It’s been more than two years since the supposed end of the war in Sri Lanka. The issues of concern are many, particularly with regard to the period after the end of direct combat. The Sri Lankan government has been abysmal in acknowledging the range of human rights violations that have been committed by the armed forces, which has been documented without a kernel of doubt by the United Nations report as well as the Channel 4 documentary. This documentation has been made in spite of circumstances where any neutral observation of the last stages of the conflict was made impossible by the Sri Lankan government and its army.
Among the myriad communities who have been affected by the prolonged conflict in terms of destruction of property, lives and support structures through death, injury and displacement, are women from different communities. This includes women from both Tamil and Muslim communities in the northern and eastern provinces. Most of the concerns are shared, along with particularities to specific communities such as the Muslims for instance.
In the event of the Sri Lankan Government appearing before the CEDAW committee, we would like to bring to your notice the extensive report put together by the Coalition of Muslims and Tamils for Peace and Co-existence posted earlier on kafila. We stand by all aspects of the report put together by activists, yet again, in severely adverse circumstances. Through rigorous, grassroot-level work in a sustained manner, this report has been put together in a situation where the government is actively impeding any work by humanitarian agencies and civil society organisations across the country, especially in the north and east.
We address you from our vantage point as women’s rights organisations and feminists based in India who are deeply concerned about the role of the Indian and Sri Lankan governments in Sri Lanka today, especially concerns affecting women who often bear the brunt of oppressions caused due to war meted out to them by state and non-state actors. We would like to completely support our colleagues in Sri Lanka who are often silenced by real dangers of harm to their person on a daily basis and activists working on Sri Lanka based elsewhere. We strongly urge both governments to act upon the following demands:
1. The right to return and speedy, sustained and holistic resettlement of women and their families in their chosen places of return. This includes simplifying processes of registration and resettlement and setting up transparent and democratic systems for the same. This should include, among other things, a realistic compensation package to rebuild lives that have been shattered repeatedly for three decades if not more. Specifically, we demand that this should apply to all plans, including the large-scale housing project that is being done by the Indian Government through contracts with private companies.
2. Dismantling of high security zones which have caused a serious loss of land to many families, such as in Sampur in Trincomalee district, Mullikulam and Silawathurai in Mannar district.
3. Canceling of industrial projects in various parts of the country, including those in high security zones. Here we would like to particularly stress on industrial projects such as the Sampur power plant that is being set up in collaboration with NTPCL and the Indian Government. We strongly urge the Indian government to desist from actively participating in industrial and developmental projects in Sri Lanka wherever they result in the permanent loss of the land and livelihoods or ethnic cleansing of war-displaced minorities.
4. The increased militarization in the country as a whole, particularly in the north and east, needs to be brought to an end immediately. This includes, but is not restricted to, ending the immense power accorded to the state under emergency regulations, the unchecked power of the Presidential Task Force, and the unchecked power and impunity given under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It is imperative that military and ex-military personnel be immediately removed from positions of governance and be replaced by civilian administrators and a civil police force, as should be the case during peacetime.
5. The specific concerns of women such as problems of title on land in women-headed households and among widows and so on be taken cognizance of and addressed at the earliest. Further, cases of sexual assault and rape meted out by security forces and other state actors need to be taken cognizance of. The accused must be tried in the locality where the rapes and assaults took place rather than in a distant Sinhala-speaking locality, the perpetrators must be punished and the victims compensated.
6. Government to take active measures to find missing persons, and either prosecute or release prisoners who have been kept in prison without any prosecution for many years.
7. The trafficking of women and girls, not just for forced sex work but also for work in Free Trade Zones, often in faraway places without being allowed any contact with their families or other community members, is a horrifying index of the complete vulnerability and helplessness with which they survive, due to ongoing displacement, militarization and draconian legislation. We are aware of an overwhelming practice of sexual force, abuse and deception of minors and women from the northern and eastern regions to push them into violent situations of work. We demand an immediate rigorous enquiry and halt to this heinous practice, adequate compensation to the victims, and punishment of all those who have engaged in trafficking them. Situations of coercive work due to social, economic and conflict-related reasons are complex and it is incumbent upon the state to halt any practice of taking advantage of these already vulnerable communities. We demand that the state provides adequate mechanisms and resources to rebuild their work and lives in ways they choose.
We no longer believe the empty promises of the Sri Lankan Government to bring peace and reconciliation, and strongly demand immediate action that will convince us of the seriousness of this intent. We strongly condemn the Indian Government’s silence and active participation in many of the human rights violations meted out by the Sri Lankan Government. We demand that the Indian government take positive steps for justice and the basic welfare of all those people adversely affected by the prolonged conflict in Sri Lanka. As women’s groups and feminists in India, we will no longer silently stand witness to such violations and will continue to raise a voice against our own government as well as the Sri Lankan government and will stand in eternal solidarity with our friends and colleagues in Sri Lanka.
Dr. Uma Chakravarty, Historian, New Delhi.
Dr. Ilina Sen, Professor, Wardha, Maharashtra
Dr. Rohini Hensman, Mumbai