Eight years after the end of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, Tamil speaking women in the island’s north and east are still seeking justice and truth for wartime violations. Bold promises by the government to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015 – including a truth commission, a special court and offices to investigate missing persons and provide reparations – have failed to materialise even as the urgent economic and psychosocial needs of all conflict-affected groups remain unmet. Anger and a sense of betrayal have generated a new wave of women-led protests and threaten to become sources of renewed grievance that damage already slim hopes of reconciliation among communities, and between the state and its Tamil citizens. If Sri Lanka is to address the past in a way that reconciles its communities and builds lasting peace, the government must prioritise the needs and rights of conflict-affected women – beginning by promptly establishing the offices on missing persons and reparations.
As the armed conflict raged, Tamil speaking women in the war-torn north and east braved a powerful military and an authoritarian government to press for truth and accountability, particularly regarding the enforced disappearance of family members. After the war, their campaigning helped bring transitional justice issues onto the domestic and international agenda. At the heart of promised transitional justice processes are these women’s experiences of rape and sexual violence, the deaths of family members, forced recruitment and killings by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and destruction of homes and communities. The legacy of war continues to impose hardships, particularly on conflict-affected women: lack of information on missing relatives, displacement from their land, economic deprivation, psychological trauma, vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation, plus a militarised environment that reinforces much of the above.
Despite their agenda-setting activism, women have been given little role in shaping transitional justice policies. The government largely has ignored the report of its Consultations Task Force (CTF) on national reconciliation processes, which conferred widely with women and which many hoped would re-energise government’s commitments. Occasional gestures – the release of small amounts of land or meetings by the president with families of the disappeared – are drowned out by the government’s political caution and pro-military tilt. A new constitution, which could address the causes of war and help prevent its recurrence, continues to hang in the balance.
Extensive interviews with women in the north and east make clear they want justice for crimes committed by the state and – albeit with less unanimity – for those perpetrated by the LTTE. Their most urgent demand is to know the fate of missing relatives. These women also insist that the truth and justice they seek must be part of a broader approach to meet their economic, social, psychological and security needs.
Tamil speaking women in the north and east have arguably been more affected by the conflict and its aftermath than any other group in Sri Lanka. Tens of thousands of war widows and wives of the missing have been forced to become heads of household and primary income earners, leaving behind traditional domestic roles and entering the public realm to engage politically, economically and socially. They do this in a highly patriarchal context regulated by rigid cultural and social practices, and made insecure by the continued presence of the Sinhalese military. They suffered gender-based violence and abuse throughout the conflict and continue to do so amid a breakdown in social and family structures. Most have urgent unmet socio-economic needs and many suffer crippling trauma. Muslim and Sinhala women in the north and east and other parts of the country face their own challenges arising from the war and must be better included in transitional justice processes.
Meaningful transitional justice must also reduce women’s severe economic and physical vulnerability.
Meaningful transitional justice must also reduce women’s severe economic and physical vulnerability. A well-designed and empowered reparations office is required to support expanded and better coordinated programs for livelihoods, pensions, debt relief and psycho-social support. The office will need strong political backing from the president and prime minister to overcome political and bureaucratic resistance. Likewise, funding and political support to community- and district-level women’s groups is essential.
The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) should be made operational immediately and given sufficient resources to set up branches in the north and east. It should be staffed with credible, independent voices, including conflict-affected women themselves. An accountability process, with international involvement, may not come soon, but it will be critical to assure that Sri Lanka can put its many ghosts to rest and mitigate the chances of future conflict.
Transitional justice in Sri Lanka has grown moribund largely because the government never tried to build public support for the process or show how it could benefit all communities. A major public outreach campaign to explain how the reparations and missing persons offices will address the legacies of war could help neutralise resistance from political rivals and the military.
Addressing the specific needs of conflict-affected women and involving them more fully in the design and implementation of transitional justice programs are essential steps, both for reducing the rising tension in the north and east and for restoring hope that the political transition promised in 2015 can still be realised.