The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.
During the last round of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, held in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya Districts, four very different problems were brought up with regard to women. The one that I think needs swift and concerted action is that of women headed households which need support for livelihoods. This is an area in which much assistance has been provided, but it could be more systematic, and should more concertedly move beyond financial support to the development of sustainable employment.
Efforts in this regard could be twinned with another problem that came up, which was the lack of preparation to deal profitably with the abundant harvests that the area is experiencing. One women’s group, at an earlier meeting, had asked for training in marketing, and that should certainly be provided along with training in food processing and other value addition activities which will at least to some extent increase the profits of locals as opposed to middlemen. For this purpose we should be encouraging the establishment of Women’s Cooperatives, and developing systems of credit that, as all experience shows, will prove viable when women are the chief beneficiaries.
Such organizations will also help with the community support systems that we must encourage. I have been urging the establishment of Protection Committees in each Grama Niladhari Division, that will not only settle problems when they arise, but also anticipate problems and prevent them coming to fruition. Initially the Committees were coy about discussing these, but they did note when I asked about sexual problems that there were increasing numbers of unwanted pregnancies. I had been told about this previously, by medical personnel too, who noted that it was not a question of rape, which is what the gossip circles claim, but rather consensual sex amongst minors. In addition, as one would expect in cases of single women, there were instances of pressures, beginning with ordinary social intercourse and offers of support, that eventually took their toll.
The best defence against these is peer group support systems, encouraged by counseling. Unfortunately not even the Grama Niladharis are aware of the agencies to which they can have recourse for protection issues. When I asked who should be involved in the Protection Committees, they knew about the Police but they had to be reminded about what should be first lines of defence, Child Protection and Probation Officers, Women’s Officers and Social Service and Counselling Personnel. These should work together to set up safety nets, and in particular ensure that awareness programmes, with regard to drink and drugs and sex are conducted in schools and at community level. Fortunately there is greater acknowledgment of the need for all this, with the acceptance of the National Human Rights Action Plan. The Ministries of Health and Education and Child Development and Women’s Affairs are mandated to develop programmes in this regard. The need to twin these however with community awareness and participation in protection should also be understood.
Similar preventive mechanisms would help with another problem area that was raised, that of alcoholism which led to abuse of women. Coincidentally, the day before the meetings, I had delivered the keynote address at the launch of two publications issued by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs to increase awareness and enhance protection for women. One was explication of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, the other brought together legislation concerning women. I was able to give out copies of these, there as well as in Kilinochchi, though unfortunately the Tamil translation was not yet ready. This should be brought out soon, and copies sent to all relevant government agencies as well as to Women’s Rural Development Societies, with those in the South getting copies of the Sinhala translation.
The problem raised at that first meeting was prevalent elsewhere too, though I suppose this is not exceptional, given that domestic violence is common all over the world. Alcohol obviously fuels this, and we need to introduce more stringent rules about the positioning of taverns – which was the point made in Oddusuddan – as well as ensure better counseling services and community interventions when victimization takes place. Ensuring that women are aware of possible remedies, as laid out in the recent publications, with active monitoring of the vulnerable by the Protection Committees I had suggested, would go a long way to reducing the problem.
The third problem that was raised was interesting in that it was a much milder complaint than we have been used to hearing about the armed forces. Previously, when issues were raised, I had inquired closely, and found that in fact hardly any cases of sexual misbehavior were known, apart from one instance where a soldier had run away with a minor and wanted to marry her. This had been prevented, and the girl was safely back at home and the soldier charged, though I rather hope that, after a suspended sentence for irresponsible romanticism, the couple will be allowed to marry when both are grown up, if still so inclined.
In Kilinochchi what was mentioned now was that soldiers on exercises cut through barbed wire fences which caused worry to women living in the area. This was obviously improper, and the Brigadier I asked about this promised to look into the matter and stop such irresponsibility. But it was also noted that there had been no instance of impositions on the women in the area, it was simply nervousness that was the problem. The nervousness was understandable, and the onus was on the forces to ensure that it was alleviated, but this seemed a very simple matter, that could easily be addressed by a regular consultative mechanism on the lines I had suggested, with the Grama Niladhari and relevant government officials mandated to take up any problems that arose with the concerned authorities and ensure a solution.
The fourth problem was much more serious, and will need to be looked at in depth.