SUNDAY MAGAZINE

A gift from Sri Lanka

KALPANA SHARMA

Scepticism still shadows the process of peace.

Scepticism still shadows the process of peace.  

EVEN as war talk dominates the airwaves, the voices for peace can be heard. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on a freezing winter morning in Washington on January 18 and shouted their opposition to the impending war against Iraq. In 32 cities across the world, a similar chorus rejecting war as an option was heard. Does it matter that the men and women sitting in the White House and the Pentagon, and plotting war moves even as this is being written, are deaf to these voices? In the short run, it is frustrating to realise that no matter how loudly and how many people protest against confrontation, the people determined to wage war remain undeterred. To them such opposition just does not matter.

Yet, the growing constituency for peace in many countries has drawn together a great assortment of people, from all classes, races, creeds and generations. In the United States, where universities had been bereft of activism for a couple of decades, suddenly a new energy has emerged. Those leading the anti-war rallies have been mostly young people. Most of them had not been born when the Vietnam war took place. Thus, it is encouraging that a new generation holds the same convictions about the destructive and pointless nature of war as did their parents who opposed the Vietnam war.

Will these voices for peace eventually make a mark, perhaps when all the warring is over? One country where this is beginning to happen is in Sri Lanka. It is encouraging that in the midst of all the sabre-rattling initiated by the world's only super power, the process of forging a lasting peace is making slow and steady progress in Sri Lanka. Defying all doomsday predictions, the ceasefire has held and the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continue to talk. They are now discussing the more difficult issues, such as the long-term political arrangements and the High Security Zones in the north that are still controlled by the Sri Lankan army.

Of course, the process of peace has not been an easy one in Sri Lanka. There is still scepticism in many circles and a deep-rooted suspicion of the LTTE's motives. There are disturbing stories emerging from the north and the east of extortion and threats, of minors that continue to be recruited for battle. Yet, last Christmas, people enjoyed the first festive season in decades without the pall of war hanging over their heads. The scores of military check posts that dotted Colombo had disappeared as people shopped as if there would be no tomorrow. You could almost believe that the peace that prevailed was of a permanent nature.

The largest constituency for peace, which is often silent, or divided and therefore fails to speak with one voice, is that of women. For in any situation of war or conflict, women shoulder the greatest burden. Yet, when the negotiations for peace begin, their perspective is most often ignored. In Sri Lanka, too, initially men did the negotiating; women watched.

But this has changed quietly and significantly. A New Year gift of lasting value is the setting up of a committee that incorporates a gendered and rights-based approach to the peace process. At the end of the third round of talks in Oslo in December, all the parties involved agreed to set up a women's committee to look at gender issues in the peace process. And the fourth round of talks held in Thailand announced the names of the women, many of them known around the world for their work in the area of women and peace. Kumari Jayawardene, Deepika Udagama, Faizun Zacheriya and Kumudini Samuel are four of 10 women in the committee. The LTTE will nominate five Tamil women and in addition there will be a Muslim woman.

The formation of this committee is the consequence of consistent lobbying by women's groups in Sri Lanka ever since the peace process began. To push their case, they organised an International Women's Commission that toured the war-ravaged northeast of the country last October. The team's report is a blueprint that could be used in any peace process practically anywhere in the world. It foregrounds the impact of war on women, and spells out in specific detail what this means. It also recommends concrete steps that need to be taken as part of the process of negotiating a lasting peace. The report states:

"We recognise that women in particular have been victimised by war and conflict in Sri Lanka, that they have been subject to the worst forms of violence, been displaced and made into refugees, compelled to live as war widows. Women have seen family members disappear and or join fighting forces. They have suffered physical disabilities and psychosocial trauma because of war. Therefore women's experiences and women's voices must be an essential part of the peace process in Sri Lanka."

The recommendations cover many different aspects. Amongst the important issues that are emphasised is the problem of displacement as well as resettlement and reconstruction. As women and children form the majority of those displaced, they will require specific assurances of safety if they want to return to their former homes. Land laws will also have to be scrutinised to ensure that women-headed households, and widows, are given land deeds. In fact, the committee has recommended that even cash compensation should be handed over directly to women to ensure that it actually benefits the family.

The report also mentions health, education, women's livelihoods, political representation, freedom of association, the problem of disappeared and missing in action and violence against women. Additionally, it draws attention to the problem of thousands of landmines that litter this entire region and which pose a daily hazard to men, women and children. Ironically, the peace negotiations have partly been conducted in Oslo, the city where the international treaty calling for the elimination of landmines was initiated. Neither Sri Lanka nor the LTTE have signed this treaty.

If the women's committee is allowed to function freely, and if its recommendations are incorporated into the peace process, Sri Lanka will have pioneered a significantly different and relevant approach to resolving conflict and crafting peace.