Placing Women’s Leadership at the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Peace & Reconciliation Process
Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE), Search for Common Ground, & ABA-ROLI
ABA ROLI-led Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) consortium is pleased to announce its new initiative “Strengthening the Role of Women Leaders in Promoting Peace and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka”. This initiative is launched during a challenging time. As COVID-19 spreads to conflict-affected areas, the pandemic exacerbates challenges for women and girls, reaffirming the need for gender-sensitive and multi-disciplinary programming.
The effects of the pandemic are being felt in Sri Lanka (1). Control measures have increased familial stress and have left women with fewer safety nets outside the home, with severe implications for Gender Based Violence (GBV) (2). The situation has compounded existing barriers for women, especially for those belonging to marginalized or minority groups. In Sri Lanka’s post-conflict setting, many of the inequalities and grievances that initially triggered the decades-long conflict remain unresolved. Fear and division in the aftermath of the 2019 Easter Attacks are being further exacerbated during this pandemic, as communities are turning inwards and blame for the spread of the virus is growing.
In order for peacebuilding dividends to be fully realized in Sri Lanka, it is imperative that women are meaningfully included in peace and reconciliation efforts. Sri Lankan women and girls’ experiences of the thirty-year conflict, and the efforts for peace, justice and reconciliation that now follow it, are profoundly gendered. An estimated 89,000 widows of combatants – of which an estimated 40,000 are single female headed households – are still dealing with trauma and economic insecurity as they struggle to meet the basic needs of their households. Despite the adoption of the 2005 Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and the National Plan of Action to Address Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (2016-2020), GBV continues to take a high toll on women and girls, largely due to broad social acceptance of violence, gaps in the implementation of pertinent legislation, and limited access to justice and essential services for victims. Women and girls have unique needs and perspectives related to war, peace and justice. When those are recognized and amplified, women make crucial contributions to all phases of the peace process and those processes are more likely to effectively respond to women’s needs. The important and central role women play in advancing peace and security is recognized in UNSCR 1325 and subsequent resolutions, and forms the basis for the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda.
Much remains to be done in Sri Lanka to understand the unique perspectives of women and girls and support them in raising their voices on matters of peace and reconciliation. The introduction of a 25% quota for women in local leadership in 2016 is an unprecedented opportunity to level the playing field for women leaders and support them in amplifying the voices of women in their communities.
However, newly emerging women leaders in Sri Lanka face their own specific challenges that restrict their role in politics, including discriminatory gender norms and expectations about the roles women can and should play in public life. They often face resistance and even violence from male candidates within and outside of their political parties as well as from their constituents. Many newly elected women leaders have limited previous experience taking up political leadership roles, advocating for their constituents’ needs, and often do not have a broad support base or network. Conversely, while civil society organizations focusing on women’s empowerment in Sri Lanka have long-standing experience working within local communities around reconciliation and reform processes, they often lack the political capital to push for advancements in these areas.
To this end, WAGE’s two core partners ABA ROLI and Search for Common Ground will work in close partnership with three outstanding local civil society organizations (CSOs) to build strong and trusted collaborative relationships between women in political office and women leaders of local CSOs, as well as build their capacities to work together to advance the WPS agenda. Our partners, the Affected Women’s Forum, the Women’s Development Centre, and the Jaffna Social Action Centre, bring a combined wealth of experience in supporting women’s political participation, encouraging self-reliance, promoting equal opportunities, and addressing domestic violence and other forms of GBV for vulnerable women in Sri Lanka.
At the outset, the project will conduct a participatory needs assessment to identify the barriers to women’s participation in informal and formal peace and reconciliation processes, and opportunities for overcoming these barriers. Based on the results of the assessment, the project will mobilize women leaders into leadership networks, train the networks in key leadership and peacebuilding skills, and link the networks to a range of services and policy and decision makers in their districts. The networks will also serve as a continuous mechanism for sharing best practices and lessons learned and enabling women leaders to develop action plans to advance priorities in their local communities. The action plans will be validated at the community level through local dialogues and multi-stakeholder working groups, which will also serve to highlight the value of women’s participation to the broader community, thereby transforming expectations about women’s participation in the public sphere. Women leaders will also be supported to pilot initiatives addressing issues identified in their action plans.
The project is centered on the belief that if women political and CSO leaders have the opportunity to develop collaborative relationships, establish channels for information-sharing, and identify common challenges and goals while building practical skills for advancing the WPS agenda, then that cohort of leaders will be well-positioned to address the layered needs of women and girls in Sri Lanka and ensure an inclusive and lasting peace.
1) Search for Common Ground. 2020. COVID-19 Discussion Paper #1: Gender & the COVID-19 Crisis in Conflict-Affected Contexts.
2) The Asia Foundation. 2020. In Asia, Not All Homes Are Safe: We Need an Urgent Shift in Thinking.