Was at a meeting this morning organised by FOKUS Women and the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) by virtue of the fact that I am a Board Member of ONUR. The meeting was conceptualised around the FOKUS Women publication Reconciling Sri Lanka, what the WOMEN say which is an interesting compilation of case studies of 30 women’s views on reconciliation. The agenda included testimonies from some of the women who featured in the book, but also interventions from government officials and a minister and some poetry and songs from women who had been directly affected by the war. Present at the meeting were four women parliamentarians, some members of the diplomatic corps including the High Commissioner of South Africa in Sri Lanka, women from different age and ethnic groups from different parts of the country and from different walks of life.
The meeting would not have achieved anything had it not had simultaneous translation allowing everyone to speak in either English, Sinhala or Tamil. The case studies were also published in all three languages, and FOKUS Women Director , Shyamala Gomez went into great pains to explain that the case studies were shared with the women in the language that was used when they were being interviewed for verification, so that there was a high level of verification, and no gatekeeping. Well done FOKUS Women! I am sure others will follow suit.
What struck me most during the discussions was the chasm between women’s lived realities and the perceptions of the institutional actors in the room. Sri Lankan governance is awash with good policies, the most recent being the National Reconciliation Policy, but there was no sense that these policies were being implemented. The women talked about lack of transparency and trackability of government activity and decision making, the political manouvering that was detrimental to reconciliation, the elite capture of the reconciliation initiatives and lack of meaningful engagement of women, minorities and people at the grassroots, the continued failure to provide government information in Tamil as well as Sinhalese, issues related to land ownership and housing, the specific problems relating to widows and female headed households, divisive media representation and the reluctance of political parties to nominate women to contest. There were several who regretted the disruption of their education by the threat of violence, or forced displacement. For many there was definitely a sense of being excluded and ‘left behind’.
Mano Ganesan, Minister of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages, came into the meeting for a short while. Proud of his trilingual ability he pointed out to the participants that women comprise more than half the population, are the largest contributors to the economy and have suffered most from war and conflict. His message was for women to take on political and economic authority – make the best use of the electoral quotas as well as spearhead civil society movements in the North around issues that they find unacceptable.
Swarna Sumanasekera, Chairperson, National Committee on Women, brought in a very realistic perspective that highlighted some ongoing and planned activities of the Ministry in collaboration with other state institutions while admitting that there were things that needed to be done better. She emphasised that government needed to consult more widely with women when making policy decisions and formulating plans. She talked about action plans for combatting violence against women and for addressing the issues of female headed households, and about the inclusion of women’s rights issues in the Human Rights Action Plan. She mentioned the recommendation from the Treasury that 25% of budget allocations at the DS level for rural development should go to benefit women, and the need to follow up quotas for women’s political representation with voter education as well as skills development for current and aspiring female politicians. She admitted to not knowing whether local government institutions followed the 25% budget allocation recommendation of the Treasury and made several references to Ministry initiatives that are monitoring impact. She seemed to recognise the value of monitoring and evaluation, a recognition that was absent from the presentations of others. Her several references to Shyamala Gomez’s support suggested that FOKUS Women seems to be making an effort to build the capacity of the women’s machinery. Well done FOKUS Women!
I left soon after the South African High Commissioner’s intervention that aimed to share some lessons from her country’s experience of reconciliation 22 years ago. She urged us to see reconciliation not just as a product, but as a continuous process. She also cautioned against the emphasis on policy. In her opinion policies were necessary but not sufficient to achieve change. Gender Mainstreaming happens in the context of ‘male-streaming’ - the context is highly patriarchal and we should not underestimate the tenacity and resilience of patriarchy. She also warned against the language of institutionalisation that can demobilise grassroots movements. What worked in South Africa was the existence of a coherent media strategy and a common narrative that fostered citizen ownership of the process, capacity building of women that not just provided the survival skills, but skills that helped transform gender relations, a reconciliation barometer that kept track of changes and alliances built with different groups particularly women parliamentarians.
All in all an interesting morning, an opportunity to touch base with some things going on here in Sri Lanka.