By Salma Yusuf
Media engagement in Sri Lanka on issues of UN Resolution 1325 is minimal. This piece is an attempt to set in motion a course that is hoped would eventually reverse the status quo. Additionally, sustained systematic advocacy of civil society on women’s concerns is currently insufficient. These were among the findings of the most recent assessment conducted by the Forum for Women and Development in Sri Lanka regarding implementation of UN Resolution 1325 in the country. The findings, observations and recommendations have taken the form of a publication titled WOMEN IN TIMES OF TRANSITION: 1325 IN SRI LANKA.
UN 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. The report examines 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.
The mandate of 1325 is very broad. Activities have been carried out in the country both by 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. There appears to be a lack of awareness on the many aspects of the Resolution and its context within civil society organisations working at local, national and even at international levels. Lately, a marginally more informed discussion of the Resolution is taking place in the country; where there are specific activities based on 1325. Such work is carried out under the guise or cover of other areas. The current work on women’s rights and issues in the country mainly seem to be in the areas of gender based violence, women and political representation and empowering women generally.
The following which have been identified in the said report must be flagged as key intervention points to inform both governmental and non-governmental initiatives in post-war nation building efforts.
The mandate of 1325 would be better realised if there was a definitive framework to work within. A National Action Plan could be a useful tool to monitor work in the area. In the absence of a separate National Action Plan on 1325 to implement UN Resolution 1325, what will be valuable is if the State adopted national level strategies to realise the principles enshrined within the resolution.
Further, grass roots organisations working at the local level do not have well-functioning networks to link with. The support of men is also required for proper implementation of the resolution. There is a related need to engage with more males such as male religious leaders, faith based organisations and law enforcement agents. The added value in using UN Resolution 1325 as a framework is expounded: Provides a normative framework to work within; encompasses a wide range of work already being carried out; ensures the application of international standards at domestic level; allows for an integrated approach to women’s human rights and peace and security work; enables initiatives to be more strategic.
DISTRICT CHILD PROTECTION COMMITTEES
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 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
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 are restricted in size and on average consist of 100 members per society and are limited to working within a Grama Niladhari division. Of the many Community Based Organisations (CBO)s functioning in the North and East the ‘Madar Sangams’ (WRDSs) have been successful in mobilising women.
Given their unique position within the community, they should be capacitated to identify, design, implement and monitor projects while providing on how to conduct 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. The State must 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 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.
MINISTRY OF CHILD DEVELOPMENT AND WOMEN’S AFFAIRS
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. A counselling centre is to be opened in Vavuniya according to a Ministry source. However, none of the above is currently framed within the 1325 Resolution.
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.
Civil society should lobby with the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs to appoint more WDOs to war affected areas with immediate effect. 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 that 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. There are currently less than 3% of women acting as mediators in the Mediation Boards. A strong lobby is needed to promote the appointment of women as mediators. A module on UN Resolution 1325 should be introduced into the training programme followed by mediators.
Through sustained campaigning by 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.
NATIONAL ACTION PLAN FOR WOMEN
It is also important that 1325 principles are integrated in the draft National Action Plan on Women. A rigorous campaign to ensure that the section on ‘war affected women’ is retained in the National Action Plan for Women is needed. It is an opportune moment to do so with the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs who is known to be committed and willing to engage and interact with civil society.
The State has shown interest in working with war widows, female single headed households and military widows. These women need to 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.
GIRITALE CONSULTATION 2010
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.
THE NEXT STEP
Currently, there is no systematic approach to trainings and workshops on UN Resolution 1325 taking place in the country. A need remains of the State and civil society to realise that gender concerns need to be taken into account in all aspects of nation building, including rebuilding and reconstructing communities and societies affected by war. Lack of life chances for women in every sector means that women are excluded and not given space to voice their opinions; and most importantly there is yet to arrive, the realisation that women can and indeed must contribute substantially in a post war context.
The call then, must be for proper tracking of 1325 initiatives in Sri Lanka by the different organisations working on related issues. State ownership and leadership is required for proper implementation of 1325. Only then will it be possible to take 1325 related issues forward in a meaningful manner.
Ultimately, the call has to be for 1325 to be translated into policy if significant interventions on the ground are to take place. All stakeholders involved in rebuilding the country must accept and realise that women play an important role in structuring the very nature of peace. Women are not merely a vulnerable group, they are empowering as well. They can bring about change at local level through diverse means. What they now need is to be given the opportunity and space to do so.
This article appeared at The Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission.