Women Voice-out in Sri Lanka.

Women of Sri Lanka have always been heterogeneous. The multi-ethnic, multi – religious and multi-cultural environment, with international expatriates and tourists visiting the country in abundance has added to the diversified beliefs and living patterns of Sri Lanka’s population as a whole.

Sri Lankan societies are classified into different class systems based on their family background, lineage, education, wealth, and even at times on how conversant they are in speaking the English Language. Women from the upper or upper middle class societies have always had the privilege of loosening themselves from the old traditions and religious restrictions, and becoming prominent figures in the country.

Women from these societies turned out to be business icons and also stepped into politics, some concrete examples being Luisa Naysum Saravanamuttu (1931) one of the oldest female politicians, the first woman prime minister of the world Srimavo Bandaranaike (1960) who served three terms, the first female President of Sri Lanka Chandrika Kumaratunge (1994) serving two terms), the first female mayor in Sri Lanka Rosie Senanayake, Srimani Athulathmudali, Ferial Ashraf, Sudarshani Fernandopullai and many more who hail from the elite or political environments.

Following the steps of women who represented politics, many women from all levels of society came forward to become part of the political sphere, with the aim of bringing change to the existing systems that mostly ignored the needs of women. Though women of Sri Lanka are less likely discriminated by their gender in the society, the political sphere controls the voices of women politicians, through their patriarchal behaviour.

Even whilst the male-dominant politics discouraged women joining politics, women never gave up in demanding of their rights. Seeing no change was made in laws relating to women’s political representation even under the 2016 new government, women groups began demanding the government to increase the number of women in parliament. In 2017 women gathered to protest against the delays of the government, and pressurized for change. These protests of women were part of several other initiatives from different Civil Society Groups, which led the government to amend the Elections Act in 2018 January that increased the representation of women in Local Government from 2 % to 25 %.

The past decades, women in Sri Lanka have constantly been involved in resolving issues that were a threat to the country’s security and well-being. Women have played a role through intervening during times of conflict, disasters, and in negotiations for peace.  During the times of war, women in the North became peace mediators who approached the military groups to receive favours for the rest of the communities.

The prolonged war produced varieties of hardships, predominantly for all ethnic communities living in the North, East and North West of Sri Lanka. Women and children became more affected as it is usually seen in any disaster, due to their vulnerability in terms of economic and social limitations and security threats. One of the worst outcomes of war and post-war was the disappearances that took place in high numbers.

When the numbers of ‘missing persons’ increased, most of them being from the North and East of the country where Tamil ethnic minorities resided, women from all around the country gathered together to hold fasts and protests. Some civil society organizations brought together women from all ethnic communities to raise their voices against the inhumane act of abduction.

Women from many districts of the North organized and involved in roadside demonstrations and protested continuously for 366 days requesting their grandchildren, children, brothers, husbands and relatives to be returned to them. As those kidnapped were men and boys, the north of Sri Lanka consists a majority of single mothers, and female-headed families. Hence women took up the issue ‘abduction and disappearance’ as something they had to intervene, and began voicing out their demands in a peaceful manner. Some women got ill during this lengthy protest, and some were even threatened to withhold being part of the demonstration.

Subsequently, under the current president, and the prime minister who was forced out on 26th October 2018 due to a constitutional coup, the Office of the Missing Persons was established early 2018, to probe into the long-pending cases of disappearances and forced abductions. While the Office is in operation with its tasks, women together with the support of men and civil society organizations, continue to speak out.

The unexpected and unlawful constitutional coup that occurred a week ago in Sri Lanka became an eruption point for the public, and largely a concern for women, who constantly distress on political insecurities relating to their children’s future. The sudden change in power that dissolved the parliament and disturbed the peace of the people led Civil Society Organizations, Human Rights Activists, Journalists, Artists and Women Groups to sit together for discussions, where women were also largely represented.
(Pic Courtesy: Ground Views)

When several organizations arranged for demonstrations and protests in the capital city, women too joined in huge numbers in several prominent locations holding slogans against the unlawful dissolving of the cabinet. It was obvious to notice women from all walks of life, and different age groups participating for several days in these demonstrations, non-violently questioning the president on his decisions that distracted the country’s peace. As said by US former first lady Hilary Clinton, ‘There cannot be true democracy, until women’s voices are heard’ voices of Sri Lankan women echoed throughout the streets of Colombo.

Women also organized the signing of petitions to highlight the gravity of the issue, and to make inform the President that women were going to fight for justice and democracy. The women jointly approached the Speaker of the Parliament with the signed petitions, giving pressure to the president to convene the parliament immediately.

When women become part of protests, demonstrations and peace negotiations, violent acts by authorities on the gathered public becomes less. Women are considered to be able to negotiate with patience rather than harshness and violence.

‘Non-violence doesn’t mean we have to passively accept injustice. We have to fight for our rights, we have to oppose injustice.’ – Dalai Lama(Pic Courtesy: Ground Views)

The voices of women continue to echo in the country, awaiting a positive change to happen soon.

Miriam Kaushika | Sri Lanka