Remembering Rajani Thiranagama and Examining the Roles of Women in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka

”One day some gun will silence me and it will not be held by an outsider but by the son born in the womb of this very society, from a woman with whom my history is shared.”

The quote above is from Rajani Thiranagama just few months before her assassination in 1989. She was assassinated by the people she sought to represent. While this event occurred 31 years ago, it begs the question where do women in Sri Lanka stand now, especially after the Sri Lankan Civil War?

Rajani was an individual who loved peace, order, equality and strove for a harmonious society. What made her memorable was her courage to realize this philosophy into reality. When the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) betrayed her hope for peace for the people of Jaffna, she officially cut ties with the organization. She was forced to flee to the United Kingdom with her children shortly afterwards.

In the 2005 documentary “No More Tears Sister” it was mentioned how Rajani felt like evading the conflict and moving far away. However, for the people of Jafffna, she overpowered her fear and returned to Sri Lanka.

When atrocities committed by the Sinhalese government, the LTTE militants and the Indian peacekeeping forces peaked, Rajani along with fellow university colleagues formed an organization that criticized the actions of the atrocious groups and strove to achieve basic rights for the people of Jaffna. She also documented each and every local woman whose male family members were either killed or missing, and highlighted their plight. She compiled her report and named it “No More Tears Sister.”

Looking into the situation post-war, according to an article by United Nations Women, there is underrepresentation of women in political and public decision making in Sri Lanka. Even though it claims that women are 56% of voters, there is only 5% representation through legislators. The source of such plight is considered to be lack of educational opportunities and lack of encouragement of women in decision-making.

During the civil war, political movements and organizations that strove for peace were initialed by women, such as Mother’s Front. However, after the war, hardly any such large-scale representation of female participation is evident. In consequence of poor representation, laws in the country discriminate against women. To give some examples, marital rape remains legal, there are discriminatory legal restrictions on women in the workforce and limitations have been imposed in relation to inheritance and property.

In a common-sense point of view, women are linked with peace. Due to perceiving their roles as nurturers, women are considered to be effective mediators. Ironically this role seems to be limited to only resolving conflicts at the familial level or just remains unsung as “unofficial” contributors to their communities. There are few instances of the official recognition of women in the peace-building process as well as much less encouragement of their role in it.

During the period of the Sri Lankan Civil War, women suffered the most. They had to go through the trauma of losing their children, husbands, fathers and brothers throughout the conflict. In those times of helplessness, they had to gather courage and run their household. As they have experienced the state of vulnerability during the war, they know the value of peace.

This is why there is a need to empower, encourage and acknowledge women in their potential to take on roles in the peace-building process. The first step towards it can be through proper representation, especially in decision-making.  Peace can be only achieved through equal access to opportunities and proper representation.

–Nelofer Laskar

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