International Women’s Issues: Women and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka

As of May 19, 2009, Sri Lanka’s civil war was officially over. The conflict lasted 26 years and tore the country apart, with tens of thousands of people killed. For the past two and a half years, the nation has started to rebuild, and is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. This week in International Women’s Issues, we’re going to look at the role women play in the rebuilding of a nation after war.

The bare-bones story of this conflict is as follows: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers (also known as the LTTE) were a separatist group, fighting for the creation of their own state of Tamil Eelam. They carried out a variety of attacks on the Sri Lankan government which resulted in outright war between government forces and the LTTE. Twenty-six years of constant conflict is too much to explain here, but it is important to point out that the LTTE, due to the type of tactics they employed, was labeled a terrorist organization by more than 30 countries. However, the Tamil community had significant legitimate grievances as well, and the Sri Lankan government’s troops have been accused of human rights violations as well ““ neither side has anything like clean hands in this situation. While actual fighting was concentrated mainly in the north and east parts of the country, the entire population was under significant strain due to constant war, and the nation’s economy suffered greatly. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced during the conflict.

Particularly interesting to my own female-centric view of the world is the fact that, despite the fact that Tamil society was very patriarchal, women made up nearly a third of LTTE forces. The LTTE engaged in extensive suicide bombings, and more than 40 of those bombings were carried out by women, including several high-level assassinations. Women played a visible and violent role in this conflict as the perpetrators of violence, which is why I believe their role in the peacebuilding and reconciliation process is all the more significant.

But what is peacebuilding, anyway? The term first came into popular use after a 1992 publication by United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali entitled Agenda for Peace.  It is a collective term for, not only post-conflict reconciliation, but also long-term national development, with an eye towards eliminating the root causes of conflict. The development of NGO organizations, creating and strengthening social ties between formerly warring sides, and infrastructure/economic development can all fall under the umbrella of peacebuilding, as can many other reconstructive activities. Basically, it is picking up the pieces after a conflict, and building something better and stronger, that will not be so easily torn apart again.

The role of women in peacebuilding was highlighted in 2000, with the passage of U.N. Resolution 1325, which called for a greater role for women in peacebuilding missions, and special attention paid to gender issues in peacebuilding and peacekeeping activities. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that peacebuilding is very much a concept created and carried out by the developed world and its NGOs, and enacted in the developing world. As is true of so many aspects of international development, this creates complications and problems, though the intentions of peacebuilding clearly are noble. While I could babble on for days about the complexities of top-down development, let’s get back to the women in Sri Lanka.

So what, exactly, is happening in terms of peacebuilding, and how are women involved? There are two sides to this ““ first, what provisions have been made for women in the formal, internationally-directed peacebuilding process, and two, what are women taking into their own hands to accomplish?

Since I’m fairly restricted in my research to “what I can find on the Internet,” it’s much easier to learn about what steps towards including women in the international community has taken (and then written helpful press releases about!)  For example,  in early 2010, the U.N. Population Fund, in conjunction with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, rolled out a number of mobile maternal health clinics to work in recently-resettled areas, where medical care would otherwise be non-existent. In a World Bank cash-for-work project, regulations were created that favored the participation of women, especially single mothers, in the program. Additionally, there has been a significant focus on greater participation of women in government and leadership positions, ensuring that women’s voices are heard.

As I mentioned above, women served in the LTTE, as did children. This means that, at the time of the LTTE’s surrender, there were more than 350 girl soldiers who formally surrendered, making them eligible for U.N.-run DDR programs. (No, not Dance Dance Revolution. Yes, my brain still goes there too.) Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) is the catchall term for person-by-person peacebuilding ““ taking a soldier and turning them back into a civilian. According to PeaceWomen, DDR for the girl soldiers was done with an eye towards women’s empowerment, coupled with psychosocial counseling, livelihood training, and restorative justice. The simple fact that girls received specialized DDR programming means that the Sri Lankan government and the UN recognize the role women and girls played in this conflict, and of the different challenges they may face as they reenter peaceful society.

Domestically, Sri Lankan women have taken action ““ albeit frequently with international guidance ““ towards strengthening the country’s economy and seeking to unify the Tamil north with the Sinhala south. Savisthri, a woman-led NGO in southern Sri Lanka, trains women in collective action such as banking and gardening, as well as addressing broader women’s rights issues. On March 8th of this year, International Women’s Day, 40 women of Savisthri and similar groups travelled to northern Sri Lanka and taught women there about the techniques they use to improve their own quality of life, as well as build solidarity and a sense of national community.

Oxfam International’s Youth Partnerships supported 18 Sri Lankan college students, all women, who carried out a number of projects designed to reconcile Singhalese and Tamil women, engaging 300 women from both ethnic groups for over a month’s worth of activities, including peace walks, workshops, and theater. These 300 women became leaders and trainers, able to take back to their communities the things they learned, and pass them along to the greater population.

This is not the complete picture, of course. What’s happening right now on the ground, independent of organizations with websites, won’t be generally known for a few years. But based on what we do know, it’s safe to say that women have played a significant role in post-conflict Sri Lanka, and will continue to do so. The person-to-person connections created by the last two groups I’ve discussed may well be the most important towards healing decades-old wounds, and truly bringing the country back together.

Both the war in Sri Lanka and its effect on women, as well as the overall topic of international development and its strengths and weaknesses are incredibly complex topics – this post is an introductory overview at best. Please feel free in the comments to highlight anything egregious I’ve missed, and, as always, if there’s a particular topic or place you’d like to see in an upcoming post, let me know that too!


Gender and Peacebuilding, a Sri Lankan Case Study

Peace-building in Sri Lanka: A Woman’s Perspective

Sri Lanka: Single Women Begin to Rebuild

Sri Lanka: Women, Peace, and Security

Sri Lanka: UN Supports Health Services for Resettled Women

We Know No Boundaries: A Peacebuilding Campaign in Sri Lanka (this is the Oxfam-funded program, read it, it’s awesome)



4 replies on “International Women’s Issues: Women and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka”

It’s interesting – so many conflicts ended in the 1990s and the early 2000s, so the international community had a real opportunity to look at what was most effective then, and what was overlooked, and adjust accordingly. The peace process in Sri Lanka is clearly benefiting from those experiences.

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