Category: Advocacy & commentary

At Rio+20, diverse women leaders bring ground realities to the forefront

UN Women, 20 June 2012

The Women Leaders’ Forum, a discussion between civil society, government and public sector representatives with UN heads of agencies, has broadened the dialogue on gender equality and sustainability at Rio +20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainability.

Organized by UN Women in collaboration with the Government of Brazil and other partners, the day-long event highlighted the central role of women in sustainable development, and the ways that robust policies can  improve women’s lives by reducing poverty, advancing their economic opportunities, and protecting them from adverse health and environmental challenges. It also highlighted the inequalities that continue to slow global progress towards a green economy and a protected environment.

Delivering the opening and closing remarks, UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet stressed the critical role of the women’s movement. “Twenty years ago, the Rio Declaration emphasized that women’s full participation is essential to achieving sustainable development; twenty years later, women continue to face inequality in rights, opportunities and participation,” she said. “We are here to make our voices heard.”

At the Forum, the Women’s Major Group, a civil society coalition, also presented the findings of a global survey that gathered the diverse voices of women from around the world. The survey and its dissemination were supported by UN Women in the lead up to Rio+20.

Key concerns were raised by the survey and Forum participants—many engaging via social media from across the world  – on the slow progress for gender equality, as outlined in the Beijing Platform for Action, the Rio Declaration of 1992, and other international  agreements and treaties. Setbacks in women’s political participation in some countries were also noted, along with the need to better safeguard women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Many speakers highlighted the way that unsustainable production patterns, such as oil exploitation, continue to threaten eco-systems and community livelihoods, whether by degrading the environment; destroying farms, water sources and fishing grounds; by polluting the air, and fueling conflicts and insecurity; or by creating political tensions and humanitarian crises. Each crisis, due to traditional roles and gender stereotypes, affects women differently and disproportionately to men. Each exacerbates poverty, ill health and mortality.

Yet the Forum also celebrated the resilience and leadership of women, as mobilizers on social, economic and environmental justice, and as entrepreneurs. Among these were the technological innovations led by rural and indigenous women, such as the recycling of waste, as seen in the winning programme of the UN-women supported SEED Gender Equality Award in Nepal; the use of recycled cooking oil as energy; and the transformation of Shea butter into sustainable cosmetic and nutritional products.

The increasing involvement of women in technology and engineering fields were commended as  promising signs of women’s  growing engagement in green jobs, the design of the green economy and better natural resource management. Governments and the private sector were also applauded  for their efforts to promote equal opportunities for women and men through policy and practice.

In her closing remarks, Ms. Bachelet concluded that a shift towards people-centred sustainable development must be anchored in human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, and must lay the foundations of the post-2015 development agenda.

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On World Press Freedom Day – What Hope for Reconciliation and Free Expression in Sri Lanka?

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012 * Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often […]

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012 *

Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often divided on issues, has catalysed critical commentary and debate.

This has not been the case in Sri Lanka.

According to Sri Lankan NGOs public interest in the report of its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is low. Five months after its release it has yet to be translated into Tamil or Sinhala, and with the exception of state-sponsored editorials and maverick English language platforms online, media analysis of its findings has been rare.

[Link to original article]

Mentions of the Commission, along with most other issues pertaining to national security, minority rights and human rights, are framed largely by the nationalist rhetoric being led by the government.

Reasons for this are not difficult to identify. State officials and state-owned media outlets have for years conducted smear campaigns and issued threats of violence against dissenting voices, often while questioning their national loyalties.

The Minister of Public Relations was quoted in pro-government papers this year saying he will ‘break the limbs’ of Sri Lankan journalists overseas who have ‘made various statements against the country.’ An editorial in the state-owned Sinhala-language daily, Dinamina, denounced journalists by name, before referring to state critics as ‘degenerates.’ The author opined that in some countries, such ‘bastards’ would be stoned to death.

These sentiments are not softened by Sri Lanka’s reputation for targeted killings and disappearances.

The 2012 Impunity Index, just released by Committee to Protect Journalists, has placed it among the four worst nations in combating journalist murders. During President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time in power none of the nine killings committed against journalists critical of the regime have been resolved (nor adequately investigated according to many human rights groups). This includes the high profile murder of vocal government critic and Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009.

The Alliance of Media Organizations marked ‘Black January’ this year on behalf of Sri Lanka’s journalists. For many in the country, self-censorship has become a matter of physical as well as professional security.

Further restrictions indicate that the government’s grip on democratic space will continue to tighten.

These range from its scheme to register websites, to the outright banning or blocking of dissenting sites such as the Sri Lanka Guardian. The latest clench, in March, involved text message alerts from news sites; any related to national security must now be state approved.

Expressions of concern have surfaced from EU heads of mission in Colombo, international watchdogs and NGOs.

During my last visit to the country in late 2009, low spirits and disheartening forecasts coloured my interviews with NGO staff, journalists and editors. They stood in stark contrast to the post-war triumphalism in the public at large.

Three years on, despite the LLRC’s published recommendations for reform and investigation, there is little hope to offer them; public interest in or tolerance for accountability or human rights issues remains low.

As highlighted by the resolution passed at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year, a clear national picture of the roots and content of the conflict has not emerged, nor is one being pursued.

With a free press, Sri Lanka, with its vibrant democratic history, could have utilised the LLRC as a cathartic learning exercise – or at least the start of a road to accountability and recovery. There seems no greater sign of its absence than the call from Geneva this March. Far better, surely, for the call to have come from Sri Lankans themselves.

For more information: See Free Media Movement, Groundviews, Freedom House; Transcurrents; and the blog of exiled Sri Lankan journalist, Sunanda Deshapriya.

*The Historical Justice and Memory Research Network News appeared fortnightly between February 2011 and January 2013. In February 2013, the Historical Justice and Memory Research Network became part of the Dialogues on Historical Justice and Memory, and the Dialogues newsletter replaced the HJMRN News.


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Building skills, finding voices: HIV-positive women in Cambodia

UN Women, 5 April 2012

Mom Ra lives just a few hours from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, yet the 30-year-old felt very far from state support when first diagnosed with HIV. Like other HIV-positive women in her small village, she knew almost nothing about the illness and was diagnosed late, after countless costly trips to the local village doctor and losing a child to the disease. Like many such women, she says she also struggled to find information on treatments and her rights, and has been isolated by open discrimination from her neighbours.

Yet in 2011 Mom Ra found promise and a sense of solidarity when she became one of 1,300 women to receive a USD 100 grant, and training to help her start a small business. The project is supported by UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality as part of its programme to strengthen economic livelihood opportunities for low-income and HIV-positive women in the country.

Although HIV rates are declining in Cambodia overall, female infection rates have increased in the last decade; more than half of all adults living with HIV are women. Such women often lose work or jobs because of ill health or discrimination, yet their health care expenses are debilitating: free antiretroviral drugs are only available through public health facilities in Cambodia once a patient’s health has deteriorated significantly. And because many women are infected by their husbands, they often find themselves widowed or caring for a sick spouse while unwell themselves. These aspects leave many struggling, dispirited and unable to be a part of public or social life.

The two-year programme covers 12 rural areas, and is led by two non-governmental organizations — the Cambodia Health Education Media Service and Cambodian HIV/AIDS Education and Care — which work with small community organizations such as the Takeo Women’s Network near Mom Ra, and with government partners.

Today Mom Ra proudly describes the fish farm that she and her husband built behind their house with the grant money. With her recent USD 40 profit she also bought a chicken, expanding her business into poultry. Her peers from the project also now have small thriving local businesses, selling chickens or operating small food stalls in front of their homes.

Yet while the rural women speak of the personal changes brought by their new economic abilities, they have also started to participate in public life. All have attended classes and forums that built their skills in leadership, negotiation and speaking with local authorities, and last year Mom Ra travelled to Phnom Penh for the first time, along with other members of the women’s network, to participate in a national meeting on women’s leadership.

The trip to the capital made a lasting impact on the group; listening to women leaders speaking from the heart made them feel braver. As Mom Ra explains, it has helped them realize that they not only have rights, but also voices to express them, as well as a responsibility as HIV-positive women to make sure that they are heard.

UN Women’s Fund for Gender Equality works to advance the empowerment of women and girls at the global level through multi-year, high-impact grants of up to USD 1 million, given directly to women’s organizations and governmental organizations throughout the world that are committed to gender equality.

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From the margins of memory: seeking truth for women

UN Women, 23 March

For women, who have long been invisible during and after conflict, truth-seeking is an opportunity to have their experiences recognised and their roles understood, as survivors and agents of change.

In the past three decades approximately 30 truth commissions have been established, along with many national and international fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry. These have been used to draw a clear picture of past events, and identify how best to move forward on issues of accountability and redress. While there has been significant progress in recent years, many of these historically failed to include or respond to women’s experiences of conflict.

For individuals and societies affected by human rights violations, the right to truth can be life-changing. It gives them the right to know the fate of missing loved ones, have crimes acknowledged by the State, and know the identity of those responsible – and it can provide a gateway to healing, reconciliation and justice.

This was formally recognised in a resolution by the Commission on Human Rights in 2005, and it is remembered each year on 24 March: International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.

The involvement of women in the design and operation of truth-seeking bodies is crucial. Where women have been represented, they have often ensured that mandates include specific measures that allow women to come forward and tell their stories.

Evidence shows that this can result in the public acknowledgment and condemnation of gender-based violations, while including women squarely in their country’s historical record, and ensuring that recommendations for redress fully reflect their needs. Recent gender-sensitive truth commission reports in Peru and Timor Leste for example, have revealed patterns of sexual and gender-based crimes, and the greater impact of socio-economic violations on women.

Other commissions have recommended gender-specific reparations and rehabilitation, and called for discriminatory laws and policies to be repealed, for example, those that block women’s access to land and inheritance.

UN Women supports various programmes to increase women’s access to justice, including through truth commissions and commissions of inquiry. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone, for example, is known for its early, active consultation with women’s groups, its placing of sexual violence front and centre on the Commssion’s agenda, and its special hearings and rules of procedure for female witnesses.

UN Women supported many of these initiatives, financially and through training, helping NGOs to document the experiences of women survivors, and Commission staff to respond appropriately to the specific needs of women. It has supported similar work in Peru, Rwanda, Morocco, and Timor Leste. Monitoring the recommendations of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions particularly on reparations, is a critical part of this process, which UN Women also supports on the ground.

Most recently, UN Women supported truth commission processes in the Solomon Islands and in Kenya. This included gender assessments, technical support for official staff and civil society, and outreach activities for women via radio programmes.

Similarly in the coming months as the truth commission in Cote d’Ivoire begins work, UN Women will partner with civil society to ensure that women are no longer consigned to the margins of memory, but are empowered as equal agents in the futures of transitioning countries.

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Partnering to Close Data and Evidence Gaps for Women

UN Women, 12 March 2012

There has been growing recognition that good development models are based on evidence and mutual accountability. Yet for years the lack of gender-related statistics has been used as a reason to not take bolder action on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

A dynamic new partnership, the Evidence and Data for Gender Equality (EDGE) Initiative, is responding to this gap. Jointly managed by UN Women and the UN Statistics Division, in collaboration with Member States, the World Bank, the OECD and others, it will work to meet the rising demand by countries across the world for greater support in accessing and using gender statistics – mainly by helping to build national capacity and strengthen national systems on data collection in critical areas. It will also promote the work already being done to develop standards and definitions for those who gather statistics, and those who use them.

“We need high quality evidence to make the case, and design and deliver effective policies. We need to understand the complex barriers – political, economic and social – that women face in addressing their rights,” said Ms. Saraswathi Menon, Director of UN Women’s Policy Division, speaking at a high-level panel of partnering representatives at the UN’s 56th Commission for the Status of Women and the 43rd UN Statistical Commission in New York. “We cannot determine the effectiveness of policies and interventions if we cannot measure their impact,” she added.

The initiative, launched in November at the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, Korea, has grown out of work by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the Development of Gender Statistics, convened by the UN in 2006, and the sub-group that it formed to create a minimum set of gender indicators. In 2011 the UN Statistical Commission requested that a global programme on gender statistics be implemented, and the call to harmonize gender data was reiterated in an OECD ministerial session in Paris by US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The first three-year phase, between March 2012 and February 2015, will focus on the ‘three Es’: women’s education, employment and entrepreneurship. This will see a database developed to compile guidelines for the collection of gender indicators. Pilot data will then be collected in 10 participating countries. Over the longer term, EDGE hopes to refine an approach that integrates gender issues into regular statistical production, and build countries’ capacities so that they can produce gender data in all critical policy areas.

Speaking at the Commission event, the Director of the World Bank Development Data Group, Shaida Badee noted that in her view, “gender statistics need to become part of the DNA of the statistical system”; while the OECD’s Director of Statistics, Martine Durand, illustrated how these gaps may have excluded the experiences of women entrepreneurs. “Female entrepreneurs’ activities are still hampered in many countries by gender specific constraints,” she said. “Women tend to own smaller business with lower levels of overall capitalization, start and mange firms in different industries than men, and grow their business less than men. Women also tend to face higher barriers to access finance; in particular, women entrepreneurs are often discriminated against by credit providers.”

By bringing women into focus in the field of data collection, EDGE will allow for a more complete view of the key issues and complex barriers in women’s lives around the world, ensuring, critically, that gender responsive policies and actions are backed by sound evidence.

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Seen and not heard: Women in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation commission

Open Democracy & 50.50 Inclusive Democracy [link] ,  also carried by the International Centre for Transitional Justice website, and Salem News, 24 Nov 2011 If and when Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) releases its report later this month, as scheduled, it will do so amid wide scepticism on many critical fronts – except, […]

Open Democracy50.50 Inclusive Democracy [link] ,  also carried by the International Centre for Transitional Justice website, and Salem News, 24 Nov 2011

If and when Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) releases its report later this month, as scheduled, it will do so amid wide scepticism on many critical fronts – except, it seems, for one. The credibility, independence and the ethnic balance of the post-war commission have been well-challenged internationally, since it was established by the President last year to ostensibly help reconcile the nation.  But for the war’s tens of thousands of female survivors there has been little space and little said, by either the commission or its critics. The LLRC’s weaknesses in this area deserve greater attention. They also add significantly to the impression of an instrument trailing far behind modern truth and reconciliation efforts elsewhere.[1]

Falling short of international standards

Many governments in countries recovering from conflict are taking steps to better include women in post-conflict processes, whether through peacekeeping strategies, reparations programmes or truth commissions. They do so to better secure lasting peace and stability – and to improve their image at home and abroad. New expectations have been set by international developments such as UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1889 on women, peace and security, and advances in international criminal law. These were bolstered by sustained women’s rights campaigning, and underscored by states’ legal commitment to equality. Under non-discrimination provisions, States must now show that they have strategies in place that will overcome the underrepresentation of women, and redistribute resources and power equally, and in the last decade or so experts have helpfully applied these to transitional mechanisms. In the mid-nineties and early 2000s for example, South Africa and Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) were able to uncover the shocking scale of crimes against women during apartheid and internal conflict respectively, and then respond with gender-specific reparations and reforms. A few years later, commissions in Sierra Leone and East Timor built strongly on these improvements by broadly consulting women in their design and procedures, with mandates that explicitly took the gender of victims into account.

These steps and others show a growing acknowledgement that women’s concerns, needs and abilities have historically been a low state priority, and that they face greater barriers in accessing state machinery. They recognise that women generally experience conflict and displacement differently to men and that, in outnumbering them as survivors, they have greater post-war roles and responsibilities, and differing needs. And they show an improved understanding of the ways that truth commissions and commissions of inquiry (CoIs) have long worked from a male standpoint, excluding women from an instrument meant to shape a state’s future priorities and practices, and producing, as noted by the ICTJ’s Vasuki Nesiah, a ‘narrow and partial truth’. 1

A voiceless majority

In Sri Lanka, large numbers of mostly-Tamil minority women in the North and East are bearing the brunt of the post-conflict period. Displaced, widowed, injured and traumatized, many are primary carers for other maimed and traumatized persons in environments where resources are scarce and security concerns are extremely high. The military has replaced most civil administrative systems in the North and East, and reports on the increase of sexual assault throughout high-security zones are also citing a rise in prostitution, trafficking and STDs, since vulnerable minority women must now deal with male Sinhalese soldiers as part of their daily routines.2Compounding their disadvantage is an administration perceived as having little interest in addressing legitimate minority grievances, sex equality or crimes against women, and which has presided over a widening gender gap.3 And added to this is the disabling effect of often stricter Tamil traditions and stigmas, which tightened during the war. These women therefore have specific needs, concerns and grievances that any post-conflict initiative will only be able to address, effectively and legally, with strong positive measures.

So it is critical to ask what the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has done to ensure that the LLRC has served Sri Lanka’s women; particularly those from its beleaguered minorities. Floods of women may have clamoured to access the LLRC – as they did for a series of previous, similarly flawed Sri Lankan processes. But have they been able to effectively use them on a par with men?  There is not the space to consider this in detail here: but it is possible to look briefly at what has notbeen done.

Lessons ignored

Similar commissions in East Timor, Sierra Leone and Peru, offer positive, recent examples. Between them they have: developed the use of outreach workshops that prepare and manage the expectations of female testifiers; employed staff with expertise in gender, and sensitive forms of statement-taking (to  encourage the sharing of sexual or gender-specific violence);  sent information through channels that women are more likely to understand; and have provided basic support, like food and transport costs, since many women work in the informal sector and are less likely to be compensated for missed hours. They held public and private thematic sessions for women’s testimony of their experiences, expectations and needs, and programmes to address community stigmas for female breadwinners, or victims of sexual abuse. These features, among others, have allowed for some rehabilitation on both individual and social levels, among men and women.

The LLRC (and predecessor processes in Sri Lanka) can boast few if any of these features. Instead it has been criticised for demonstrating a bias to (male) seniority and for spectacularly failing to address the emotional needs of victims, or ensure their physical security. Women have been chastised and disregarded for crying while testifying, received little help in negotiating the system, have been told to write their submissions rather than speak them – on forms only in Sinhalese and English, and have in various ways have been left profoundly frustrated, stigmatised and intimidated.4

Yet sex discrimination runs deeper than a commission’s operation. As pointed out recently by experts, bias afflicts the very framing of truth, and the prioritising of certain violations and victims over others.  Most of the women in Sri Lanka, as in many war torn countries, clamour to be accepted as mothers, sisters and daughters of victims – but rarely as victims in their own right. This leaves violations such as sexual or structural violence, unrecognised and underreported.  In some countries like Peru, the creation of gender units allowed for investigations into the harms that affected women during conflict, and for the weaving of these findings throughout the final report and its recommendations. In Peru, a Declaration of Forced Disappearance (released by the Ombudsman’s Office) was recognized as particularly valuable for women, in terms of their rights to property, inheritance and remarriage, and was prioritised as a result. (This brings to mind the continuing difficulties of Sri Lankan families, many female-headed, on obtaining death certificates). In other commissions, such as Sierra Leone and East Timor, gender was written into the mandate as an avenue for investigation, which helped expose the reality of gender-based torture and contributed to law reform efforts. The LLRC has no mention of gender in its mandate and no dedicated expertise related to women; it has just one female commissioner out of eight, and has given little attention to drawing out the significant violence and deprivation experienced by women as a result of the conflict (particularly that of a sexual nature). Its time span also excludes the months following the war, which gave rise to many reports of human rights violations against female IDPs.

The power and promise of national exercises like the LLRC, lies in their ability to access the voices of the marginalised and build them into the nation’s memory. But for Sri Lanka’s Tamil women, the LLRC has simply reaffirmed bad old habits, as the report will very likely show. It is time for both those who control and who challenge Sri Lanka’s transitional justice mechanisms, to do so with sex equality in mind.


[1] For full references and deeper analysis on this issue, please refer to the original legal study: Baker, Jo (2011) Reconciling Truth and Gender: Lessons for Sri Lanka, London, available at:

1 Nesiah, Vasuki (2006) Gender and Truth Commission Mandates (paper presented at Open Society Institute (OSI) forum on Gender and Transitional Justice, February 7, 2006), available at <

2 International Crisis Group (18 July 2011) Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever, Brussels: International Crisis Group; Iqbal, Rajani (23 October 2010) Women in Postwar Reconstruction and Reform in Sri Lanka, a presentation made at the Third Annual Conference of the Tamil Women’s Development Forum in London.

3 Please refer to the 2011 Concluding Observations of the CEDAW Committee, its shadow report by the Women’s Media Collective, or The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2011, released last week

4 Amnesty International (September 2011) When will they get justice? available at ; United Nations Secretary-General (31 March 2011), Report of the Secretary General`s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, available at:

For comments related to this piece, please see the original.

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Update: Gender analysis of Sri Lanka’s LLRC published by local and international media, and cited in political report

Groundviews and various, Nov 2011. A renowned Sri Lankan site for independent journalism has published an abridged version of my legal study on the exclusion of Tamil women from the country’s flawed Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in ‘Long Reads’. The section publishes long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign Policy and the New York Times [find link here]. This article was later cited and quoted by the Tamil National Alliance, in its critique of the LLRC report  [see here], and featured elsewhere, including the media site of the LLRC itself, and War Crimes Prosecution Watch. The shorter Op-Ed, written for Open Democracy [here], was carried by various international news sites and blogs, including the site of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

Long Reads

The power and promise of national exercises like the LLRC lies in the way that they can access the voices of those who have not traditionally been heard, and use them to build a more  inclusive collective memory. Yet for Sri Lanka’s Tamil women, the LLRC simply reaffirms bad old habits, writes Jo Baker [i]

In the lead up to the release of the report by Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), strong concerns have been publicly raised about the value of a process that aims to build a clear picture of the conflict, without fully including or representing those who were most directly affected. This has led to important questions regarding who has been heard, how their concerns have been addressed, and whether they will feature fully in a final report and its recommendations. While such questions have focused on vital themes of accountability, ethnic discrimination and political will, often in relation to internationally-agreed standards, they have been resoundingly quiet in a criticalarea: the space and consideration being given to women.

Many governments in countries recovering from conflict are now taking stronger steps to include women in transitional instruments, such as peacekeeping strategies, reparations programmes and truth commissions, to better secure lasting peace and improve their standing at home and overseas. This is underscored by a legal commitment: non-discrimination is an inalienable human rights obligation, and a founding principle of the domestic legal and international legal order. In the mid nineties and early 2000s South Africa and Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) uncovered the shocking, previously unrecognised scale of crimes against women during apartheid and internal conflict respectively, and then responded with reparations and reform to address them. A few years later, commissions in Sierra Leone and Timor Leste built strongly on these improvements by broadly consulting women in their design and procedures, as I explore below.

These steps and others show a growing understanding that women’s concerns, needs and abilities have historically been a low state priority, and that women face greater difficulties in accessing state machinery. They recognise that they generally experience conflict and displacement differently to men and, in outnumbering them as survivors, have greater post-war roles and responsibilities, and different needs. And they show an improved understanding of the ways that truth commissions (TCs) and commissions of inquiry (CoIs) have long worked from a male standpoint, producing a ‘partial and narrow truth’ (Nesiah 2006), and excluding women from an instrument meant to shape future priorities and practices in the country.

It is therefore critical to ask what the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has done to ensure that the LLRC – or any other memory-building or truth telling instrument – serves Sri Lanka’s women as well as its men; particularly minority women, who have been most deeply and directly affected by the war, and who are most deeply and directly discriminated against in general. Many will point to the floods of women who have clamoured to access the LLRC (as they have for a series of Sri Lankan CoIs). But have they truly been able to effectively use these mechanisms on a par with men? And have they been accepted as victims in their own right, or rather as mothers, sisters and daughters of victims? When Sri Lanka’s efforts are measured against international standards on non-discrimination, or against other recent commissions elsewhere in the world, a marked failure emerges by its government to uphold key human rights standards, via its massive exclusion of the female minority voice. Among all the critical assessments of the LLRC and discussions on transitional justice in Sri Lanka, this element should be receiving greater attention. As noted recently by, Valkyrie, a Groundviews columnist, in one of the few commentaries on this issue:

“For the Tamil women … ‘The not telling of the story serves as a perpetuation of [the conflict’s] tyranny’ which has the potential to provoke deep distortions in memory and the organization of everyday life later on. The fact that these are narratives which cannot be heard and cannot be witnessed to, is what constitutes a ‘mortal death blow to the survivors.’” [ii]

The following article looks at the need for gender-sensitive truth commissioning in Sri Lanka. It draws on international standards, examples of best practice elsewhere, and criticism of its past and current CoIs, before proposing ways to place Tamil women more centrally within the transitional narrative. It is abridged from my academic legal paper ‘Reconciling Truth and Gender: Lessons for Sri Lanka’, soon to appear in the coming issue of Sri Lanka’s Law and Society Trust Review, and currently available on my website. Please refer to the original for full referencing.

Part One: Disadvantage, compounded

Before looking at the how the GoSL should be addressing both gender and ethnic discrimination in its truth telling, it will be useful to briefly outline the intensified disadvantage that still confronts women in the country – particularly minority women. The chosen focus for my report was mainly on women from the Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu minority in the North and East, since they make up the majority of the survivors most severely affected by the last chapter of the conflict. This is however a vast and complex topic, and I look forward to the emergence of many deeper and more nuanced studies.

A multiple bind

Minority women in Sri Lanka fall at the crossroads of a sidelined gender and a sidelined ethnicity. During both war and peacetime this has meant greater challenges for them in education, employment and civil participation among many areas, which creates greater dependence and much higher levels of vulnerability. Minority women suffer the discrimination and disadvantages faced by all women in the country, for which the state is directly responsible (please refer to the 2011 Concluding Observations of the CEDAW Committee, its shadow report by the Women’s Media Collective, or The World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2011, released last week), for example in the greater barriers to accessing justice through the police or courts. However they also experience the restrictions of stricter community traditions and customs. These tightened during the Sri Lankan war – as they have in other countries’ internal conflicts – with Tamil women cast as bearers of a threatened culture and therefore often more closely monitored. There is evidence that many lost control over how they behaved, dressed and who they married, despite the other forms of ambivalent (and arguably temporary) empowerment brought by the LTTE (De Mel; Rajasingham-Senanayake; Sornarajah; Abeysekera; see Part II Section ii of my report for elaboration).

Vulnerability to violence
Secondly, it is important to consider the particular experience of such women during and after the conflict: a combination of being unable to leave the ‘wrong place, at the wrong time’, being of the ‘wrong’ ethnicity and as is increasingly understood, of the ‘wrong’ gender.
Unlike many conflicts, rape and sexual violence do not appear to have been deployed as a tool in Sri Lanka’s war, but it has nevertheless been reportedly commonly perpetrated by state agents throughout, particularly in areas directly affected by conflict– therefore excessively victimising Tamil women (Wood 2006, 2009).[iii] The military has replaced most civil administrative systems in the North and East despite the well-documented link between militarisation and violations against women. Reports of the increase in sexual assault throughout high-security zones also cite a rise in prostitution, trafficking and STDs, since women – often without male partners, a place to live or a means of income – are being obliged to interact with male Sinhalese soldiers as part of their daily routine (ICG 2011).

Yet their ability to address these issues is low. As women, particularly minority women, they face more intense social pressure and rejection, and since the administration is not perceived to be safe or gender sensitive, protective or judicial action is extremely hard to come by. This produces a discriminatory environment in which minority women can be targeted without consequence. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has reported that young, so-called low-caste women among ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka are more vulnerable to sexual violence, and that they ‘expect’ resistance and entrenched patriarchy “all the way from officials at the police stations, to the hospital personnel and the judiciary.”[iv] Meanwhile other women face uncertainties as to the fate of loved ones, stigmas related to widowhood or their political affiliation, and tremendous new roles and responsibilities, in situations such as displacement, where resources are scarce and security concerns extremely high. Injured and/or traumatized themselves, most such women are primary carers for other maimed and traumatized persons. They thus they bear specific needs and concerns that any post-conflict initiative, without applying a gender-lens, will be entirely unable to effectively address (Iqbal 2010: or please refer to Part II Section iii).

Barriers to expression

Just as the route through the courts has been hampered for such women, so has their route through civic means. Censorship and emergency regulations have affected all Sri Lankans, but those with the least access to the public domain are now even less able to express their needs and grievances, for example, through communal gatherings, which have been severely restricted in certain areas under emergency legislation. As Groundviews’ Valkyrie notes of Tamil women: “oral narratives are their only means at their disposal to record their experiences, trauma and survival mechanisms… these women have no space within the dominant narrative to place their stories on record.” [v] This is taking place in a narrative that is already masculine by default, has been intensely masculinized by conflict, and which – as Valkyrie notes – has seen the needs and experiences of Tamil women politically appropriated by both the State and the LTTE throughout the war. Part of the function of any truth-telling or reconciliation instrument should be to rectify and counter such gross imbalances.

Part Two: Reconciling truth and gender: Lessons for Sri Lanka

With these aspects in mind, I move onto truth commissioning, and why only a dedicated commitment to corrective measures – as understood in Sri Lanka’s international commitments – could begin to serve women equally and legally in a truth telling process. Although this comment may only be the tip of the iceberg in this area, it can at the least, highlight the gap between state practice and international standards, and avenues for further action.  To do so I will draw on accounts of past and current Sri Lankan experiences of truth-telling (or ‘lesson learning’), and practices recommended by human rights and transitional justice experts, with examples from other more successful commissions.

Although Sri Lanka’s CoIs and its LLRC have not explicitly featured truth-telling in their mandates, their aims align with those of many truth commissions:  to gather a credible picture of human rights violations during the course of the conflict through the often-public testimony of victims and witnesses. They are therefore strong indicators of State practice in this area.


On the most direct, technical level, sex discrimination has been linked to the greater difficulty of female victims and witnesses, compared to men, in accessing and engaging effectively with truth commissions, resulting in the underreporting of issues that disproportionately affect them. As mentioned, obstacles include lower levels of education, economic independence and experience in the public realm, along with responsibilities that tie them to the home or to insecure forms of informal employment; made worse by the increased vulnerability of women to intimidation or obstruction, and in so many cases now, by displacement, widowhood or disability. Gender-sensitive operalisation and outreach are therefore critical to secure women’s access to truth commissions.

While Sri Lanka’s various inquiry mechanisms have been approached by a large majority of women, with strong efforts made by some commissioners in the 1990s to facilitate their physical access, many have been revictimised by ill-treatment, or the lack of support or protection given by the State. The LLRC and past CoIs have been linked to accounts of reprisal, pro-government bias and intimidation, and there has been no adequate State efforts to counter this, nor to adjust a narrative that has previously branded the mainly female Sri Lankans campaigning for investigations into disappearances as unpatriotic The LLRC has also been roundly criticized for its lack of victim-centred methodology and its failure to address the emotional needs of victims. Reports from the International Crisis Group (2011) and Amnesty International (2011), for example, tell of ‘desultory’, ‘curt and dismissive’ staff chastising women for crying, and requesting written submissions in the place of oral testimony, which has been linked to a particular lack of tolerance for female testifiers. According to the UN Panel of experts, submission forms were in Sinhalese and English only.

To prevent discrimination as internationally understood (see Part 1, Section ii of the original study), a convincing truth mechanism would both need to arrange effective protection throughout and after a commission, and provide women with gender-sensitive guidance for the duration of the procedure. The range of best practice runs from statement-taking and information-gathering by trained female officers, to appropriate levels of privacy in testimony, as detailed at length in World Bank and ICTJ guidelines (2006; Nesiah 2006). Protective psychological measures may include having mental health professionals on standby. Women should be able to choose private testimony, be interviewed away from other family members where possible, and staff should be trained to pick up on the cues that a woman may give if she has experienced forms of violence that she considers shameful. Recent truth commissions have dedicated public and private thematic sessions to women’s testimony of their experiences, expectations and needs, which in the case of South Africa for example, began with special preparatory workshops. This improved the healing function of the commission for women, while allowing them to discuss the shifting gender roles, and the new pressures on female breadwinners. (Nesiah 2006). One of eight national public hearings in Timor Leste’s Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation (CAVR) was on women and conflict; it included a broad range of women and covered issues from coercive birth control, to humanitarian concerns (Wandita et. al, 2006).  Furthermore, in contrast to allegations that the current LLRC has failed to create a supportive environment or bear the costs of witnesses, best practice dictates that technical assistance overcome difficulties that are more likely to inhibit women. (UN Secretary-General, 2011) This would include compensating their transport or child care costs, for example, or any money lost to absence from work, since so many work in the informal sector.

It has become quite recently understood that women are generally less ready to testify about violations against themselves than those against family members, and women in Sri Lanka have been no different. This has resulted in the severe underreporting and therefore under-consideration of the range of violations against women. To counter this, encouraging measures will be needed to inform the female population about their status as victims, the full spectrum of harms – including gendered harms – and their rights within a commission mandate.

Women often testify at great personal risk, of a physical, psychological, but also a markedly social nature, as mentioned above. While reprisals have certainly affected both men and women in Sri Lanka,[vi] and are ill-guarded against (ensured by parliament’s failure to enact the bill for witness protection in 2008), the stigma associated with sexual violence and other violations is a critical barrier for female testifiers, and can result in their estrangement from family members, and even the mistreatment of their children. This needs to be countered with community-targeted education projects. However it should be noted that in Sri Lanka this stigma can be viewed as led by both community and State, when considering the GoSL’s keenness to deny allegations of war crimes, including those of a sexual nature. This has placed a sector of vulnerable and violated women out of reach of assistance, and outside the national agenda.

A comprehensive outreach strategy is critical to any public truth or inquiry process, and must be sure to address all communities equally in a manner that they understand. According to accounts of the 1994 CoIs, victims would frequently testify without comprehending the goal or the outcome of the inquiry, and the LLRC has been criticized for its minimal public information programme. This speaks of the need for a media strategy to target different groups. For women this would offer reassurance that the process is safe and sensitive, let them know what will be expected of them, and very importantly – what they can ultimately expect themselves. This should involve information about evidentiary thresholds and how to write an adequate application (as recommended by the UN Panel, which cited the LLRC’s lack of Tamil language forms as evidence of its ‘basic modalities’).  NGOs have also condemned proceedings as ‘neither safe nor gender-sensitive’, and have highlighted inadequate Tamil translation and a bias toward hearing (male) community leaders. Past recommendations such as those from the World Bank and ICTJ, have included the wider use of community networks, which Tamil women are more likely to encounter, trust and understand, advertisements in local dialects in publications and programmes commonly read and watched by minority women, along with the use of NGO-run workshops – rather than, for example, using a government mouthpiece. These considerations extend to the dissemination of any final report.


Yet the exclusion of women goes beyond procedure and access, to issues that run deeper. By applying a gender lens, scholars such as Vesuki Nesiah have begun to question why “some facts emerge as critical to the historical account and others fade into the backdrop of the private or domestic arena, and where some actors’ agency is recognized and privileged and others fade into the anonymity of spouses, mothers, and sisters” (Nesiah 2006  Mandates).  In arguing that there is no such thing as a gender-neutral truth, such writers argue that a State must acknowledge the human-rights dimensions of women’s experiences and give more space to gendered forms of ostracism and violence. This line of argument has been much influenced by advances in international criminal law, which have contributed to the growing recognition that crimes against women cannot be isolated from a political context.[vii] The realisation of non-discrimination in the operation of truth commissions therefore applies to the scope of violations covered in truth commission mandates, to their defining of a victim and their framing of truth.  Appraisals of past Sri Lankan mechanisms have not shown them to be ahead of the curve, by any means.[viii] Any Sri Lanka-based CoI tasked with building a truthful picture of the conflict would need a mandate that empowers its commissioners to address and counteract the prioritizing of the male experience.

Some such progress has been seen in truth commissions without gender being explicitly mentioned in mandates. For example, in South Africa (initiated in 1995) and Peru’s TRCs (2001), commissioners pushed the envelope by interpreting gender-neutral language on torture and ill-treatment in a way that could address sexual violence. They began to link it directly to conflict and to the State’s failure to combat sex discrimination, recognising that State forces had targeted vulnerabilities tied to women’s gender.  Rape gained a higher profile as a conflict-related violation, and thanks to the work of women’s activists and academics in South Africa, it was excluded from the list of crimes subject to amnesty. In certain Sri Lankan CoIs too, despite narrow mandates, some commissioners attempted to consider aspects of women’s experiences. The Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces (WSSP) CoI on disappearances in 1994 produced a short chapter on women in its final report that touched on the victimisation of women as abductees/detainees and as those ‘left behind’, and was able to raise some questions regarding  its observations that: “the climate of impunity existing during the major part of the period under scrutiny lead to the victimisation of women as much as men,” and that “some of the personal scores seem to be linked directly with the femaleness of the victim.”[ix]

Yet without dedicated expertise or clear guidelines, these efforts have left much unexplored and under-implemented, and they leave proceedings open to the bias of commissioners.  A narrow understanding of sexual violence for example, has meant that other violations and their effects have been regularly overlooked and their gendered roots and consequences left unexplored. This has advanced, according to Nesiah, a “partial and narrow truth” (Mandates 2006). She and others give the example of South Africa, where women’s experiences under apartheid saw rape receive much attention, but the ‘ordinary violence’ and deprivations that women experienced in the private sphere as a result of apartheid, largely ignored. These ranged from gender-specific violence and intimidation, to black and coloured women’s access to state services and basic provisions for living (for example during forced removals or under the group-area legislation that segregated living and working conditions).

In past Sri Lankan CoIs, most of these issues have barely arisen. The limited recommendations and perfunctory analysis of WSSP commissioners on the situation of women ‘left behind’ falls far short of current best practice, [x] and as with other commissions, women receive barely a mention in the rest of the report. Yet this remains one of the better examples to come from Sri Lanka. Although commissioners controversially decided to look at the rape and murder of girls who had been abducted from their homes by persons looking for their fathers or brothers, and they noted the involvement of gender-based ‘personaI scores’, there was little room to take this further. Its mandate excluded disappearances that arose from personal disputes and other forms of physical injury, which are the areas in which most violations against women tend to fall, and it did not allow for the necessary resources or expertise.  The LLRC has similarly given no explicit space to gender-based crimes, and few have been reported officially.[xi] According to Sri Lankan legal researcher, Ambika Satkunanathan: “We all hear stories, anecdotes… but sexual violence remains one of the least documented violations from this conflict.”[xii] As a result women are consigned by their state to suffer indefinitely in silence.

In contrast, recently designed truth commissions have begun to build an explicit reference to gender into the legal instrument that creates them, ensuring dedicated staff, resources and guidelines – and many of the procedural improvements described above.  This has produced deeper investigations into the privatized and structural harms that come from conflict, and for the proper cross-distribution of these findings in the report and any follow up action. In Peru for example, a gender unit was partly funded by the UN Office of the High Commission of Human Rights. Although the mainstreaming of gender wasn’t hailed as a complete success, it was well represented in the final report and in its recommendations, which included a chapter on gender analysis and another on sexual violence against women (Guillerot 2006). Though it came as an unpleasant surprise to Peruvian society at the time by establishing the grave scale and range of the violence perpetrated against women during the conflict, the country was able to move forward with a programme of reforms and rehabilitation. In South Africa a similar unit was sparely funded and had to restrict itself to low-cost initiatives, and could therefore only mainly reach women who wished to come forward. (World Bank 2006)

To avoid discrimination a commission must investigate violations that were made possible by the war-fuelled environment of violence and impunity, in public, but also in the private realm where most women, due to social convention, are situated and too often overlooked.  One report for example, notes a growing culture of sexual and gender-based violence in the post-conflict period, with widowed mothers in particular being targeted, not only by the army, navy and military police, but by other male civilians (SuRG 2011). Rather than excluding ‘private harms’ therefore, as instructed by the 1994 CoIs, a mandate would include the impact of such violence in relation to women’s different socioeconomic circumstances; social ostracism, for example, or the effect on her chances of employment, and her family’s welfare. By doing so it would be much less at risk of recommending measures for reform and reparation that only suit men – which is another emerging field of study (see particularly, recent work by Ruth Rubio-Marin).

As a further illustration, given by a World Bank report (2006): to enquire into the gendered implications of disappearance in Sri Lanka would be to explain not only how acts of kidnapping, torture, rape or murder were able to take place, but also to account for the kinds of violation and hurdles to justice that women have experienced as they searched for disappeared relatives. The needs of female-headed households during displacement and periods of militarization would need to be identified, along with any other rights that may be violated due to the loss of their loved ones, whether related to health, employment, family life or education. This route leads to a holistic and healing process that equally addresses survivors, and which satisfies Sri Lanka’s international commitments.  Analysis by Peru’s TRC saw the prioritising of a new Declaration of Forced Disappearance, which the Ombudsman’s Office released if a claim was made and a disappeared person not found. This was recognized and hastened for the disproportionately positive impact it would have on women as the majority of survivors, in terms of their rights to property, inheritance and remarriage. Itholds significant parallels to the difficulties of Sri Lankan families, many female-headed, on obtaining death certificates.

Finally, for these issues to be addressed without sex discrimination, the time span of an inquiry would need to include periods of significance to women. In the case of Sri Lanka, this would include the months following the war, during which reports of human rights violations against IDPs in and outside of internment camps by military personnel were frequent, yet which the LLRC’s time frame excludes.

Composition and consultation

The underrepresentation of Tamil women in the public sphere and in past truth-telling exercises in Sri Lanka goes against best practice on firstly the composition of its panel, and secondly the need for broad consultation with women’s groups, as articulated in soft law provisions such as the UN’s 2005 Updated Principles on Impunity. The design of the mandate and procedure cannot be legitimately inclusive if drafting decisions take place in forums that lack input from women, along with other marginalized groups.

The presence of just one female Tamil commissioner out of eight (alongside just one other male Tamil), makes the LLRC composition ‘seriously deficient’ according to the UN Panel of Experts, and does not represent the diversity of Sri Lankan society – particularly those most directly affected by the conflict. Both Tamil commissioners meanwhile have been reported as less active or vocal than the other six, giving testifiers the impression of being marginalized themselves (CMTPC  2011). Civilian women have perceived a lack of interest or sympathy in their stories in comparison, they allege, to the (mostly male) officials or elite actors invited to take part. They have been berated for grieving publicly, passed over if unable to quickly compose themselves, and commissioners have suggested that in the interests of efficiency, one woman be chosen to represent others. Other reports tell of women being ‘driven away’ en mass. These are strong indications of a gender-related disregard for women’s experiences, and of bias in the methodology for selecting witnesses.

Problems of representation are arguably reflected in the final reports of Sri Lanka’s All Island and the WSSPs CoIs. Both were headed by female commissioners and both, though insufficiently, made some mention of women’s experiences, in contrast to the all-male North East CoI panel. Nevertheless, international standards require that stakeholder groups be proportionally represented (for example in the Beijing Platform for Action – which articulates the UN General Assembly’s definition of gender balance and perspective in special mechanisms). This is increasingly being seen. In Sierra Leone, for example, three out of seven commissioners were women. In Timor Leste two of seven were women, determined through public consultation and special sessions with women NGOs; regional commissioners were typically balanced between men and women, and led district teams of two male and two female statement takers, and a male and female victim support staff member; and the male executive director was supported by a female programme manager – an experienced activist in the field of gender and human rights (Wandita et al 2006).

Yet because gender balance does not guarantee a panel’s full understanding of the complexities surrounding the relationship between human rights, gender and ethnicity, the participation of experts in gender analysis and other related fields (such as anthropology and social psychology) is an important measure to prevent discrimination. In the same vein, the close involvement of women’s groups  is critical from the appointment process onward, and can help facilitate the periodic training of staff in gender sensitization, as well as inspire women’s confidence in the exercise. Before gender training in the Sierra Leone initiative, for example, some staff would question female victims of sexual violence about the clothes that they were wearing when attacked, and why they were outside alone, at night, showing clear discriminatory attitudes (World Bank 2006). Proactive outreach to communities, and coordination with survivors and victim’s groups, as seen in the kind of women-only public consultations and research projects pioneered in Timor Leste and Sierra Leone, can also forge closer links to victims and guard against discrimination by utilizing further expertise on gender – particularly in operational design. In Timor Leste, which was established under the interim UN government, women were mobilized and widely involved as civil groups, as experts on the steering committee and as commissioners at national, regional, and district levels, as well as partners on research projects and healing workshops. The gender training of staff in Sierra Leone, by UNIFEM (the UN’s former women’s agency) and other groups, contributed to broad contribution by women, and a final report that called for significant reforms to improve women’s participation in education, in political and social life, and community initiatives to encourage acceptance of the survivors of rape and sexual violence. Such initiatives are absent, and appear little considered in Sri Lanka during the transitional period.


It is clear that women are affected by discrimination in truth commission mandates and procedures on an individual and a community level. However the product too – the final report – can have a great national impact, and is crucial for the full value of the process to be diffused throughout a society. There is little scope here to consider the kind of historical analysis needed in a truth commission’s report, its evaluation of institutional responsibility or its recommendations in approaching gender, power and victimisation, as covered by scholars such as Fionnuala Ni Aolain and Catherine Turner; Christine Bell and Catherine O Rourke; and  Ruth Rubio-Marin. It is also notable that neither the warrant of the LLRC or the Commission of Inquiry act require the publication of a final report, though one has been promised.  Yet it is important to realize that any discrimination in a truth commission’s mandate, composition and procedure will be carried onward in any reforms or reparations that it proposes, reducing the likelihood of for example, of gender-appropriate health care, rehabilitation, welfare payments or opportunities in the civic sector. And by cutting women from the process, the state is cutting them from the historical record and its benefits; from  consideration in the post-conflict agenda, and in any ‘lessons learned’. As mentioned, the final reports of certain commissions have included a special chapter on gender – some like Peru’s more successful than for example, South Africa, or the short chapter in Sri Lanka’s WSSP CoI. However increasingly, calls are being made for gender to be mainstreamed throughout the whole document to prevent women’s issues being ‘ghettoised’. If the purpose of a truth commission is to build a nation’s collective memory of a period, to leave more than 50% of those affected on the periphery of this memory is a gross act of discrimination, not only at that point in time, but extending far into the future.


Truth-telling can offer opportunity amid crisis for those whose voices have not traditionally been heard. For Sri Lanka’s minority women, the opportunity is being dishearteningly wasted. By failing to uphold key human rights standards in its memory-building response to the conflict, the GoSL appears content with returning to and retrenching practices that have long violated the spectrum of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights held by Tamil women. Sri Lanka’s challenging political climate will limit the practical contribution of the recommendations made above. Yet with greater attention to the equality framework and corresponding best practice, I have tried at the very least, to highlight avenues that can begin to counteract the historical exclusion of Tamil women and place them more squarely, and legally, within the post conflict narrative – while also urging those who challenge Sri Lanka’s transitional justice mechanisms, to do so with sex equality in mind.  I find both aims illustrated in a 2011 report on Sri Lanka by the International Crisis Group – made without overtures to gender – which observes:

Rebuilding relations among those communities and getting to a point where each has some real understanding of what the others have gone through should be a central goal…  It may be several years before the country is able to have a truly inclusive and representative process, but it is something Sri Lankans should be able to look forward to.


Selected bibliography

Abeysekera, Sunila (2007) ‘Implications of Insurgency on Women: The Sri Lankan Experience’ in Ava Shrestha; Rita Thapa eds. The impact of armed conflicts on women in South Asia, Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies

Amnesty International (September 2011) When will they get justice? available at

Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (2010) The State of Human Rights in Sri Lanka in 2010available at

Baker, Jo (22 August 2009), A Thankless Task, South China Morning Post, available at

Coalition of Muslims & Tamils for Peace & Coexistence (15 July 2011) Two Years On: No War but no peace for women still facing the consequences of the war, available at

De Mel, Neloufer (2001) Women and the Nation’s Narrative, New Delhi: Kali for Women

Guillerot, Julie (2006) ‘Linking Gender and Reparations in Peru: A Failed Opportunity’ in Ruth Rubio-Marin (ed.) What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2006.

International Crisis Group (18 July 2011) Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever, Brussels: International Crisis Group

Iqbal, Rajani (23 October 2010) Women in Postwar Reconstruction and Reform in Sri Lanka, a presentation made at the Third Annual Conference of the Tamil Women’s Development Forum in London.

Nesiah, Vasuki (2006) Gender and Truth Commission Mandates (paper presented at Open Society Institute (OSI) forum on Gender and Transitional Justice, February 7, 2006), available at <

Nesiah, Vasuki et al. (July 2006)  Truth Commissions and GenderPrinciples, Policies, and Procedures,  for the International Center for Transitional Justice, available at accessed 13 Sept 2011)

Rajasingham-Senanayake, Darini (2001) ‘Ambivalent Empowerment: The Tragedy of Tamil Women in Conflict’ in Ride Manchanda (ed) Women, War and Peace in South Asia, Beyond Victimhood to Agency; New Delhi: Sage Publications

Ruth Rubio-Marin (ed.) What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2006.

Sornarajah, Nanthini (August 2004) ‘The Experiences of Tamil Women: Nationalism, Construction of Gender and Women’s Political Agency, Part III,’ available at )

Sri Lanka Supporting Regional Governance program (SuRG) (May 2011), Post-war support for widowed mothers: a gender impact assessment, Colombo: U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)

The World Economic Forum (2011) Global Gender Gap Report, available at

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (4 February 2011) Concluding comments to the combined fifth, sixth and seventh periodic reports of Sri Lanka, CEDAW/C/LKA/5-7, available at

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (11 February 2011)  Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention: Combined fifth to seventh periodic reports of Sri Lanka, CEDAW/C/SR.971, United Nations, available at

United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (11 February 2011)  Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention: Combined fifth to seventh periodic reports of Sri Lanka (continued), CEDAW/C/SR.972, United Nations, available at

United Nations Secretary-General (31 March 2011), Report of the Secretary General`s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, available at:

United Nations Set of Principles for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity (8 February 2005) E/CN.4/2005/102/Add.1

Valkyrie; (25 April 2011) National security’ in post-war Sri Lanka: Women’s (In) security in the North, Groundviews, available at

Wandita, G., Campbell-Nelson, K., and Leong Pereira, M., (2006)Learning to Engender Reparations in Timor-Leste: Reaching Out to Female Victims’ in Ruth Rubio-Marin (ed.) What Happened to the Women? Gender and Reparations for Human Rights Violations, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2006.

Wood, Elisabeth Jean (2006) Variation in Sexual Violence During War available at and (2009) Armed Groups and Sexual Violence: When Is Wartime Rape Rare? Politics Society; 37; 131,available at

Women’s Media Collective (WMC) (July 2010) Sri Lanka Shadow Report To the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,  Colombo: Women’s Media Collective, available at

World Bank (2006) Gender, Justice and Truth Commissions, Washington DC: World Bank


[i] Jo Baker holds an MA in Human Rights Law from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and formerly ran the Urgent Appeals advocacy programme at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. A selection of her other academic papers, advocacy work and articles can be found at

[ii] Valkyrie (25 April 2011) citing Dori Lamb, quoted in Elizabeth Jelin (2003) State Repression and the Labors of Memory, p63,65

[iii] This itself, argue many scholars, is suggestive of strong and damaging gender stereotypes, brought on by sexual objectification and impunity for crimes against women.

[iv] Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) (2010) The State of Human Rights in Sri Lanka in 2010 available at, p46

[vi] Though they can be gendered, as covered by MCM Iqbal, Secretary to several Presidential Commissions of Inquiry in the early nineties. In my interview with him, A Thankless Task(Baker, 22 August 2009), he describes the case of a Sri Lankan mother who was raped by police and had her one remaining son abducted by them, in retaliation for testifying in a CoI.

[vii] With critics such as R. Manjoo and V. Nesiah highlighting, for example, the way that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission ignored violations against women locked into the segregated private sphere under apartheid, from their accessing of State resources to their vulnerability to ‘ordinary’ violence.

[viii] Interviews with MCM Iqbal, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Ambika Satkunanathan (see full bibliography for details).

[ix] Sri Lankan Presidential Commission of Inquiry (September 1997) Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa, 11.4, available at

[x] Compare with Guillerot’s (2006) appraisal of Peru’s TRC report for example, p136-194.

[xi] Conversation with Ambika Satkunanathan

[xii] In conversation with the author 2011


Long Reads

Long Reads brings to Groundviews long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign PolicyThe New Yorker and the New York Times. This section, inspired by Longreads, offers more in-depth deliberation on key issues covered on Groundviews

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  1. Very timely article; and I don’t disagree with anything the article is saying. I like to make 2 observations.

    One, the lack of consideration to women in the workings of the LLRC is a slice of a much larger problem vis-a-vis this mechanism, which is problematic on many fronts, substantively and procedurally. Therefore even if the LLRC had indeed been more responsive to women’s issues and women’s needs, with everything else that is flawed about it, we would still only be winning half the battle of capturing women’s narratives and delivering justice to women in Sri Lanka. For example, by the very fact of its narrowly defined scope of inquiry, the LLRC is leaving out a wide spectrum of women across the country who have a story to tell.

    Second, a Transitional Justice mechanism that aims to consider women’s experiences because they are qualitatively different has to be open to contending with all the narratives, including women’s role as agents of violence. Or else we fall into the all too frequent trap of writing a narrative about the male perpetrator and the female victim or bystander, and missing out on an equally important truth, which is that those lines are crossed in war, and certainly were in SL.


Long Reads brings to Groundviews long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign PolicyThe New Yorker and the New York Times
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Advocacy for the Asian Human Rights Commission

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at […]

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at high level fora, namely the UN Human Rights Council. Other activities, included field research on witness protection, violence against women and torture in various Asian countries and delivering workshops for human rights defenders. Below is a small selection of my work, taken from over a hundred articles and appeals written during my time there.

 Reports and submissions:

ASIA: Council urged to act to protect rights by protecting human rights defenders, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, 23 February 2010.

PAKISTAN: Judicial obedience and a weak rule of law continue under the new government, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, 10 October 2009.

The State of Human Rights in Pakistan 2008: co-written with Baseer Naweed: authored chapters on the Right to Life; Religious Freedom and Minorities, The Rights of Women; Honour Killings and the Jirga (PDF).

Articles and statements:

PAKISTAN: The judiciary must confront suspected state agents on the issue of disappearances, 20 November 2009.

Thankless tasks: Human rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan, Article 2, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 2009 [PDF].

‘The Price of Fighting the State in Sri Lanka’Article 2, Vol. 08 – No. 01, Special Edition: Use of Police Powers for Profit, March 2009.

PAKISTAN: Judge humiliates teenage rape victim in open court, 28 March 2009.

PAKISTAN: As the government has protesting lawyers and activists arrested, hope fades for an independent judiciary and a democratic future in Pakistan, 13 March 2009.

PAKISTAN: The government must crack down hard on Jirga courts and the extra-judicial murders they commit, 3 November 2008.


Urgent Appeals: theory and practice.

SRI LANKA: Stop the torture of detainees at Rajangana Police Station, 8 July 2010.

SRI LANKA: Balagolla police mislead a magistrate and prepare charges against the wrong person, 9 February 2010 & SRI LANKA: Progress is made in a case of judicial and police corruption, 17 June 2010

INDIA: Encounter killings are exposed as murder in Assam, yet police refuse to investigate, 27 November 2009.

PAKISTAN: Newspaper advertisements call for the murder of a human rights lawyer in Punjab; police silently spectate, 9 September 2009.


Women Speak Out: Contribution to a collection of 43 cross-regional interviews with women on torture, ill treatment and domestic violence from Sri Lanka, including interview 20 and 24. Available as a collection in Ethics in Action online.



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Pakistan’s judiciary must confront suspected state agents on the issue of disappearances

Asian Human Rights Commission [link], 20 November 2009.

It may have a recently-restored judiciary and an elected government that claims a strong interest in the rule of law, but Pakistan is seeing little progress in the hundreds of missing person’s cases still pending. Pakistanis continue to be regularly ‘disappeared’ after arrest.

With the police force exposed as increasingly negligent and corrupt, the responsibility of identifying such cases and intervening has long fallen to the judiciary. Judges taking suo moto action have secured the rescue of numerous persons from illegal military detention in the recent past, and this is widely believed to have been a major motive behind the sacking of the Supreme Court judges in 2007 by then-President and Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf. Yet despite the restoration of the Judiciary with its Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March after a long civil struggle and with the support of current Chief of Army Staff General Kiyani, there has been a marked decline in the response from the courts to appeals from the family of the missing. Leading figureheads in the lawyers’ movement, such as Mr. Ali Ahmed Kurd, former president of Supreme Court Bar Association, have been renewing their criticism of its performance. The change has been raising questions about the court’s allegiance to civil society versus its sense of obligation to his supporters in the army.

In response to this institutional indifference, family members of the missing have taken to camping outside the Supreme Court complex in protest. The court recently relented to one group, stationed there from 2 to 17 November, and assured them that the fate of their loved ones would be examined and their cases tried. But the judges involved have since done little more than make clichéd remarks about the ultimate good of the Supreme Court, while showing no willingness to flex the judicial muscle; suspected perpetrators from the state agencies have not been called or held to account. The proceedings are, in fact, starting to resemble a publicity stunt.

Over the past few years the court has heard from various persons who were arrested illegally by intelligence agents and who were tortured in covert military torture cells for months at a time; more than enough to paint a convincing picture. On this basis alone, as people continue to vanish after arrest, the court is obliged to pursue the issue to the very extent of its ability.

The most prominent case of state abduction is that of three political activists from the Balochistan province who were kidnapped on April 3; they were taken from a lawyers’ office by plain clothed officials in one of the state’s conspicuous white vans. Their bodies were found six days later. The lawyer and other eye witnesses are willing to testify, but the courts are not looking into the case. The most recent case brought to our attention is the struggle of a couple in Punjab to ensure a credible investigation into the disappearance of their son, who vanished during a hospital transfer under the custody of police.

NGOs have estimated that during the current civilian government around 100 persons have gone missing after their arrest, and efforts to uncover their fate have mostly led nowhere. Political groups in Balochistan have reported that out of the 4,000 supposedly arrested there, not more than 200 have been brought to trial in courts and the remainder are unaccounted for, out of the reach of their relatives or lawyers. The Supreme Court itself has more than 400 cases of disappeared persons pending. Though statistics may vary, the size of the problem is beyond dispute.

Enforced disappearances thrive in societies with ill-functioning, dependent judiciaries, which fail to hold state agents accountable for their actions. Under autocratic governments and military regimes a nation’s judges become markedly subordinate, and these are the issues Pakistan continues to struggle with in the wake of Pervez Musharraf. A much stronger political will is required to forge a fresh start. This year Pakistan’s judiciary was restored by the loyalty of the masses, and the laudably steadfast determination of the Chief Justice Chaudhry and his colleagues to rescue the independence of the judiciary. Today its handling of disappearances must reflect this. Civil society needs to see that its judges are not afraid to summon state agents before the law and hold them accountable for their crimes.

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Losing Ground

October 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong,

150,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights [PDF: SCMP land grab]

Losing Ground

In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed.

“See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new national assembly building and look south. “Behind that there’s a company, 7NG Group, that’s trying to move 600 families more than 20km away. They’re literally building around them now, cutting off their entrances and exits. They have gangsters. A few of us have already had to physically step in in their defense.”

An opposition MP and a notorious thorn in the side of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Son Chhay has been fighting land-grabbing since at least 2000, when he found out that a piece of property he’d owned for five years was being eyed by developers; it was just outside of Siem Reap and he had planned to turn it into an agricultural training centre. After a convenient declaration was issued by the Council of Ministers, earmarking the area for a ‘hotel development’ zone, Son Chhay, along with 150 families had been told that if he moved out quietly, he would get a decent rate for the property.

“Cambodian property laws state that if the government buys private land they should be using it for the public interest, and they must pay the market price,” Son Chhay stressed. “If it was for schools or a road it would be different, but hotels? Why do we need them to build hotels when we Cambodians can do that?”

The families were offered between US$0.3 to US$2 per square metre, and Son Chhay himself was offered fifty cents. His land back then, he says was easily worth US$50 per sq metre, and now, having passed from the government-appointed Apsara Foundation to the Sokha Hotel Resort company and morphing into the luxury Angkor Resort Hotel, it’s easily worth twenty times that. After a messy, protracted fight, a third of the families managed to walk away with a figure slightly better than the original offer.

Many in Cambodia have been far less lucky. Following a violent eviction from Sambok Chap in Phnom Penh nearly a thousand families were dropped off at a field 22km from the city, with no shelter, electricity or running water – except for frequent ankle-deep floods. Now, two years later they still live in damp squalor. Other eviction victims have simply had to move on to the streets.

Perhaps more alarming is the dwindling democratic space left for Cambodians to protest in. While the government insists that Cambodia is a credible business environment, reports are on the rise of arbitrary arrests and beatings, residents being forced from their homes, and of property burned or confiscated. In Kampot province this June, eyewitnesses described a standoff between approximately 30 villagers and 100 military police; men and women were beaten unconscious and four were charged with stealing and willful damage to property (the result, say NGO reports, of a policeman’s mobile phone being grabbed, and land allotment signposts being pulled out from the ground).

In 2005 five people were shot dead during a forced eviction, as were two last November in Preah Vihear province, including the wife of a community representative. Those responsible are rarely charged. Ties remain uncomfortably tight between the ruling party and the tycoons that support it financially; it has been noted by the Asian Legal Rights Commission (ALRC) that 99% of judges in the country’s fledgling court system belong to the CPP.

Cambodia was one item on the agenda at the Human Rights Council’s Ninth session in Geneva last month and forced eviction topped many delegates’ list of concerns. “Land-grabbing is rife,” said the ALRC’s representative Michael Anthony, in his address. “In 2007 it affected more than 5,000 families who were forcibly evicted from their homes and land without just compensation. An estimated 150,000 Cambodians are currently at risk.”

The problem, says Dr Lao Mong Hay, former head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, is how little organization there is in land ownership. After the war and Pol Pot’s four year course in intense and very bloody agrarian communism, those who had survived were given small plots of land to live from, but no title deeds. Sponsored attempts have been made to organize the land over the years but these, as Dr Lao discovered, come at a cost. “It was supposed to be free,” he says, when he went to register his own plot three years ago, “but at every step of the way, from the land officers to the registry office, a small bribe was needed, $10 here, then another $20, another $20. Then, to legalise the process it cost $70! The average Cambodian does not have that money.”

Villagers in rural areas are particularly vulnerable; whether along the south coast where the beaches are lucratively white and property has gone from $50 to $200 per square metre in the past year, or in remote rural areas, where space is snatched for logging and rubber plantations. In some cases businessmen have simply hired workmen to clear swathes of forestry land and threaten park rangers into submission. Few rural Cambodians know that they need to officially lay claim to their land and even if they did, the process is fraught with obstacles.

In Siem Reap – Cambodia’s second poorest province – an arm of the Cambodian NGO, LICADHO, tries to safeguard the rights of local farmers and residents through workshops. “They don’t really know their rights, so not many do complain,” says Sar Vannara, one of the four men in the small office, found along a dirt road near Angkor.  It’s a big job – the province has close to a million people – and it’s not the safest of vocations. When asked if they’d been threatened over the years, the group broke into gales of laughter. “Of course!” said one, on his recovery. “We are here opposing the government.”

In 2004, shortly before his re-election, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared war on land-grabbers, identifying many in his own party. Several high profile officials, including an army major, tycoons and provincial governors, were arrested or fined, and forced to return thousands of hectares of land. But little is being done to educated Cambodians on their land rights and since Hun Sen’s re-election arrests have dwindled and land continues to be cleared. “He acts as a safety valve,” says Dr Lao. “When the pressure gets too strong he’ll step in. It’s not consistent.”

According to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) at least 70,000 people are still at risk of eviction in Phnom Penh alone, most in the government’s battle against ‘squatters’; many Cambodians have lived in the same ramshackle dwellings since the end of the war, and as Phnom Penh’s fortunes rise, they are less welcome.

Boeng Kak lake, in the north of the city, is one example. Last month bulldozers started to work among its stilted waterside houses, home to about 4,000 families, after the government leased the property to a private developer for 99 years.  The lake is to be filled in and turned into a tourism destination. Residents say they have been told little about what will become of their homes and businesses if this happens. Land laws in Cambodia state that in order for state public property to be leased it should be for a maximum of 15 years, and must keep its original function.

“If the government wishes to develop Boueng Kok Lake they should do so through a legal process,” says Dan Nicholson, Coordinator at COHRE. “The question is not just whether the level of compensation is adequate once people are forced off their land – it’s whether an eviction is justified in the first place.” Should this continue, both COHRE and Amnesty International warn that it could be the beginning of the biggest forced eviction since the Khmer Rouge lost power.

For things to change, says Dr Lao, land laws need to be respected. “Hun Sen needs to do more,” he says. “He should end the practice of using executive orders to adjudicate land disputes, and should instead utilize the due process of law. He should also cease his control of the courts of law, clean up their corruption, provide them with adequate resources and respect their judgments.”

Foreign investors, too, can make a difference, say the group at Licadho. They should ask more questions about where the land is coming from, and ask for proof that the original land owners were willing to sell.

But as Cambodia’s development continues to boom and little of the profit trickles down to Cambodians – the ones stuck in makeshift shelters on remote plots of land, or who wake each morning at home to the sound of encroaching bulldozers – Hun Sen may find it harder to ease the pressure indefinitely. “No one can rule forever,” says Son Chhay. “I have to be optimistic. Sooner or later the people will make decisions about the society they want, they will decide enough is enough. Then they will move to the streets.”

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