Swarna Rajagopalan

A talk written for Stella Maris College, Chennai,
on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2018.

What is International Women’s Day? If you were to believe Panagal Park, it is a day to offer discounts and special prizes to women customers. If you were to believe corporates, it is a day for roses and special gifts and possibly some awards. For some clubs it is an occasion to have a cultural programme, maybe even with a stand-up comic or MC whose jokes centre on hapless husbands and ridiculously aggressive women in their life.

Yesterday, I was speaking with post-graduate students, asking them how they would observe the day, and one of them said, she would help her mother with housework. Very nice. But just think. That she can only associate her mother, the most important female figure in her life, with housework. That she does not know her mother beyond her service delivery role in the household. That she thinks this is a special, noble thing to do and that sharing work in a household is not just normal.

Clara Zetkin would have been shocked at how Indian patriarchy has subverted her idea that a single day should be adopted around the world for the advocacy and lobbying for women’s rights. This proposal was accepted at the International Conference on Working Women in 1910. At that time, women were active campaigners in their own countries and transnationally on issues as vital as the vote, citizenship, equal pay, better working conditions and world peace. They were citizens in fact, if not in law, and this observance date was to be a mirror and a rallying point for their work.

What is citizenship? Instead of spending all my 20 minutes on a review of the academic literature, I refer you to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which defines citizenship as the “relationship between an individual and a state in which an individual owes allegiance to that state and in turn is entitled to its protection.” The second sentence of the definitional paragraph states that “Citizenship implies the status of freedom with accompanying responsibilities.”

Citizens enjoy all the rights a state can offer, along with its protection. What does this mean?

This Women’s Day, let us do something like a quick rights survey for Indian women. I will just list the rights and ask you a question about each of them. I want you to scribble down your answers in your notebook or notes app.

The Right to Equality:  On a scale of 1-10 where ten is the maximum, what is the equality score you would give women in India?

The Right to Freedom includes

  • Freedom of speech and expression
  • Freedom of assembly without arms
  • Freedom of association
  • Freedom of movement throughout India
  • Freedom to reside and settle in any part of India
  • Freedom to practice any profession

Which freedom is most available to Indian women, and which one most imperilled?

Right against Exploitation: In which spheres have we most successfully eradicated exploitation of women?

Right to Freedom of Religion What does freedom of religion mean in the context of gender justice in India?

Cultural and Educational Rights Do these rights even matter for gender equality, and how?

Right to Constitutional Remedies Do most Indian women have access to justice?

And let us also briefly think about political and civil rights. How do women fare in electoral politics? How many women are nominated? How do the women manage to fund their campaign? Who is going door to door for them?

During the last election, a gynaecologist contested from our Assembly constituency. She did not campaign in our neighbourhood, no one saw, no one knew anything about her, so we voted in a guy who ended up at that resort with the other Sasikala supporters. And there are marvellous women who have come up from the Panchayats where there is reservation but no one wants to give them a ticket and let them rise to the top leadership levels.

Being a citizen also comes with certain obligations. The ones that the state is interested in are loyalty, obedience, taxation and military service. But citizenship is a relationship and a relationship takes two parties at least, so what about citizens? What else comes with citizenship and what should be the bare minimum we expect from each other?

You have rights, you have duties, you have agency. Citizenship is maximum entitlement, but it is also maximum agency. If you emigrate to the US or Dubai or Australia, you will have all rights as a citizen, but for the first generation immigrant, there is always an invisible limit to agency, I think. In this country, where you were born, agency is your birthright. And I am not talking about personal choices or free enterprise, or even the charitable edition of social work—I am going to talk about political activism.

This is your country, and you get to write the script as you want. You have a right to shape this country and change it. You have the right to change the world.

You are one of the most privileged groups of citizens I will address this year—you study in English at one of Chennai’s elite institutions and forevermore, when you step out, people will say, “Oh, you are from Stella Maris?” But frankly what does that really mean? Your dress is more stylish? Your English accent is better? You come with a nice social network? What difference does it make to the world? And let me not mince words: Nothing, unless you make that commitment now.

What does citizenship mean today for educated, privileged Indian women? So remember your answers to the survey questions now, and think about what they mean for you.

  • The duty to learn: You have access to learning and to information. You carry smartphones which can be libraries in your purse. You are learning how to learn. So, stay informed. Read the newspaper. Learn more about issues you care about.
  • The duty to listen: You have access to a cross-section of people in college and your circles, starting from Stella Maris, will only grow. Listen carefully to both what people say and what they leave unsaid. Consider that what they choose not to say may be what they think you should already know (so look it up and learn) or, more important, what they are afraid to say in front of you. Education should be opening your mind; only you can open your heart.
  • The duty to communicate and teach: You have words, in more than one language, and wherever life takes you, there will be people who listen to you. Share what you know, where you can, while also listening to what others know.
  • The duty to think critically: This is actually the point of higher education, and if you have been lucky enough to get some, you should be asking questions all the time—to learn and to hold accountable.
  • The duty to vote: This is the bare minimum exercise of citizenship. If you do not vote, quite honestly, I think you should not complain. If you don’t like the options, do something about it.
  • The duty to speak up: Speak your truth. Speak up when others need support. Speak up with something wrong happens. Speak up when you see injustice.
  • The duty to take action: Around you, countless small problems need solutions. Garbage is not collected. Someone is not able to send their child to college. Someone is looking for a full-time care-giver. Someone is lonely. Someone is being gaslighted. Are you the person who says, “Damn tough, man?” and moves away, shaking their head with temporary sympathy? Or are you the person who calls EXNORA or sets up a crowd-funding appeal or looks up and calls service agencies? Who are you? Find the thing you can do and do it, without expectation of reward.
  • The duty to resist: Do you obey unconditionally? Or do you try to understand before you comply? And if the regulation makes no sense or its problems outweigh its purported solutions, do you resist? Or at least rail? Being a citizen is also to take turns at the sentry post, to protect our rights and everyone else’s.

If you speak about your rights without doing your duty to society, consider that you might be exercising your privilege and not your citizenship. You are consuming what citizenship entitles you to, and giving nothing back in return.

So as I close today I want to remind you that citizenship is like everything else in life: Use it or lose it. If you are not a pro-active, engaged, thoughtful, critical citizen and you are willing to leave the tedious, troublesome work of citizenship to others, then you are complicit in the erosion of your own rights, whether it is equality, freedom of speech or privacy.

On International Women’s Day 2018, sitting in the elite surroundings of Stella Maris College, the choice is yours. Will you be a consumer or a citizen?

March 8, 2018


#NoMoreImpunity || Blog Symposium || Re-imagining Justice: The Courts of Women Story



(An extract from a longer essay, Trespass, or Re-imagining Justice.)

Corinne Kumar

Let me gather some stars and make a fire for you and sitting around it, let me tell you a story.

It is a story of the Courts of Women.

It was a dream of many years ago. It began in Asia through the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council who with several other women’s rights groups has held Courts in the Asia Pacific region; El Taller International, a sister organization based in Tunisia has taken these Courts to the other regions of the world- Africa, Arab, Central and Latin America.

The Courts of Women are an unfolding of a space, an imaginary: a horizon that invites us to think, to feel, to challenge, to connect, to dance, to dare to dream.

It is an attempt to define a new space for women, and to infuse this space with a new vision, a new politics. It is a gathering of voices and visions of the global south, locating itself in a discourse of dissent: in itself it is a dislocating practice, challenging the new world order of globalization, crossing lines, breaking new ground: listening to the voices and movements in the margins.

The Courts of Women seek to weave together the objective reality (through analyses of the issues) with the subjective testimonies of the women; the personal with the political; the logical with the lyrical (through video testimonies, artistic images and poetry) the personal with the political, urging us to discern fresh insights, offering us other ways to know, inviting us to seek deeper layers of knowledge; towards creating a new knowledge paradigm.

While the Courts of Women listen to the voices of the survivors, they also listen to the voices of women who resist, who rebel, who refuse to turn against their dreams. They hear the voices of women from the women’s and human rights movements; they hear of survival in the dailiness of life; they hear of women and movements resisting violence in its myriad forms- war, ethnicity, fundamentalism; they hear of women struggling for work, wages, their rights to the land; they hear of how they survive- of their knowledges, their wisdoms that have been inaudible, invisible. They hear challenges to the dominant human rights discourse, whose frames have excluded the knowledges of women. The Courts of Women hear of the need to extend the discourse to include the meanings and symbols and perspectives of women.

The Courts of Women are public hearings: the Court is used in a symbolic way. In the Courts, the voices of the survivors are listened to: women bring their personal testimonies of violence to the Court, which are sacred spaces where women, speaking in a language of suffering, name the crimes, seeking redress, even reparation.

It speaks of a new generation of women’s human rights.

It is an expression of a new imaginary that is finding different ways of speaking truth to power; of challenging power, recognizing that the concepts and categories enshrined in the ideas and institutions of our times are unable to grasp the violence; the Courts of Women are more than speaking truth to power, more than being a critic of power; it is about creating another authority. The Courts of Women also speak truth to the powerless, seeking the conscience of the world, creating reference points other than that of the rule of law, returning ethics to politics. It invites us to the decolonization of our structures, our minds and our imaginations; moving away from the master imaginary, finding worlds, as the Zapatista say, that embrace many worlds. The Courts of Women are about subsumed cultures, subjugated peoples, silenced women reclaiming their political voice and in breaking the silence refusing the conditions by which power maintains its patriarchal control.

The new imaginary invites us to another human rights discourse; one that will not be trapped either in the universalisms of the dominant thinking tied as it is to a market economy, a monoculturalism, a materialistic ethic and the politics and polity of the nation state; neither must it be caught in the discourse of the culture specific but one that will proffer universalisms that have been born out of a dialogue of civilizations, of cultures. And this will mean another ethic of dialogue. We need to find new perspectives on the universality of human rights, in dialogue with other cultural perspectives of reality, other notions of development, democracy, even dissent; other concepts of power (not power to control, power to hegemonize, but power to facilitate, to enhance) and governance; other notions of equality – equality makes us flat and faceless citizens of the nation state, perhaps the notion of dignity which comes from depth, from roots, could change the discourse. Through its very diverse voices, the Courts of Women speak of equality not in terms of sameness, but in terms of difference, a difference that is rooted in dignity, from the roots of peoples, of women who have been excluded, erased; other concepts of justice—justice without revenge that proffers many horizons of discourse and because our eyes do not as yet behold those horizons, it does not mean that those horizons do not exist.

The new political imaginary speaks to an ethic of care:

The Courts of Women are an articulation of this new imaginary.

The Courts of Women invite us to write another history,

to re-tell history, to re-claim the power of memory:

A counter hegemonic history, a history of the margins. The Courts of Women are a journey of the margins, a journey rather than an imagined destination; a journey in which the  dailiness of our lives proffer possibilities for our imaginary, for survival and sustenance, for connectedness and community. For the idea of imaginary is inextricably linked to the personal, political and historical dimensions of community and identity. It is the dislocation expressed by particular social groups that makes possible the articulation of new imaginaries. These social groups, the margins, the homeless, the social movements, the Occupy movements, the Arab spring, the indigenous, the dalits, the women, are beginning to articulate these new imaginaries.

Women through the Courts are writing another history, giving private, individual memory its public face, its political significance; transforming memory and experience into political discourse. The Courts of Women are communities of the suffering, communities of the violated but they are also communities of survivors, of knowers, of healers, of seed keepers, of story tellers, of people telling history as a way of reclaiming memory and voice.

The peasants in Chiapas, Mexico, describing their new imaginary explain their core vision in their struggle for their livelihoods and for retaining their life worlds. And in their profound and careful organization, in their political imagining and vision do not offer clear, rigid, universal truths, knowing that the journey is in itself precious, sum up their vision in three little words :

asking, we walk.

The asking in itself challenges master narratives, masters’ houses, houses of reason; universal truths, of power, of politics, of patriarchy. The Courts of invite us to dismantle the master’s house, for as the poet, Audre Lorde says the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. There is an urgent need to challenge the centralising logic of the master’s narrative implicit in the dominant discourses –of class, of caste, of gender, of race. This dominant logic is a logic of violence and exclusion, a logic of civilised and uncivilised, a logic of superior and inferior.

This centralising logic must be decentered, must be interrupted, even disrupted. 

The Courts of Women speak to this disruption, to this trespass. The Courts of Women are finding new paradigms of knowledge and new paradigms of politics; a politics with an ethic of care, compassion, community, connectedness, a politics with ethics, a political vision that can offer change for all.

The Courts of Women are our dreams of trespass.

The Courts of Women return through testimony, the voices of the dispossessed to political discourse. In its search towards a new political imaginary, the Courts of Women work towards a politics with an ethic of care; for any theory of poverty (poverty lines, the World Bank one-dollar-a day, millennium development goals, poverty reduction strategies, etc.) that is disconnected from a theory of care will not listen to the voice of the other and simply leave the poor out: the new political imaginary speaks to an ethic of care, affirming one’s responsibility to the other, an ethic that will include conviviality (that wonderful phrase of Ivan Illich). The discourse and praxis of rights cannot mean only economic and political emancipation, but must challenge the current paradigms of thought and politics.

The Courts of Women is a tribute to the human spirit: in which testimonies are not only heard but also legitimized. It invites the subjugated and the silenced, to articulate the crimes against them; it is a taking away of the legitimizing dominant ideologies and returning their life-worlds into their own hands. The Courts of Women celebrate the subversive voices, voices that disobey and disrupt the master narrative of war and occupation, of violence, of patriarchy, of poverty.

We need to find new spaces for our imaginations: gathering the subjugated knowledges, seeking ancient wisdoms with new visions, listening to the many voices speaking, but listening too to the many voices, unspoken.

The Courts of Women offer another lyric, another logic,

lifting the human spirit, creating a new imaginary,

offering another dream.

Corinne Kumar is Secretary General of El Taller International, which has pioneered Courts of Women around the world. She is also a founding member of the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council (AWHRC) and of Vimochana.


#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


[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 || 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.

The Madras Neo-Malthusian League


While writing a term paper on debates about contraception in Madras State, I came across an organization called the Madras Neo-Malthusian League. The following article is an excerpt from the paper I wrote. 


The Madras Neo-Malthusian League (MNML) was formed in 1928 in Madras. Its membership was mostly confined to elite, upper class Brahmin men. The MNML leadership made no real effort to collaborate or form links with nationalist organizations in the Presidency, but focused on establishing international connections with leaders of birth control movements in other countries, notably Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes and Edith How-Martyn.The MNML’s ideology had its roots in the Malthusian theory of overpopulation, but where Malthus advocated only abstinence[1] and celibacy as methods of population control; the MNML saw the propagation of contraceptives as a natural extension of the Malthusian world-view.[2] The MNML also sought to “entrench the systematic regulation of human reproduction in order to bring about a desired demographic change”[3], in order to build a ‘stronger nation’. In this way, their agenda can be characterized as eugenic.[4] However, while the focus of eugenics in the west was heredity, Indian eugenicists focused on caste-based marriages as a site to bring about demographic change,[5] thus centering marriage as a site in which “the task of revitalizing the nation as a whole” was undertaken.[6] As Sarah Hodges succinctly says, “eugenics in India fed into, and was supported by, late colonial debates on national progress, scientific modernity… and marriage reform”.[7]

In order to carry out their agenda of ‘revitalizing the nation’ through demographic change, the MNML saw the lower classes and castes as the appropriate targets for birth control advocacy. As MNML leader P S Sivaswami Iyer put it, birth control was seen as being “essentially for the benefit of the masses”[8], in order to control the “profligate breeding of the urban poor” and “alleviate” their burdens.[9]

A few significant points should be noted regarding the nature of the policy and activities of the MNML. Firstly, as I stated earlier, the members of the League were primarily Brahmin, upper class men. Their meetings were conducted in English, and they were more concerned with opening international dialogue than national conversations about birth control. Many scholars have suggested that the MNML’s agenda was to use contraception as a means to justify Brahminnical control of society and its reproduction, as well as control of women and lower castes. As Anandhi points out, MNML members such as Krishanmurthi Ayyer alluded to Hinduism’s “natural” and “unconscious” propagation of birth control within its sacred texts, thus creating a caste privilege and using this to justify the legitimacy of celibate widows and vegetarianism (which was perceived as reducing fertility!), all of which were upper caste practices.[10] Thus, “in privileging this Brahminnical Hindu construction of ideal bodies as reproductive, the bodies of lower classes/castes were represented by the neo-Malthusian as invested with uncontrolled sexuality requiring outside intervention”[11] by Brahmin men, who were innately “sexually responsible”[12]. Sanjam Ahluwalia describes this as “eugenic patriotism”, a position adopted by MNML leaders who “valued certain reproductive functions over others, yet presented their specific class, caste and gender interests as universally beneficial to an emerging nation”.[13]Secondly, it was not only non-Brahmin sexuality that was perceived as requiring the control of Brahmin men, but also female sexuality. The MNML did not believe that women knew, or should know, anything about contraception. In fact, when Margaret Sanger requested the President of the MNML, Sir Vepa Ramasesan, to arrange a woman speaker at a birth control rally, he replied, “we are not aware of any organization of Indian women interested in considering the problems that would be raised in a Birth Control Conference”.[14] Sir Vepa Ramasesan added that no medical woman in India had any knowledge of birth control, or the desire to advocate its benefits. Incidentally, this was untrue. While medical stalwart Dr Muthulakshmi Reddi was not in favor of contraception, Dr Devadesan was a passionate advocate of birth control in Madras.[15]

The MNML chose to disperse information about contraception via informal “man-to-man” conversations. Wives were informed (by their husbands, of course) on a “need-to-know” basis only,[16] thus maintaining their “sexual innocence” and allowing their husbands to “exercise sexual control over them”.[17] Malthus himself might have agreed with this, in fact, as Chandrasekhar observes, “one can read the Essay (An Essay on the Principle of Population) from cover to cover without encountering a passage that indicates Malthus ever thought women had anything to do with population”.[18] Anandhi views this agreement of views as a motivating factor for the formation of a neo-Malthusian League, as it increased “the ease with which the upper class agenda of Malthus and the Brahminnical Hindu agenda of upper caste Indian men could come together and reduce women to reproductive bodies requiring male control”.[19] Thus, though the views of the League clashed with the views of nationalist leaders on the subject of contraception, both perspectives “converged in privileging reproductive sexuality and inferiorizing other forms of female sexuality”.[20]Finally, the League’s championship of contraception can be seen as a way in which its leaders deployed their larger agenda to defend social and sexual practices such as child marriage, which were increasingly coming under attack. In order to mask their defense of these practices, MNML leaders sought to present early motherhood rather than early marriage as being the root of a ‘weak nation’.[21]

It should be noted that the League was widely discredited for being ineffectual and hypocritical (one League member had thirteen children!).[22] The members of the League seemed to address their speeches to each other rather than the ‘masses’ they claimed to be speaking to. No practical steps were taken by them, though contraceptives were distributed by some leaders, these activities were on a very small scale.

Hodges, however, sees some merit in the MNML as a voluntary association “outside the formal political realm”.[23] She does not dismiss it as simply another facet of patriarchy. I find this conclusion less convincing than Anandhi’s assertion that in spite of the fact that all proponents and opponents of birth control involved in the dialogue spoke in terms of reproductive control (i.e. the concern of a man and a woman engaging in intercourse), “it was mediated by concerns of maintaining class, caste and other boundaries through regulating women’s body and sexuality”.[24]

[1] In “A Dirty, Filthy Book”, S Chandrasekhar asserts that Malthus “never advocated contraception; on the contrary he indirectly condemned it” (p 11)

[2] Susanne Klausen and Alison Bashford, “Fertility Control: Eugenics, Neo-Malthusians and Feminism” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics ed Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) p 99

[3] ibid. p 98

[4] It should be noted that not all eugenicists were supporters of contraception. Critics of birth control felt that rather than performing the eugenic role of creating “docile” workers’ bodies, and gradually breeding out the poor, it might actually produce a landscape of “moral licentiousness in the form of sexual excesses” (Hodges, 2008 p 44)

[5] Sarah Hodges, “South Asia’s Eugenic Past” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics ed Philippa Levine and Alison Bashford (New York: Oxford University Press: 2010) p 231

[6] ibid. p 228

[7] Sarah Hodges, “Indian Eugenics in an Age of Reform” in Reproductive Health In India ed Sarah Hodges (London: Orient Blackswan, 2006) p 116

[8] Sarah Hodges, Contraception, Colonialism and Commerce: Birth Control in South India 1920-1940 (Burlington: Ashgate, 2008) p 53

[9] ibid. p 56-64

[10] S Anandhi, “Reproductive Bodies and Regulated Sexuality: Birth Control Debates in Early 20th century Tamil Nadu” in A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India ed Mary E John and Janaki Nair (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1998) p 143

[11] ibid. p 144

[12] Sanjam Ahluwalia, Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877-1947 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008) p 42

[13] ibid. p 18

[14] op. cit.  Ramusack (2006) p 64.

[15] ibid.

[16] op. cit. Hodges (2008) p 82

[17] op. cit. Ahluwalia (2008) p 48

[18] op. cit. Chandrasekhar, p 12

[19] op. cit. Anandhi (1998) p 145

[20] ibid. p 145

[21] op. cit. Hodges (2008) p 74-75

[22] ibid. p 49

[23] ibid. p 50

[24] op. cit. Anandhi (1998) p 140

Women’s History Roundtable: Nithya Raman on urban planning for women in India


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Rapporteur: Archana Venkatesh

Nithya Raman of Transparent Chennai addressed the Prajnya Roundtable on 14th July. Transparent Chennai was launched in October 2010 in order to collect data related to the city, and share it with the public.

The first question addressed by Raman was the importance of urban planning for women. She pointed out that with the economic growth in cities (due to the boom in the service sector), there is an ever-increasing demand for better infrastructure.

Before 2005, management of cities was in the hands of the State governments. However, in 2005, the central government intervened in this area by setting up JNNURM – the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. Fifty thousand crore rupees has been earmarked for JNNURM in development funds.

With the establishment of JNNURM came the implementation of data-driven governance; the introduction of central government-mandated reforms in various areas by gathering and using more data about cities as a base line for reforms. While this is a sound approach to development, the problem lies in the execution of this program. Raman showed us that the quality of the data collected is usually poor; and though data collected by the central government is slightly better than that collected by the states, data gathered at the city level is found to be of the worst quality and extremely difficult to access.

Raman told us that in her experience, city-level data has become progressively worse since the 1970s. The records are poorly maintained, stored in less-than-optimum conditions, and not available for public access. Apart from these obvious shortcomings, Raman pointed out that all these records exclude the vast population that constitutes the urban poor.

She referred to statistics related to malaria as an example of poor record-keeping. Government statistics show that the incidence of malaria has decreased progressively. However, this data is collected by the corporation health inspectors, which means that it is collected from Primary Health Centres (PHCs) and other government hospitals. This kind of data collection overlooks the fact that only a small portion of the public actually uses these PHCs (as the quality of healthcare is quite substandard). Most people prefer to be treated at private hospitals – not all of which are registered. Many individuals even simply go to the nearest pharmacist, list out their symptoms and procure the medicine suggested by him. Thus, we can see that the government data collection ignores these informal providers of medical care. Raman estimated that 60-70% of medical establishments are unregistered. This limited approach towards data collection is reflected in the numbers: the Indian government estimates 2 million malaria cases per annum, but the WHO estimates this figure to be around 10 million per annum.

Raman then moved on to address the question of slums in Chennai. An early survey of slums in Chennai was done in 1971. The findings revealed that one-third of the population lived in slums. Acting on these findings, the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board (TNSCB) built a number of tenement houses. A second survey was conducted in 1986, and more slums were added to the list.

Shockingly, no slums have been added to the list of slums in Chennai since 1986! In fact, census officers were only allowed to enumerate the population in officially recognized slums in Chennai. This means that JNNURM funding can only be used for officially recognized slums – which are a small percentage of the slums in the city, given its rapid expansion. Hence, the housing plan by TNSCB provides housing for a meager 20% of slum dwellers.

Raman concluded that all these instances are further proof that it’s impossible to have an effective strategy for urban planning without real data. Relocation doesn’t seem to be a viable long-term solution when we only have limited data to work with.

The final point of discussion was perhaps the most important: sanitation in the city. Raman presented us with a disturbing fact: the Corporation of Chennai doesn’t maintain a register of the number and location of public toilets in the city. After filing an RTI, Transparent Chennai found that there were over 700 toilets as per the official record, but only 572 of these seem to actually exist.

Apart from the discrepancy in data; it also emerged that most public toilets are not used by women for various reasons such as lack of water supply, safety etc. In fact, people have even taken up residence in some unused toilet blocks!

The TNSCB undertook a survey of unofficial slums, and found that toilets were only built where municipal land was available. In a state where land is acquired for almost any industry; it seems absurd that the government will not or cannot acquire land to build public toilets.

Raman concluded her talk but mentioning a few possible methods of intervention to ensure safety of women in urban areas (which is always under-reported). She suggested mapping harassment in Chennai, to identify locations and times which are particularly dangerous for women; and also generating data to fill in the gaps and ensure that harassment is adequately reported in the city.