tadić case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) nearly twenty years ago. Tadić was convicted, but his crimes of sexual violence against men were subsumed under “cruel treatment” and “inhumane acts.”[6] Today, overcoming the hurdles to prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence against men remains critical to transitional justice everywhere, as illustrated in Sri Lanka’s nascent accountability processes.

Case Study of Sri Lanka: The Need for Internationalized Prosecutions of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Against Men

Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war ended violently in May 2009 following the government’s decisive defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the “Tamil Tigers.” Twenty-six years of fighting bore witness to violations of human rights and the laws of war committed by both sides. The government, however, was the only party responsible for sexual violence, which its security forces perpetrated and continue to perpetrate against women and men on an equal basis. Since the breakdown of the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire in 2006, numerous forms of sexual violence against Tamil male detainees have been reported. These acts include rape, often by inserting objects such as pipes and barbed wire into the anus; forcing detainees to perform oral sex on security forces; crushing, beating, kicking, and burning the genital area; inserting thin rods, metal, or wire into the penis; and placing chili powder on the genital area.[7] Security forces often perpetrated acts of rape and sexual violence alongside other kinds of torture. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of conflict-related sexual violence against both women and men continue to enjoy impunity.

In Sri Lanka, as in many postwar countries, justice is a painstakingly slow process; seven years after the war ended, the implementation of transitional justice processes is only just getting underway. However, the government continues to drag its feet, despite co-sponsoring UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 (October 2015), which recommended prosecutions of alleged war criminals. In fact, the government has since backtracked on significant commitments to the Human Rights Council by forbidding international involvement in justice and accountability processes. Sri Lanka’s rejection of international participation naturally has strong implications for achieving credible justice for Tamil victims in general. It also precludes criminal accountability for conflict-related sexual violence against men.

Domestic capacity to prosecute mass atrocities is often non-existent or greatly compromised in the aftermath of war, exacerbating the difficulties in addressing conflict-related sexual violence. Accordingly, a best practice for the prosecution of conflict-related sexual violence is appointing advisers with legal expertise on this specific issue. Due to the large number of male victims, expertise in investigating and prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence against women and men is necessary to secure justice in Sri Lanka. However, as the Kenyatta case shows, even an international court staffed with experts may struggle with addressing non-penetrative acts of sexual violence against men. Given the widespread lack of specialists and experts on conflict-related sexual violence against men across the board, it is extremely unlikely that such professionals exist domestically in Sri Lanka. Instead, Sri Lanka must allow all of its transitional justice mechanisms to incorporate substantive and technical assistance from international partners. Such involvement is essential to the credibility and success of all justice initiatives, including non-criminal accountability processes, and experts should thus be actively invited to assist Sri Lanka.

Due to the misunderstandings and mischaracterizations involved in investigating and prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence against men, sexual violence and gender experts are critical to criminal justice. The lessons learned from international criminal jurisprudence on sexual violence against men, albeit limited, must be applied to Sri Lanka. Tamil men and women alike must receive recognition, remedies, and reparation for any sexual violence suffered.

Unfortunately, as long as Sri Lanka refuses to allow outside experts, perpetrators who have continued to rape and otherwise sexually violate Tamil men—again, on an equal basis with women—are unlikely to even be charged for this particular crime. Postwar countries like Sri Lanka with high-levels of conflict-related sexual violence against men must implement trials that are expertized and equipped to effectively investigate and prosecute both rape and non-penetrative sexual violence against men. The international community must ensure that Sri Lanka heed the call to internationalize its transitional justice processes in order to punish and deter conflict-related sexual violence against both women and men.

Anji Manivannan is a New York-based human rights lawyer and longtime advocate for justice in Sri Lanka.


Nimmi Gowrinathan & Kate Cronin-Furman, The Forever Victims? Tamil Women in Post-War Sri Lanka (2015), http://www.deviarchy.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/The-Forever-Victims-Tamil-Women-in-Post-War-Sri-Lanka.pdf.

International Truth & Justice Project Sri Lanka, A Still Unfinished War: Sri Lanka’s Survivors of Torture and Sexual Violence 2009–2015 (2015), http://www.itjpsl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Stop-Torture-Report.pdf

Anjali Manivannan, Seeking Justice for Male Victims of Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, 46 N.Y.U. Journal of International Law & Politics 635 (2014), http://nyujilp.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/46.2-Manivannan.pdf

Sandesh Sivakumaran, Lost in Translation: UN Responses to Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in Situations of Armed Conflict, 92 International Review of the Red Cross 259 (2010), http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/other/irrc-877-sivakumaran.pdf.

Sandesh Sivakumaran, Sexual Violence Against Men in Armed Conflict, 18 European Journal of International Law 253 (2007), http://ejil.org/pdfs/18/2/224.pdf.

People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, Withering Hopes (2015), http://pearlaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Withering-Hopes-PEARL.pdf.

Prosecutor v. Muthaura, Kenyatta & Ali, Case No. ICC-01/09-02/11, Decision on the Confirmation of Charges Pursuant to Article 61(7)(a) and (b) of the Rome Statute (January 23, 2012), https://www.icc-cpi.int/CourtRecords/CR2012_01006.PDF.

Prosecutor v. Gombo, Case No. ICC-01/05-01/08, Judgment (March 21, 2016), https://www.icc-cpi.int/CourtRecords/CR2016_02238.PDF.

Prosecutor v. Tadić, Case No. IT-94-1-T, Opinion and Judgment (May 7, 1997), http://www.icty.org/x/cases/tadic/tjug/en/tad-tsj70507JT2-e.pdf.

U.N. OHCHR, Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), U.N. Doc. A/HRC/30/CRP.2 (September 16, 2015), http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A.HRC.30.CRP.2_E.docx.


[1] The Ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Norse, and Persian armies perpetrated acts of sexual violence against men. Much more recently, sexual violence against men has also occurred in armed conflicts in Argentina, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chechnya, Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Iraq, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Turkey, Uganda, the former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe. Sandesh Sivakumaran, Sexual Violence Against Men in Armed Conflict, 18 European Journal of International Law 253, 257–58 (2007).

[2] Id. at 263.

[3] Sandesh Sivakumaran, Lost in Translation: UN Responses to Sexual Violence Against Men and Boys in Situations of Armed Conflict, 92 International Review of the Red Cross 259, 272–73 (2010).

[4] Prosecutor v. Gombo, Case No. ICC-01/05-01/08, Judgment (March 21, 2016).

[5] Prosecutor v. Muthaura, Kenyatta & Ali, Case No. ICC-01/09-02/11, Decision on the Confirmation of Charges Pursuant to Article 61(7)(a) and (b) of the Rome Statute, ¶¶ 254, 264–66 (January 23, 2012).

[6] This was the first case before the ICTY in which sexual violence against men was prosecuted. Tadić forced two male detainees to perform oral sex on each other and also forced a male detainee to sexually mutilate another by hitting and biting his genitals until one testicle was bitten off. Prosecutor v. Tadić, Case No. IT-94-1-T, Opinion and Judgment (May 7, 1997).

[7] U.N. OHCHR, Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), ¶¶ 571, 594, 600, U.N. Doc. A/HRC/30/CRP.2 (September 16, 2015).

#NoMoreImpunity || Blog Symposium || Women and Missing Persons



National Peace Council of Sri Lanka Team[i]

In the East of Sri Lanka there is Parameswary, a grandmother living alone with her 11 year old granddaughter in a half built house. They go to the bush for they have no toilet. Nearby there are equally poor people but they live in better housing with assistance from the state. But Parameswary refuses to take any assistance from the state. She holds the state responsible for the disappearance of her three sons. In the early days, she went to over 20 military camps to look for them and in later days she went to two government-appointed commissions of inquiry but she failed to find them.[ii]

In the North there is Kannamma. She has been looking for her husband for over a decade. She wants to know what happened to him and where he is. But she says she does not want to hear that he is dead as she refuses to accept that he is dead. Apart from the emotional attachments, there is also the socio-political reality. If he is dead, she becomes a widow with all its debilities in the Hindu context.

Now the government is coming up with its most ambitious effort so far, the Office of Missing Persons. [iii]  This is less in response to the needs of these bereaved women than it is in response to the UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015 that the Sri Lankan government, to mostly everyone’s surprise, co-sponsored in Geneva.[iv] In agreeing to implement the resolution, the new government which came to power in January 2015 moved away from the policy of confrontation with the Western countries and India that the former government was engaged in.

The June session of the UN Human Rights Council is expected to be an important test for the government. The resolution that it co-sponsored in October 2015 stated that the UN High Commissioner would submit an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-second session (June 2016) and a comprehensive report followed by discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its thirty-fourth session (March 2017). In recent weeks there have been several announcements by the government to highlight the progress that it has made in implementing the UNHRC resolution.

The most important of these governmental actions is the unveiling of the draft legislation on the Office of Missing Persons that reflects a considerable amount of thought and research and can be considered as superior to any previous Sri Lankan legislation on the issue. This was one of the four transitional justice mechanisms that the government promised to establish in the run up to the co-sponsored resolution of October 2015. The other mechanisms are a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Special Court on war crimes and an Office of Reparations. [v]

However, international human rights watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch have been critical of the draft legislation on the grounds of process.  They have pointed out that there has been insufficient public discussion about the legislation and that the victims who are to be the beneficiaries should have been consulted. While the government itself says that around 65,000 persons have gone missing in terms of complaints made to government commissions, the latest government appointed commission gives a more modest figure of 20,000.  This shows that the numbers are still uncertain and continue to be debated.[vi]

But the ground reality is that for those who have lost even one loved one, the agony continues without end.  For some, the agony will continue even after closure and the truth is known, as they will have to deal with the social and psychological consequences. There is no template in the transitional justice process where people are concerned.  Each individual has different needs and expectations.  Some may want a telling of their story, while others will want accountability and the killers of their loved ones punished.

In the run up to the June session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, leading members of civil society have demanded that credible investigations be conducted and perpetrators held accountable with respect to credible allegations of human rights violations. In a statement they have pointed out that previous Commissions of Inquiries and the Criminal Justice system have only resulted in the acute re-traumatisation of victims with little satisfaction in terms of justice and reparations. [vii]

Moreover, the recommendations of these Commissions with respect to the investigation of human rights violations, and the prosecution of alleged perpetrators, have not been implemented, exacerbating Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity that these institutions are meant to combat. For these reasons, yet another commission established without a meaningful guarantee of accountability and reparations will signal a lack of commitment to the Government’s own commitments and to genuinely breaking with the past.

Healing and justice need to walk hand in hand.  The great majority of those who will go before the four mechanisms of transitional justice that the Sri Lankan government has promised to set up will be women.[viii] They need to be capacitated to do so, and they need to be counseled and supported financially, socially and psychologically after they have done so.  This is a challenge that cannot be left to the government but which civil society organizations need to take up.

The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka has been working in the area of peace and transitional justice, and recently on gender equality in these contexts.

[i] The NPC Team that worked on this comprises Sumadhu Weerawarne-Perera, Venuri de Silva, Lakmini Jayathilake, Mactalin Soosainathar and Jehan Perera.

[ii] THE WRONGED RIGHT TO SECURITY AND JUSTICE, Narratives of loss, pain, survival and the failure of the law is a 27-minute documentary that highlights gross violations and abuses in human rights laws and the implementation of the law in Sri Lanka. The documentary explores the State’s inability to afford protection and justice to its citizens through the narratives of seven people (victims of war and police torture) who speak of the physical and psychological abuse they have undergone and the trauma they continue to experience in their difficult path to recovery – https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0Bzr-LZKivIqpaHJNTmUzNW51b1E&usp=sharing_eid&ts=576b77ba

[iii] Cabinet approval to establish Office of Missing Persons, Daily News, May 26, 2016 http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=2016/05/26/political/82851

[iv] HRC 30th Session, 13/10/2015 A/HRC/RES/30/1 Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka


[v] Sri Lanka’s Response To UNHRC: The Full Text Of Foreign Affairs Minister’s Speech Today, September 14, 2015, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/sri-lankas-response-to-unhrc-the-full-text-of-foreign-affairs-ministers-speech-today/

[vi] Sri Lanka to enable certificates of absence for 65,000 people missing during war, http://www.firstpost.com/fwire/world-fwire/sri-lanka-to-enable-certificates-of-absence-for-65000-people-missing-during-war-2821756.html

Maxwell Paranagama Commission Report: Full Text October 22, 2015 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/maxwell-paranagama-commission-report-full-text/

[vii] 22nd June, 2016, Civil society Statement on Accountability and the timing of Transitional Justice Mechanisms in Sri Lanka

[viii] There is no official gender disaggregation of those who gave evidence before the Paranagama Commission on Missing Persons which concluded in March 2016. Inquiries from the Commission (June 23, 2016) revealed that numbers are currently being tabulated and will be available shortly. However, anecdotal evidence of those who sat in on Commission meetings holds that most of the participants were women.

#NoMoreImpunity || Blog Symposium || Impunity, Trust and Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka



Nimalka Fernando

In the post war context, Sri Lanka government has announced that it will facilitate a robust Transitional Justice process. As announced by the Foreign Minister, the mechanisms will guarantee truth seeking, provide reparation to those affected by the war and conflict, facilitate non-recurrence and assist in accountability.

One of the major challenges we human rights defenders faced over the past decade is the continuing and strengthening of the culture of impunity that prevailed in Sri Lanka. Violence perpetrated by political and security forces persons went unpunished. One of the major challenges we are facing in Sri Lanka is the failure to take action against perpetrators in spite of the existence of laws. In this regard torture though prohibited in law is a tool regularly used by all categories of the security forces. The Prevention of Terrorism Act provides the security forces and police to detain suspects for a prolonged period which has resulted in the use of torture to get evidence and commit degrading action against the victim. The majority of Tamil men and women survivors have revealed barbaric acts of torture including rape and sexual harassment. We are talking about transitional justice in such an environment. Victims and witnesses have repeatedly shown that they have no faith and confidence in national institutions. Even though the political leadership has changed they have failed to build a healthy environment to combat impunity.

The transitional justice process in Sri Lanka has to go beyond purely providing mechanisms to those affected.

Let me focus on the issue of violence against women. Often transitional justice advocacy will solely focus on addressing the issue of accountability more legalistically. Similarly when we are dealing with torture it is important to remember that a woman can be tortured without leaving marks on her body. In a war it is important to analyse the totality of the experience of women who has continued to be displaced, marginalised and forced to experience further acts of violence. Sri Lanka has to sign the optional protocol to the Convention Against Torture and provide a political environment of trust building if its commitment to TJ to become real to affected communities.

Nimalka Fernando is a prominent human rights defender, peace activist and lawyer from Sri Lanka.

Women’s History Roundtable Series: Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan on female-headed IDP households in post-conflict Sri Lanka


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Dr. Nirmala Chandrahaasan is a distinguished advocate who has been involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka for several years now. She holds a postgraduate degree in law from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D from the University of Colombo. She has contributed articles on human rights, refugee law and international humanitarian law to international law journals. She is presently on the advisory committee of a ten-year master plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka.

What is the international point of view, standards on Sri Lankan refugees? What are the ground realities we see at present? The Prajnya Rountable chaired by Dr. Nirmala Chandrahaasan threw light on some of these pertinent questions in the backdrop of the scenario today.

The roundtable revolved around three main strands – the resettlement of refugees, internally displaced people (IDP) after the civil war and the problems faced by women particularly during and after displacement and relocation.
Dr. Nirmala first briefed the audience on the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka. The civil war in Sri Lanka, she said, has been on for 30 years, with almost 800-900 lakhs of refugees having relocated to western countries. Most of these refugees are reluctant to return to their motherland as they are well settled abroad. From June 2009 until now, 4,000 people have returned to their place of origin in Sri Lanka. A sizeable population of Sri Lankan refugees also live in camps in India.

The narrative then moved on to talk about the differences in meaning between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘IDP. According to the 1951 Geneva convention, a refugee is defined as “including any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In simpler terms, a refugee takes shelter under a well-established international regime outside his country of origin and has access to humanitarian aid.

An IDP, on the other hand, lives within the country, has no convention or laws to protect and safeguard rights and has no access to assistance of any kind. The causes for refugees and IDPs though were common she said – civil war, persecution, violation of human rights, generalised violence and discrimination. IDPs became a matter of concern after their numbers and spread increased over time.

A significant portion of Dr. Nirmala’s narrative focussed on the importance of the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement as being the international norm and standard framework governing the protection and humanitarian assistance of IDPs. It lays down that no government can arbitrarily refuse a plea for assistance by an internally displaced person. It emphasises on the right of people to ‘voluntarily’ return to their habitual place of residence or any other part of their country.

The Principles also recommend that the IDPs be allowed to fully participate in the planning of their return and resettlement. Women especially MUST be involved in their relocation.

A very pertinent question that then arises is whether internally displaced people are being resettled in their native villages and whether they, especially women, are involved in making these decisions. Dr. Nirmala then pointed out that the aspect of ‘voluntary’ return is absent due to the high military presence in Sri Lanka.

She then moved on to talk about women headed households in Sri Lanka, the percentage of which has been pegged at 25-30% after resettlement. Section 4 of the Guiding Principles focuses on certain categories of people with special needs – children, women head of households and disabled people.

The problems faced by women heading households are many, she said. One was the uncertainty about missing family members. Not knowing whether family members were alive or dead added to a woman’s trauma. Next, no death certificates were issued for family members who had passed away during war or relocation, hence taking away their right to claim compensation for their deaths. Another cause for anxiety and trauma in such women was the fact that grave sites were being demolished or vandalised; hence access to graves of missing people dear to them was limited or impossible. She highlighted the high levels of anxiety and mental illness among IDPs owing to such traumatic experiences. The need for counselling and medical services only becomes all the more important in such a scenario, she said.

The next section of the narrative focussed on livelihood options women heads of households had access to. She contrasted this with the few options people living in camps had. People in camps, Dr. Nirmala said, received a package from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – Rs.5,000 when they left the camp and Rs.25,000 later for resettlement. She also highlighted the food package offered by World Health Organisation and a seeds and farm equipment package given by the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Households managed by women hardly had access to means of livelihood, either because their previous options had been destroyed or they were being prevented from accessing available resources. Lack of equipment and capital to start new ventures, no labour and awareness of other livelihood options meant the chances women had at starting afresh were in jeopardy.  Also, limited employment in the region further reduced the possibility of securing a job.

Dr. Nirmala cited the example of Kilinochi where food insecurity, she said, was at its highest. The region, with a large proportion of female headed households, was characterised by low income levels and high food prices. Women were not able to access lands due to lack of infrastructure and army intrusion. What is further traumatic for women is that 90% of women headed households also had a disabled person in the family.

Another factor that contributed to added anxiety for these women is the lack of documentation required to prove ownership of land. Most women had lost property deeds during the relocation process and are unable to prove title for land. Dr. Nirmala felt that in such a difficult situation, the government must be willing to take into consideration factual evidence/witnesses of women were not able to produce documents confirming their ownership of land. Even worse, education and birth certification of women often go missing in the resettlement process, leading to questions of citizenship.

Sexual harassment is another significant problem faced by women in Sri Lanka, according to Dr. Nirmala. This, she said, is because of the large number of army camps and soldiers. No civil administration in place even two years after the war meant that women had no platform to voice their concerns and seek legal assistance.

Finally, she emphasised the need for a proactive approach by the Indian government in Sri Lanka. This, she felt, was all the more relevant and necessary because of a large presence of Sri Lankan refugees in camps in India.

Q&A session

One of the important questions raised by a participant at the rountable was why the plight of women households in Sri Lanka was deplorable despite the existence of the Guiding principles. The answers to this question centered around the premise that the principles were only a convention, normative laws that did not bind on countries. Hence, its implementation depended on the leadership of a particular country.

Other questions revolved around SEWA’s involvement in entrepreneurial work in Sri Lanka. A chunk of the Q&A session also highlighted the underplay/ignorance of trauma in the political discourse in Sri Lanka.

This report has been prepared by Sweta Narayanan.

Book Review: “Love Marriage” by V.V. Ganeshananthan


I just reviewed V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage on my blog. I thought the intertwining of women’s stories (stories of marriages mainly) and the Sri Lankan conflict were brilliantly done, and very beautifully too. Take a look at the review which I am cross-posting here.

Personal is political is personal is political is…: Review

I have been following V.V.Ganeshananthan on Twitter for a long time (@Vasugi) but did not know anything about her. Then somewhere, probably on Twitter, I heard she’d published a novel. I was curious but because South Asian diaspora novels have become so common, was not terribly interested. Then, the other day, I saw her book in Landmark and thought, “Oh, why not?” My scepticism was underscored by the very small print of the edition I bought.

It’s a good book, folks! You should read it. And this is why.

The protagonist is a young Sri Lankan-American and as the book unfolds, she learns about the country her parents (Tamil) have left behind. Yes, like most of us, she knows what happened, when it happened, in a textbook sort of way, and being a Sri Lankan Tamil, she has seen graphic pamphlets and heard bits of stories. But what she learns as the book unfolds is what most of us never have a chance to do: to put face to headline, to put feeling into choice, to see the inevitability that personal relationships will have political dimensions. To see it all together.

Ganeshananthan braids two strands–the interior, familial, personal one of marriage and the exterior, communal, political one of conflict–into one young woman’s journey of seeing. The story of each marriage is a gem in itself, complete, stand-alone. I want to share with you a passage that I found very moving and particularly memorable (page 114):

“…Then he hit her across the cheekbone, and Harini’s mouth flooded with blood.

This is the taste of a Marriage Dying, her Heart said. Harini had swallowed everything, all her life. Her spinster sister Mayuri’s jealousy of a Marriage that had happened too neatly. Her mother’s quiet disapproval. Her own self-imposed status as a perpetual shadow. Harini swallowed again, swallowed air and blood. Her beating Heart had grown pulpy and old with abuse.

But Harini bent double, bent down. She picked up her Go-On Forever Smile from where it had fallen on the ground, and went on.”

As the protagonist’s family nurses her uncle, a Tiger who’s been allowed to get away because he is dying, old stories are finally told, and new ones too. In that community in Toronto, she discovers just how personal politics is: the Tigers have chosen her cousin’s future husband. And she discovers that personal ties cross political lines as well.

This is a book lots of people should read. First, those who are looking for a good story, well-written should definitely read this. Second, those who are interested in Sri Lankan politics, will begin to glimpse the things that textbooks don’t record about why people make the choices they do. Finally, those interested in conflict should read this because it illustrates how much more complicated conflict resolution is than textbooks would suggest; there are no templates because the human Heart (to continue the author’s usage!) doesn’t read them.

I will finish by noting that the author teaches English at the University of Michigan, and was teaching a course on political fiction last year. This would be a great book to assign as recommended reading for courses dealing with issues like conflict or migration or in South Asian Studies.

V.V.Ganeshananthan, Love Marriage, Orion Books, 2008.

Round-table: Researching Women, Social Movements and the Politics of Transition


Prajnya PSW launched an in-house round-table series  on July 21, 2008 with a presentation by Professor Linda Racioppi. The series is intended primarily to provide the PSW team with insights into both the subject matter of women in public affairs and issues and challenges relating to the research process in this field. We hope to have these sessions on a monthly basis.

Dr. Racioppi teaches in the fields of international relations and comparative cultures and politics at Michigan State University’s James Madison College. She is the author of Soviet Policy Towards South Asia Since 1970 and co-author with Professor Katherine O’Sullivan See of Women’s Activism in Contemporary Russia. She has published articles on Soviet arms transfers, women and Russian nationalism, gender and ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland, and on interdisciplinarity.

Dr. Racioppi’s talk at Prajnya drew on her research experiences in Russia, Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. She provided the audience with a brief overview of the contexts and then discussed a series of practical, methodological and ethical concerns relating to the research process in these settings.