Sri Lanka: They Hold Up Half The Sky – OpEd


Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the two leaders and authors of what has now become an international best-seller that has been called a “brutal awakening” state that “Just as slavery was the defining struggle of the nineteenth century and totalitarianism that of the twentieth, the fight to end the oppression of women and girls worldwide defines ours.”

Their book titled “Half the Sky” asserts that the central moral challenge of the 21st century is the full emancipation of all women. The book went on to inspire a multi-part documentary series based on the best-selling book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, aired internationally in 2013.

Assessing progress of women’s status in peace and development dominated the discourse at events held worldwide this year to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, 2013. Resolution 1325 was utilised as the framework for measuring progress, being the landmark development in the subject in the twenty-first century having received overwhelming and multi-stakeholder consensus in the year 2000. Resolution 1325 is important in that it addresses the situation of women in conflict settings and in a post-conflict context. It stresses the importance of having women at the forefront in decisions that affect their lives as a result of conflict. When considering the role of women in the context of post-war Sri Lanka and whether they are able to participate meaningfully in peace-building and other decision making processes, and also whether they are able to deal with protection-related issues, a number of positive steps can be noted.

Activities have been carried out in the country both by the State and civil society for many years, directly relevant to the principles laid down in 1325. However, the label of 1325 has not been attached to this work. Current work on women’s rights and issues in the country are in the areas of gender-based violence, women and political representation and empowering women generally.

The State has from time to time set up committees at district level to tackle district level concerns. District Child Protection Committees have been set up under the National Child Protection Authority in Vavuniya, Batticaloa and other districts. These committees were established to strengthen and expand child protection activities at district level. The District Secretary acts as the focal point and is responsible for the planning and implementation of activities. Local NGOs working in the field of child protection are also members of these committees. The constituency and mandate of the Committees make them an ideal entry point to bring in issues of peace and security.

Women’s Rural Development Societies (WRDSs) have been formed in the District Secretariats around the country. They are state initiated and the most common form of mobilisation of women. They consist of 100 members per society, on average, and work within a Grama Niladhari division. Of the many Community Based Organisations (CBO)s functioning in the North and East the ‘Madar Sangams’ have been successful in mobilising women.

Given their unique position within the community, they should be further capacitated to identify, design, implement and monitor projects while conducting gender awareness programmes for both women and men in the community. The WRDSs generally consist of strong women and they should strive to participate in local governance structures so that their voices are heard in the decision-making processes. Every effort must be made to drive these societies to ensure women are able to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

More importantly, WRDSs are good entry points to bring in the language issue and through this avenue, introduce peace building, equal opportunities, inclusivity and similar principles to the grass roots of women, thereby addressing the concepts laid down in 1325. These areas can then be worked on through leadership building and other skills building with WRDSs which can in turn become a useful resource and lead to the creation of a pool of women peace-builders.

The Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs has conducted several awareness raising programmes on teenage pregnancy, reproductive health, gender based violence, women’s empowerment in Jaffna, Batticaloa, Vavuniya and in other parts of the North. There are plans to open an elders’ resource centre in Vavuniya to provide resources, counselling and welfare facilities to elders.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is tasked with appointing and overseeing Women Development Officers (WDOs). 256 WDOs have been appointed to different Divisional Secretariats islandwide. The long term plan is to have a full cadre of 309 WDOs to serve the country. WDOs are specifically dedicated to working for women’s empowerment. They are trained on issues of domestic violence, CEDAW, gender and gender-based violence. They are appointed through the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and their terms of reference are broad and defined.

Relief sisters have been appointed by the Ministry to Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Jaffna and there are 100 relief sisters islandwide. Their terms of reference are similar to those of WDOs.

Mediation Boards are an alternative dispute resolution mechanism established in every Divisional Secretariat of Sri Lanka in 1988. They solve minor problems within the community. More women could be mobilised to serve as mediators in the Mediation Boards. Further, a module on UN Resolution 1325 introduced into the training programme followed by mediators will improve the sensitisation and awareness of women’s issues in the local decision-making process.

With the cooperation of Sri Lankan women’s groups, the government adopted the Women’s Charter in 1993. The Charter is a non-binding policy document that maps out a set of objectives for the Sri Lankan state in the area of gender relations. The Charter has been incorporated into the Schedule of the Women’s Commission Bill, a Commission that has within its mandate, powers to investigate into violations of women’s rights. What is now needed is for the Charter to be reinforced through the passing of the Bill into Law.

The State has shown interest in working with war widows, female single headed households and military widows. These women can be helped further with assistance to rebuild their lives, gain livelihood options and other basic amenities. They must also be empowered so that their voices are heard in the development drive taking place in the conflict affected areas.

Livelihoods are considered the most important issue in post-conflict Sri Lanka. The Giritale consultation held in 2010 recommended the following to strengthen livelihood options for women: skills training in non-traditional occupations for women; the Presidential Task Force in the Vanni to have a Gender Advisory Team; create networks for exchange and sale of seeds and farm produce among women’s groups working in agricultural and fisheries sectors; supporting traders in the north and east to carry out business and to travel and engage in trade and commerce outside of the north and east; and develop credit and loan services that will correspond to the specific needs of women in resettled communities and that will give them access to the material and financial resources they need to build up their livelihoods.

Systematic approach to trainings and workshops on Resolution 1325, coupled with ensuring that gender concerns are taken into account in all aspects of nation building, including rebuilding and reconstructing communities and societies with provision of life chances for women in every sector means that women would be included and given space to voice their opinions; and most importantly create the realisation that women can and indeed must contribute substantially in a post war context. It is increasingly being realised that women can play an important role in structuring the very nature of peace. They can bring about change at local level through diverse means. What they require is to be given the opportunity and space to do so.

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