Post War Sri Lanka and Women’s Rights

| Published on November 2, 2012 at 4:44 am

Going beyond UNSCR 1325: Post-war Sri Lanka and Women’s ESCR

An Interview with Sithara Shreen Abdul Saroor

United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, adopted 31st October 2000,

reaffirms the role of women in peace and security settings. In this interview Shreen Saroor explores the potential as well as the limitations of UNSCR 1325, especially in context of post war Sri Lanka.

Gabriella and Chelsea (G & C): What is the nature and focus of your work at Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF)?

Shreen Saroor (SS): MWDF works in the north of Sri Lanka with a main focus on the economic and social empowerment of war affected (mostly minority) women. Our programs focus on combating violence against women mostly through the economic and community based support structures we have built. MWDF manages a sizeable micro credit fund which encompasses 112 villages and has helped about 10,000 women in the last 14 years. This program has also been used as a stepping stone towards addressing violence against women and building confidence, trust and peace within households and between the war affected minority communities. In the post-war context in the last three years much of our initiatives focus on promoting war affected women’s active involvement in shaping resettlement and development activities that are taking place in the north.

G & C: What are the key issues for women in post-war Sri Lanka and how is MWDF working to address these issues? What are the key challenges that arise in your organisation’s work?

SS: Undoubtedly, violence against women (VAW). Not just domestic violence but also various other forms of violence that have been induced by the prevalence of the culture of impunity for the last three decades.

The armed war has ended but not the conflict. Women in the north and the east have seen very little “progress” in their lives even almost 3 ½ years after the end of the war. These women have undergone severe hardships during the war, including the loss of loved ones, family support structures, livelihoods, houses and also a loss of life and dignity.

One of the costs women have had to bear due to the war and its brutal conclusion is the loss of family members (especially men), which pushed them outside the conventional family structure and made them the primary income earners. This has provided an opening for various forms of abuse in the context of post-war development being dominated by men. Women in the north continue to suffer due to lack of access to natural resources in relation to their livelihoods and basic amenities and services. Even though the Sri Lankan government has made some progress in terms of physical rebuilding, this has primarily been highways and bridges in addition to military, industrial and tourism related construction in which community women have not been consulted.

Our challenge in the last three years has been questioning the top down and politicised development agenda of the government. Our work is mostly empowering women to collectively challenge the land and resource grabs, and militarisation and to assert a women’s perspective of justice, security and development into the government’s post war programs.

G & C: Having worked in depth in the thematic area of women and conflict you must be quite familiar with UNSCR 1325. Do you use it in your work?

SS: Yes. I am familiar with it, but we (women) have been doing the work of peace building and security for a very long time at various levels. Actually peace building has been women’s work; UNSCR 1325 has simply made it more apparent and in the last 12 years it has impelled our governments and UN to give more vertical and horizontal space for women. The vital part of UNSCR 1325 is the official acknowledgment of women’s agency in peace building and conflict mitigation. It is good to see a comprehensive document of this nature being accepted by the UN Security Council, which is a masculine domain. Many of the Security Council member countries are the reason for not just the war within our countries but also war and aggression between nations.

In many cases these wars and aggressions are about wealth accumulation in certain parts of the world, which is one of the main reasons for the feminisation of poverty and the inequalities and insecurities that we women suffer.

G & C: In your opinion, based on your work with women in conflict/post-conflict situations in Sri Lanka and other countries such as Nepal, what is the shift that needs to happen in the approach taken towards women and conflict?

SS: UNSCR 1325 mostly applies when a country moves from conflict (or armed war) to post conflict (peace- political stability), but in Sri Lanka and in many other countries we are faced with a “no war, no peace” situation. In other words there is no active armed war but there is aggravated conflict. So I will be selective in going with a document like UNSCR 1325 in this context because I may be pushing women to take a substantial amount of risk or compromise on their political aspirations or may be even pushing them to engage in with criminal governments and flawed political parties.

Remember, these women, after all their losses, still have to deal with guns, suppressive laws, corrupt leaders and undemocratic structures. To many of the war affected women in my country reparation and justice go beyond what UNSCR 1325 can bring about.

Nepal is a different scenario: it is a young democracy and the women in Nepal localised the UNSCR1325 and ingrained it in their democratic governance structure. At the policy level it is a great success; however I hear from my Nepali colleagues that it is still not yet benefited the most affected women.

The shift that is needed in Sri Lanka is to focus more on how women have been forced to become primary income earners while their resources have been controlled and grabbed away by the military in the name of development and nation building. To the women I work with, development means not building mere physical structures and bringing in investors but their access to decent and sustainable livelihoods and social security. Because it is women who, during the war and in the postwar period, have taken the burden of earning and caring for families and kept the economy running, their free access to natural resources (especially land, water, minerals, jungles and even the natural habitat) should be given back to them. Women have been the producers and gate-keepers of community resources, but in the post-war development process these resources are controlled and taken away and even women’s lands have been deliberately shrunk in a colonisation practice that comes with the government’s development agenda. This has also led the women to move away from their natural habitat to take up unsafe, less paid, not legally protected and dangerous daily wage jobs that imposes various forms of violence on a permanent basis. So the shift needed here is for us to focus on integrating women’s economic, social and cultural rights into our post-war policies and place women’s development agenda in our micro and macroeconomic policies while defending their political and civil rights.

Sithara Shreen Abdul Saroor is one of the founders of Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF), which addresses the needs of women victims of war in the north of Sri Lanka. She was a participant in PWESCR’s Leadership Institute in Women’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 2011 in which she was awarded the title of Leader amongst Leaders.

Interview conducted and edited by Gabriella McMahon and Chelsea Soderholm, interns at PWESCR (The Programme on Women’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights).

October 2012

For the safety of all concerned we have refrained from using any photographs in this article 



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Human Rights

Post War Sri Lanka and Women’s Rights

Going beyond UNSCR 1325: Post-war Sri Lanka and Women’s ESCR An Interview with Sithara Shreen Abdul Saroor United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325, adopted 31st October ...