Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Reflections on gender Issues in reconciliation

Posted by harimpeiris on October 25, 2016

Reflections on gender Issues in reconciliation

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 21st Oct 2016)

 

The Sirisena / Wickramasinghe Administration is committed to reconciliation, reiterated most recently at the UN General Assembly in New York. But reconciliation is about the real lives of real people and many of the victims of the war, the scared survivors are women. The following are some perspectives on women’s issues in the post war regions, in the context of the ongoing reconciliation efforts.

 

War was hard, but the economic burdens seem harder,” says Kalaimagal Ponnambalam, a thirty-eight-year-old female shop owner in the North.

A report published by the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG) revealed that the North and East combined were home to a shattering eighty-nine thousand (89,000) widows (based on a 2010 government estimate) at the end of the 26 -year old civil war that ended in 2009. Now crippled with a burden that traditionally is not theirs to bear, the darkness of poverty prevails leaving these women particularly vulnerable to the dangers of sexual harassment and exploitation. Six years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka has estimated the number of women-headed households in the island’s North to be a staggering 50,000. With more women having to step up as the breadwinners in their homes’ Sri Lanka’s former war zone is recording an increase in women turning to survival sex.

 

Now carrying the load that was once their husbands’, fathers’ or brothers’, poverty and lack of options are driving women to adopt commercial sex as an income generator. Community-based organizations claim, that these women, despite the enormous economic responsibilities they bear, do not possess the skills and the financial resources to support their families, making them vulnerable to exploitation.

In a survey being carried out by these community- based organizations, from 2010 to this date (the survey is being finalized) 1,500 female-headed households in the north, claimed there is reason to believe the sex trade is “slowly taking root in a region that boasts of tradition and culture”.

It is happening and therefore a need has risen for better livelihood support initiatives in the post conflict region.  “The great economic divide was increased by long years of war. It needs continuous and committed work “, said D.M. Swaminathan, Minister of Resettlement of Reconstruction.

The still “strong” military presence in the north, increase in domestic tourism, along with men from other parts of the island being based in the areas for work are somewhat regular reasons for an increase in commercial sex.

 

In addition, an increased number of Sri Lankan-born Tamils from the diaspora visiting their places of origin since fighting ended four years ago, has also increased demand for commercial sex, Shanthini Vairamuttu, a community worker from the district of Jaffna, said. With the increasing presence of Tamil diaspora in their home towns (places of origin), community women have often told that their daughters are often being viewed as sexual objects and in some cases, been sexually assaulted. Sexuality is largely considered offensive in the north, where caste and class are still decisive factors.

We may not know the level of the problem. In a country where commercial sex is illegal, the chances of finding the numbers would be difficult without substantial studies. However, this has now become a pressing issue and it deserves due attention and action thereafter. The MRG report called on the police to create Tamil-speaking desks in all police stations in former conflict zones, boost female representation among government officials in the north and east, as well as prosecute perpetrators.

 

Violence against women in Sri Lanka is too common an occurrence, gender equality is only a distant dream, and behind the closed doors of their homes, women across the island silently suffer the horrors of domestic violence.

As is sadly common in societies that has experienced so much violence for extended periods of time, spanning decades, it has left Sri Lankan society, with long term scars desensitizing the people. While there is uproar in the western world on issues such as these, here in Sri Lanka there is generally an under appreciation of and lack of awareness about crimes against women and as well as mental health issues arising from and consequent to the decades long civil conflict.

 

The surveys and studies reveal that both gender issues and economic hardships are indeed correlated and therefore go hand in hand. These issues require continuous and committed work towards sustained economic support, especially for women who are now responsible for their families and find themselves having several mouths to feed. These analyses suggest that, the time has now come to ameliorate grass root level issues for economic development and ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

 

The progress on Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process, while perhaps slower than what many might have hoped are on a steady track, with fast paced progress on the new constitution, the passage of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act and public consultations progressing on finalizing reparations and establishing a truth seeking mechanism. But especially for the most vulnerable sections of the victims, the women and children affect by the conflict, their livelihood needs, the very real day to day needs to re-establish their lives and provide hope and a better future for the younger generations, must continue to be a priority and be a genuine partnership between the community, civil society, donors and government policy makers.

 

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