Nimalka Fernando on Women’s Struggle for Rights in Post-War Sri Lanka
Nimalka Fernando is an attorney and eminent women’s rights activist from Sri Lanka. She is a Co-convener of Platform for Freedom and a member of the National Movement for a New Constitution in Sri Lanka - each a coalition of NGOs, trade unions and people’s movements involved in ongoing democratic reforms process in Sri Lanka. From her early days as a student, Nimalka has been involved in many people’s movement both inside Sri Lanka and across South Asian. She is President of the International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) and the Women’s Political Academy in Sri Lanka. Nimalka is also a founding member of Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives (ARENA).
Below is a excerpt from a recent conversation WRN had with Mrs. Fernando on the Sri Lankan women's movement for peace and justice in the past three decades, her role in that struggle, and the idea of a South Asian Women's Human Rights Tribunal. Read the full interview here.
Sri Lankan women have played an important role in post-war Sri Lanka, yet that have been habitually sidelined by state and non-state actors. Can you tell us some strategies they have used to engage and have their voice heard?
Early on, discussions were happening in small gatherings of women for evening coffee or tea which eventually evolved into more advanced discussions on feminism and women’s liberation. Women’s rights activism took a radical and visible turn in the late 80’s. We saw many groups getting involved in women’s mobilization in that era taking on issues individually. In the mid-80’s I joined the Women’s Action Committee (WAC) which could be called the first feminist platform in Sri Lanka. WAC had representatives from the working class, academia and journalists from various ethnic backgrounds.
Soon after 1989, we were challenged with the issue of disappearances as the ethnic conflict intensified while the second youth uprising occurred in the country. Militancy in the north emerged and in the South semi-fascist patriotic forces mobilized, state repression intensified, and thousands of young people disappeared. Violence plagued our everyday lives. Bodies were seen laying on the road; half burnt bodies were found piled up in certain regions of the country.
"I realized that talking about peace without politics is easy but talking about peace with politics is difficult."
We all became a part of the human rights struggle and built a democratic kind of activism. Women’s Action Committee transformed into a new forum called Mothers and Daughters of Lanka. It became a national forum where women could come together for joint and collective action. For me, this was a movement. The platform [Mothers and Daughters of Lanka] brought together various women on issues of national attention that were of vital importance during the crisis. Sinhala and Tamil women came together forgetting all their differences – something rarely seen during that time.
What are the major challenges that Sri Lankan women still encountering post- conflict?
In general, Sri Lankan political parties and leaders are unable to accept the idea of equality for women. Even some of the women politicians who have served in the government positions have shied away from using the term `equality for women’. In my opinion, it is one of the major problems we are facing in the post-colonial period and now.
When we talk about women being raped or affected by war, they are looked as if it was their fault to be in a precarious situation or as victims of circumstances. They are blamed and told they responsible for what happened. There is a reluctance to deal with the issue of violence against women as an issue of power or militarization. It is considered natural or normal thing that could happen to any woman. The government has failed to address this issue in the post-war era.
Recently, I was urging authorities to provide immediate relief to families of the disappeared and war affected women who are now exposed to vulnerability. Even though we talk about women’s agency, right’s and so forth, the real politik at the grassroots level is destitution and regular exposure to violence. A top official told me “we better not make them dependent”. How long have these women waited for assistance? There is no cohesive national policy to assists them. They have been deprived of resources and what they had was lost during the conflict - their lands, houses or whatever little they had. The jewelry they pawned were also lost during the war as banks were destroyed during the conflict.
Women’s Regional Network is advocating for a Women’s Human Rights Tribunal as a human right advocacy tool. To what extent do you think this attempt could have positive impact and outcomes?
We had a few tribunals in the past, but we haven’t had a South Asian regional tribunal for a long time. If we talk about the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as an institution or as a process least attention is given to human rights. But war-affected women or women’s human rights issues is not on SAARC’s agenda. I have seen in the media SAARC women’s meetings, but the women attending all represent the authorities and are not women in the respective countries. So, our agendas do not align.
I think if we are having a tribunal, it should be a challenging platform that would be a permanent mechanism. It cannot be short term activity, a finite project because we received funds. I would like to see a process like the Permanent People’s Tribunal taking place in South Asia with 20-25 eminent activists forming the tribunal. The sittings could be arranged so that some would be public while others can testify privately to the tribunal. Making testimonies public would have considering sensitivity and confidentiality of the witnesses.
I think we need to create this tribunal as a strong mechanism that is lacking in our countries. In almost all South Asian countries we have women’s commission, but they have become absolutely ineffective just like another government institution. We need a new, dynamic mechanism with a proper secretariat, a committed core team, and imminent personalities as judges who will create strong recommendations. We should give those recommendations international coverage, take it to Geneva like we did in 1993 UN conference. That’s when it will become a powerful tool.