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When guns cease to fire


Relocation, and the resultant trauma, is an issue.

THE guns have fallen silent, for the moment, in one part of the world even as they continue to boom in another. In Sri Lanka, a ceasefire agreement has resulted in what women call "a quiet time" — a time to think, to consider a future without war. In the Middle East there is neither any quiet time nor peace. And even as this is being written, we watch with horror as Israeli guns, in the name of a war against terror, pulverise a nation that has struggled to assert its right to survive for over five decades.

But coming back to Sri Lanka, the silence of the guns has given civil society an opportunity to raise questions that both sides of the ceasefire agreement need to think about. Not surprisingly, women have raised these questions. For it is women's groups in Sri Lanka who have been central tothe demand for peace. Yet, in the agreement as it reads at present, there is no role for these women or for the groups that have worked in impossibily difficult circumstances to talk about a peaceful political settlement.

On March 8 this year, International Women's Day, the Mothers and Daughters of Lanka and the Sri Lanka Women's NGO Forum made an important statement on the peace process in their country. I quote from the statement because I think it is significant in contexts beyond Sri Lanka. They write: "As the displaced, as refugees, as survivors of war offensives, landmine injuries and sexual violence, as mothers, and girls, as soldiers, as combatants women experience conflict differently than men. They understand the need for peace. While it is mostly men who make war and need to take the responsibility to stop war, women are affected disproportionately by the consequences of war and the need to shape the contours of peace.

"Men make war — women need to shape the contours of peace. Yet, when ceasefire agreements, or peace agreements, are negotiated, women are nowhere in the picture. We have seen this in Afghanistan. We have seen it in India in the agreement between the Government and the Nagas. And we have seen it now in Sri Lanka.

Many people in this country are probably not aware of the distinctive and courageous role that women's groups have played in building up a constituency for peace in Sri Lanka for over two decades. In 1984, when the Sri Lankan army arrested several hundred young men in Jaffna under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, women's groups called for a negotiated political settlement. Other civil society groups were silent during this time. Yet, the women had the courage to speak up and even take an unpopular stand.

They continued to push for talks and even though the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord,that led to the induction of Indian security forces in Sri Lanka, was unpopular, women's groups pointed out that the accord recognised Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic society. They voiced their support for devolution, a line that was not considered politically correct at that time.

While in the Tamil north, women had come together to form a Mother's Front following the arrests in 1984, in the south too women had to face the consequences of "disappearances". The Indo-Lanka accord produced a strong Sinhala backlash in the south and the result was that Sinhala youth "disappeared" like their Tamil counterparts in the north. The southern women responded to this crisis much as their sisters in the north and they launched the Mothers and Daughters of Lanka to demand information about their missing men.

What is significant about these developments is that while Sri Lankan society became more and more divided along ethnic lines, the women in the north and the south forged links that remained unbroken during all the years of strife. Women also took up the issue of the millions of "internally displaced" people in the country. People from the north had to seek refuge in the south; people in the south went east. With escalating conflict, communities that were threatened or felt under threat had to forcibly relocate. The trauma and loss this created in hundreds of households was a factor that had to be addressed.

A time of lasting peace?

The killings and deaths as a consequence of the war resulted in hundreds of women-headed households. Women who had never before engaged in wage labour had to find paid work. Others had to work out ways to survive on just one earning member in the family.

In addition to all this, women were also drawn into the war in a more direct way. The LTTE recruited many women combatants. It is estimated that 30 per cent of their cadre were women and many of them became suicide bombers.

And on both sides, women were victims of sexual crimes, particularly by the security forces. In 1987, at the height of the hostilities, women's groups from the north and the south raised some of these issues at the national level. They talked about the rape of women by the security forces, the harassment caused by security checks and the problems of female-headed households. Over these years, they have continued to raise these issues regardless of the status of the war.

Last year, on Women's Day, even though women could not travel to each other's areas because of security restrictions, they held eight simultaneous programmes in different parts of the country with the single theme of peace. This year, because of the ceasefire, some of them were able to travel to areas that had been completely closed to them. And unitedly, they have issued a statement where they have spelled out the ingredients of lasting peace.The critique of the ceasefire agreement mediated by Norway by the Sri Lankan women's groups is significant because it is constructive. Instead of standing on the sidelines and criticising, they have put forward concrete proposals to strengthen the agreement and make it more credible. These women's voices need to be heeded by all sides if the time of quiet is to become a time of lasting peace.

See Literary Review: The Sri Lankan literary landscape

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