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After 20 years of the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325, Sri Lanka is focused on three aspects: building women work force, eliminating gender violence and bringing women as active participants in the peacebuilding process  

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IPRI # 84, 25 July 2020

WOMEN, PEACE AND TWENTY YEARS OF UNSC 1325
In Sri Lanka, 20 years later women still await the return of post war normalcy

  Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare

The Sri Lankan society displays a remarkable duality in terms of female representation. On one hand, the country claims the honour of having the world’s first female head of government but on the other hand, the Sri Lankan women still struggle to overcome the stereotypical notion of women as homemakers, undermining their capacity and agency as peacekeepers and decision-makers. The dialogue is further underscored by the aftermath of the civil war, where the devastation caused by armed conflict victimized women and children (particularly girls), who were subject to both physical and psychological violence, familial dislocation, and socio-economic ostracism.

Women war cadres seek new life while those displaced have no relief in sight

With the conclusion of the civil war in 2009, the Sri Lankan government took commendable action to rehabilitate and reintegrate former female LTTE cadres through vocational, technical, or language training under the ‘Accelerated Skills Acquisition Programme.’ This enabled many young women who have known only a life of violence to resolve the lack of formal education and seek gainful employment to actively contribute and participate in post-conflict development projects in war afflicted zones. However, the programme can be counted with limited success as only the number of female militants that led an unconventional lifestyle as trained suicide bombers and fighters skilled in guerrilla warfare were integrated into the process. Those who have sustained disabling injuries, or were sexually exploited find it difficult to conform to accepted gender roles in the society and are ostracized by their own families and communities.

The legacy of war continues to affect the livelihood of many women, most are seeking justice for the violations of war where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has failed to provide answers to queries regarding missing family members or to make reparations. The displaced and widowed women are in a battle to reclaim land and property lost during the civil war while having little to no access to psycho-social support, economic relief, or legal aid to ease the way. Therefore, even though the civil war may have concluded, Sri Lanka’s war-affected women are still dealing with the aftermath in order to establish a sense of normalcy in their everyday life.

Women are charting its political role but are less present in peacekeeping missions

Despite the ravages caused by war, since the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325 two decades ago, the Sri Lankan women have steadily advanced in terms of political leadership and career development. The “Global Gender Gap Report 2020” notes that in South Asia, Sri Lanka has the highest female representation in parliament. In fact, since 2010 the country consistently maintains an average of 5 per cent female representation from available seats in the national parliament which is supplemented by a mandatory 25 per cent quota allocation for women in election candidacy. Though the percentage of female representation in the parliament can be considered small, it should be noted that these women held positions of power which include heads of state, heads of ministries, councils, and supreme courts.

In an evaluation of the contribution to UN peacekeeping missions, the number of female peacekeepers deployed by Sri Lanka is very low in comparison to that of Bangladesh and India. However, the Sri Lankan military is looking to rectify the situation and has trained an all-female Force Protection Company of 184 and a Female Provost Company of 132 who would be deployed under the UN flag in peacekeeping in the near future. These forces were to be informed of cultural taboos, the vulnerability of women in the war of conflict areas, feminine misperceptions, balancing responsibilities at home and work, and overall physical and psychological challenges faced by female peacekeepers in order to serve better as ‘Blue Berets’.

More educated a woman doesn’t mean more woman with a job

In the field of education, Sri Lanka is the first South Asian country to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal for gender equality in all levels of education. In fact, it is a growing trend, particularly in the field of higher education, that women are more educated than men. However, despite the growing number of female academics and professionals that had strengthened women empowerment in state universities, opportunities for career advancement can only be described as an uphill struggle where women work in male-dominated spaces. The glass ceiling is a harsh reality for many ambitious young women’s expectations of career progression. For example, whereas females comprise the majority of probationary faculty members not even a quarter of the senior professors are female.

According to the WHO “Country Profile on Gender-Based Violence in Sri Lanka 2018” only women occupy only 16 per cent within civil service and only 28.4 per cent of senior management positions in both public and private sectors. This disparity is even more evident in higher administrative positions, wherein some of the state universities the post of vice-chancellor has never been held by a woman despite the availability to eligible female candidates. While Article 12 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution of 1978 provides for equality for women and men and non-discrimination based on sex, the gender gap in the labour force is clearly evident. The women comprise only 30-35 per cent of the workforce for the past two decades. Even if the women were to overcome the odds and enter the workforce, they face wage discrimination where female workers earn lesser than their male counterparts engaged in the same job. The underlying causes of this disparity can be attributed to the challenge women face in terms of inflexible work schedules, sexual harassment in workplaces, and the lack of access to safe public transport, child care services, and better wages. Hence, most women despite being well educated are destined to become homemakers rather than contribute to the workforce and the development of the country.

However, not all hope is lost as young professionals such as Jayathma Wickramanayake continue to work towards civic and political engagement of young people through the initiation of projects such as the “Hashtag Generation” which provide and encourage better prospects, especially for young women.

Obsolete patriarchy still led the way for shaping women roles

After 20 years of the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325, Sri Lanka is primarily focused on three aspects of women empowerment. Firstly, the need to recognize the capacity of female contribution to the economy as population demography projections note the requirement to depend on a female workforce in the near future. Secondly, there is a need to acknowledge and eliminate gender-based violence against women as social attitudes continue to oppress and stigmatize women who were subject to sexual violence. Further attention is required with regards to the legal age of marriage in the multi-ethnic communities of Sri Lanka, where issues such as the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act that endorses child marriage remains unresolved. Thirdly, the government needs to provide openings for women to coordinate the reconciliation efforts in post-war Sri Lanka, to be the voices behind peacebuilding and development projects as they are conscious of the suffering and devastation caused by war.

In conclusion, women in Sri Lanka are educated and capable but are limited by the outdated patriarchal social norms and values. Nevertheless, more and more Sri Lankan women are overcoming the stagnant attitude that ‘a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for her family’ in order to become agents of change.


Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare is a Postgraduate Scholar at UMISARC Centre for South Asian Studies in Pondicherry University

The above commentary is a part of a series on ‘WOMEN, PEACE AND TWENTY YEARS OF UNSC 1325’. This an attempt by NIAS to mark the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the historical United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on ‘women, peace and security’ which was the first to recognize the importance of women in the peacebuilding process and incorporate gender perspectives in all UN peace and security efforts.

 

Also from the series...

In India, the glass is half full for the women

Jenice Jean Goveas 

In Nepal, it is a struggle for the women out of the patriarchal shadows

Kabi Adhikari

In Bangladesh, laws need to catch up with reality

Mehjabin Ferdous

In Afghanistan, there is no going back for the women

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