Five Questions for Shishir Chandra: Men’s Action for Stopping Violence against Women (MASVAW)

Five Questions for Shishir Chandra: Men’s Action for Stopping Violence against Women (MASVAW)

Shishir Chandra is a community organizer with Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) in Uttar Pradesh, India, an alliance of individual men and organizations that are committed to reducing gender-based violence through education and advocacy. Here he talks about the struggle to challenge gender roles for both men and women in India, and why he believes that young men can and should step up to the challenge.


1. Why do you think it’s important for young people to get involved in these issues?

Although gender equality is such a burning issue, not many youth in India get an opportunity to get involved in advancing gender equality. Young men and boys all over India have had many difficult experiences regarding gender inequality and sexual violence but traditional societal structure discourages them to be open about these issues. Youth join MASVAW because this network provides an outlet for youth to freely share experiences and concerns, and seek recognition of their alternative masculinities, of limiting gender roles.

If men, as perpetrators of violence, are part of the problem of gender inequality, they should be part of the solution as well. The inherent desire for justice and equality is sometimes within themselves and sometimes can be guided by mentors.

2. What major obstacles have MASVAW members encountered?

Rigid religious and familial norms present barriers to young men and boys trying to get involved in gender equality campaigns. Many people believe that to challenge gender roles is to challenge God. Religion also dictates family life, so when one person deviates from set family norms they are also seen as deviating from much respected religious tradition. The Indian family structure can also inhibit involvement because of the ideas of honour and reputation. Therefore, if a youth is affiliated with a group or a movement that his or her family disapproves of, the reputation of both the individual and the family are perceived as damaged. This dual stigmatization is an obstacle for youth who wish to become change agents and active participants in ending violence against women.

3. How is MASVAW responding to these challenges?

Gender stereotypes are perpetuated when discourse on the subject is absent. MASVAW believes that in order to overcome obstacles of negative gender stereotypes, a path must be paved for open and candid discussions, education and advocacy aimed at erasing myths surrounding these stereotypes. MASVAW teaches young men and boys to facilitate these conversations about the possibility of change at home, at school and among their peer group through the forums, trainings and events. We have film shows and discussions, interactive sessions on gender issues in universities, poster making competitions and street exhibitions. We have held debates, and developed special games which can be played by either groups of young women or men, that help to break gender stereotypes. We’ve written activity books for school children on gender issues, and encourage young men to write and publish stories about gender equality and to be role models in their peer groups.

We also have different ways of building networks on university campuses and in communities, and support advocacy and campaigning on issues such as sexual harassment in academic institutions, and the effective implementation of the Domestic Violence Act.

4. Can you given an example of a MASVAW campaign that you feel have had impact in your community?

In 2005, MASVAW led a successful campaign at Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidhyapith University in Varanasi around one case of sexual harassment, which ultimately led to the formation of an anti-sexual harassment committee on campus. When a female student reported that she was sexually harassed by one of her teachers, a group of male students supported her by helping to file a police report against the teacher. The accused teacher was ultimately punished and dismissed. After this incident, female students felt empowered to come forward about their personal experiences with sexual harassment at school

A campaign led by Lucknow University students in Uttar Pradesh for safe public transportation for girls and women is another example of effective youth organizing [see video]. The youth forum at Lucknow University spear-headed and independently organized this campaign for which MASVAW provided logistical support and guidance.

5. What more can be done to better engage youth?

It was my academic advisor at my university in Varanasi who first helped me form a world view with a gender lens, and I know from experience, both personal and professional with MASVAW, that great potential for organizing and norm changes lies in the educational arena. If young people’s potential and courage are recognized, progress will be made toward establishing gender equality in educational institutions through compulsory gender education starting from the primary level. I also feel that youth must be provided with appropriate venues and platforms for facilitating gender equality campaigns. Comprehensive steps to strengthen these platforms, which might include youth and sports clubs as well as student and youth organizations and unions, should be taken in order to discuss action plans for the creation of a more gender-equal society.

The voices of youth are virtually absent from the gender equality policy arena in India and political representation has thus far been weak and ineffective. However, a recent increase in youth participation in voting represents a vital interest in getting involved in policy making process. Young men and women have a right to early and active involvement in suck kind initiatives that promote gender equality. Societies must create an environment where girls and boys are viewed as equals, enjoy dignified labour and easy access to quality education, and live lives free from violence are supported to create equitable relationships.


Video: Hear Shishir discuss his work with male youth to combat unequal power relations between men and women, and transform notions of masculinity. Here he describes a successful advocacy campaign, supported by MASVAW, that mobilized female and male university students against ‘Eve Teasing’ or sexual harassment on public transport in Lucknow. The campaign demanded government accountability on the issue, and gained the support of the initially-resistant local university authorities.

From the margins of memory: seeking truth for women

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.

Partnering to Close Data and Evidence Gaps for Women

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.

Legal Study: Reconciling Truth and Gender - Lessons for Sri Lanka

Legal Study: Reconciling Truth and Gender - Lessons for Sri Lanka

Law & Society Trust Review, 2011

This legal study [download here] explores the scope of the discrimination facing Sri Lanka’s largest group of war-affected survivors – Tamil women in the North and East of the country – and the need for gender-sensitive truth commissioning following the country’s three-decades of conflict. It assesses key legal and practical obstacles to achieving this according to the international legal framework on non-discrimination, and briefly proposes ways to place Tamil women more centrally, and therefore legally, within the transitional narrative.

The paper occupied the full December 2011 volume of Sri Lanka’s Law and Society Trust Review, a monthly legal journal edited by renowned human rights lawyer, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena (please see Editor’s Note, below), but was featured in various potted forms, such as for popular Sri Lankan media site, Groundviews, and on Open Democracy. The former was cited, as a sound analysis, in the response of the Tamil National Alliance to Sri Lanka’s Reconciliation Commission report in 2011.

The original topic was researched as part of an MA degree in Human Rights Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.


Editor’s Note

Sri Lanka’s past lessons with Commissions of Inquiry, some of which have been positive but most, overwhelmingly negative, are applicable and relevant without adoubt to victims of all ethnicities and all communities in the country. This is a fact that must be understood in all its complexity though the perception may be that their relevance is limited to the minority communities.

Many of these bodies have been extremely politicized in their composition and functioning. Evenwhere a Commission of Inquiry functioned reasonably well, its recommendationswere routinely ignored by the administration of the day, despite the considerable benefits that may have accrued to citizens through full implementation. This is a reality not limited to a particular government or a particular executive, which again may not reflect the common perception.

The LST Review in its concluding Issue for the year 2011 publishes a reflection on truth telling and gender by researcher Jo Baker which examines the manner inwhich the critique of Sri Lanka’s Commission of Inquiry may be expanded, by taking into account the failure by such bodies to address gender discrimination issues. As she points out, though Commissions of Inquiry within Sri Lanka’s specific legal context cannot strictly be defined as truth telling mechanisms, nevertheless, they retain some relevant elements, such as gathering a credible picture of human rights violations.

Using international best practice, she looks at a gendered experience of conflict and displacement regarding women belonging to the ethnic Tamil minority from the broader viewpoint of discriminatory practices as well as their treatment by Commissions of Inquiry. While her analysis is therefore limited in terms of its subjects, it may well be opportune to reflect that the key areas identified by her for change in future experiments of this nature in truth telling, apply across the board to women of all ethnicities. As Sri Lanka has learnt from past experience, nominal representation of womenwhether in commissions, in politics, in administration or in the judiciary does not ensure that the needs and concerns of women, which demand specific and specialtreatment, are addressed.

Insofar as Commissions of Inquiry are concerned, their mandates must reflect this, their resources must allow for this and the general environment in which they function must embody this quite apart from the superficial and nominal inclusion of a woman as part of the composition of the body.  Sri Lanka has yet to see this type of sensitivity in the establishment and functioningof inquiry bodies of this nature and the writer is quite correct in making the point that the critique of a commission process must embrace questions of gender inclusivity as well as the commonly emphasized focus on independence and effectiveness. Comparative experience has shown that these exercises may be structured verydifferently from what Sri Lanka has known.

As she comments: Recently designed truth commissions in Sierra Leone and Timor Leste have begun to build an explicit reference to gender into the legal instrument that creates them, ensuring dedicated staff, resources and guidelines, and more comprehensiveinvolvement by female survivors. This has allowed for more consistent investigation into the privatized and structural harms that come from conflict, for the proper cross distribution of these findings in the report and – essentially – in any follow up action.

And ideally, the mandate must include not only violations in the public sphere but also violations in the private sphere, as this is where violence against women is centered, particularly in the context of conflict and displacement. Commissioners themselves who are appointed to these bodies must realize the importance of these concerns. Gender sensitive procedures of protection are imperative for such efforts. This paper is a substantial contribution to the existing debates of truth telling in Sri Lanka and it is hoped, will provoke a more extensive study across ethnicities inorder to better inform the public mind.

– Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

Duality Check

Duality Check

South China Morning Post, 15 December 2011


Pakistani artist Rashid Rana continues to court controversy while hurdling cultural boundaries


Rashid Rana does not exactly mind being labeled a Pakistani artist, but he does wonder whether the tag does justice to the larger themes in his works. “A critic friend of mine has written that my art speaks a global language, but with an accent,” he grins. “I like that better.” Considered one of his country’s top contemporary artists, Rana’s work has appeared in an impressive string of international shows, spanning the Musee Guimet in Paris to New York’s Asia Society. His Hong Kong debut, Translation/Transliterations, showcases his use of a distinct digital aesthetic to play with cultural motifs and social scenarios on one level, and study abstract visual ideas on another.

Yet it is Rana’s satirical bite, along with his love of both optical and ideological paradoxes, that has defined him among his contemporaries. Much of his work deftly attracts and then repels his audiences in an entertaining cycle. His acclaimed 2007 ‘Red Carpet’, is a digital rendition of a pretty Persian rug that, on closer inspection, becomes a montage of photographs taken in Lahore’s slaughterhouses. It set a world auction record at Sotheby’s for a Pakistani work of art. “The micro and macro images together create a kind of critical tension, and force the viewer to interact with the work and reconsider their assumptions about reality,” he explains. In creating a more recent work Rana photographed traditional Pakistani wrestlers, indulgently splashed with a little fake blood, then spliced and rearranged the imagery to create a disturbing sense of movement and mutilation.

These tendencies were perhaps most controversial in Rana’s 2004 Veil Series, in which the artist built impressionist-style images of women in Islamic burqas using a mosaics of fuzzy pornographic stills, sourced online; two opposing, inflexible stereotypes of gender in one. It was shown in London’s Saatchi Gallery among others, and was received with a good deal of media relish. Rana has enjoyed the range of reactions that it provoked. He remains amused that the question most-asked of him today is whether he has shown the series in Pakistan, a country known for the vigour of its conservative classes. “As an artist you don’t want to take too many risks, so in Lahore I show it to selected audiences and don’t generally involve media,” he admits. Yet he is bothered by the narrow representation of Pakistan by the international media. “It’s a pity, because the majority there vote for the most liberal political party – currently the Pakistan People’s Party – and Lahore has very open liberal art circles,” he says. “Pakistan is a micro-version of the globe. There are strong obscenity laws in Hong Kong too – I looked into them – and,” he adds with a smile, “I won’t tell you the name of the country in Europe where my work got censored.”

Rana’s playfully provocative approach has helped him beat a path to notoriety. After a Fine Arts MA from the Massachusetts College of Art in the early 90s, he decided to reach for the widest audience possible. “I wanted to make art that could compete with billboards: large, easy to understand; something that could grab you when you’re driving but then pull you into the paradoxes and the deeper content,” he recalls.  He initially worked with acrylic on canvas, photographic and video performances, and collages of found material among other media, and supported himself, as he still does, as a professor at Lahore’s School of Visual Art & Design, which he co-founded at its Beaconhouse National University. Yet it was his experiments in digital photomontage that brought commercial success, around six years ago. And although he had started out using fairly rudimentary techniques, Rana can now afford to stretch the technological boundaries of the medium with the latest programmes and processes. One of his still photo series, Desperately Seeking Paradise, cost him $100,000 to produce. ”I’m not saying that money necessarily produces good art,” he says. “But it has definitely given me more freedom to explore.” [Continued below].


Buoyed by his success, Rana now confidently chases concepts that are more visually abstract and of less immediate danger to hapless drivers. He delves most often into ideas of duality and polarization, teasing out new tensions between micro and macro images. His influences run extremely broad, from Pakistan’s late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq, who also merged abstract and traditional vernaculars, to the challenging visual language of American Op artist Ross Bleckner; and he admits a particular soft spot for provocative German visual artist Gerhard Richter. He has also started to take his digital work into the third dimension, printing images on aluminium cubes in a bid, he says, to challenge conventional ideas about the way photographic work can represent social and physical realities.

Many of Rana’s ideas continue to be triggered by events or images around his home city, Lahore, but are then developed into more transcendental themes. His Language Series for example [pictured above and below], plays with photographs of Urdu text collected in and around the city that, up close, are reavealed as transliterations of western words and names. While this can be read as casting comment on Pakistan’s colonial past, the artist is much more interested in the way the work explores text as an abstract, non-verbal image, open to multiple uses.

In this way Rana, though clearly a satisfied product of Pakistan and a willing commentator on its cultural intricacies, intends to bypass cultural borders. “I don’t want to be dismissive of my surroundings, or deny my past, but they don’t affect me to the extent that my work is only about ‘issues’. If I have to talk about an issue I can have a discussion or write a sentence, but to translate something into a visual form requires much more breadth,” he says. “Pakistan is an important part of my identity, but at the end of the day my art is also about transcending it.”




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

Seen and not heard: Women in Sri Lanka

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.

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

Update: Gender analysis of Sri Lanka

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

Bridging the East-West design divide - in London

Bridging the East-West design divide - in London

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 16 November 2011 [Original PDF:London Design Fest]

China’s Diaspora designers face stiff competition in the UK, but offer hope for development despite trouble shaking off the Made-in-China tag

In a trendy industrial space bordering a West London canal, an eclectic series of objects sit on podiums, amid coffee drinkers and creative-types at work.

Among them are a ceramic Chihuahua in a neckerchief, labeled as a home accessory; a delicate, extraterrestrial-looking table poised as if for lift-off; a panel of architectural designs for a Buddhist temple in the heart of London; and a stool in mint-green metal entitled, fantastically, the ‘Silent Farter’.

These are just a few recent offerings from London’s Chinese Diaspora designers, and they signal a growing creative confidence amid a challenging landscape.

“The Made-in-China tag has brought some difficulty to Chinese designers trying to work in the UK or around Europe,“  says designer Elva White, who curated the exhibition, Cheers, for the UK China Art and Design Association (UCADA) Festival, which ran during September’s yearly London Design Festival.  “There are some issues that particularly affect Chinese designers here, and this was a way for them to talk about them, and also get some needed attention for their work.”

The association developed out of an informal group started by White and other graduates, mostly from London’s Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and it last year secured the formal backing of the Chinese embassy and the British Council.

China’s reputation as a manufacturing hub, combined with the negative publicity about its quality control and the youth of its design scene, can weigh heavily on Chinese designers looking to make it big overseas. Many move to the United Kingdom in search of a more cosmopolitan education and a stronger cultural design heritage, and hope to stay on and develop their career afterwards, at least for a few years.

But recognition is hard to come by, and they face stiff competition from their better-placed European counterparts.China is not yet widely known for its design talent, despite recent efforts by the government to reposition the country through international events, trade agreements, and by promoting the cultural and creative fields as new industry pillars.

Staffan Tollgard runs a high end interior design studio in London’s Notting Hill and credits Asian design as strongly influence in his work, but he believes that the manufacturing stereotype has done damage.

This year he co-launched a company, Kurate, to promote and import products by selected China-based designers, but he expects that, despite the success of the studios he’s working with, which include Neri & Hu, Design MWV and  HC 28, he has a task ahead in educating the British consumer.

“We’re basically saying that there are some really interesting things coming out of China at the moment, so please, rethink your idea that it’s just a copying nation,” he says. “The closeness of the designers with manufacturers there for example, means that prototypes are quicker to make and modify. We’re really seeing capabilities being pushed.”

In this sense, initiatives such UCADAs, that challenge conceptions of modern Chinese art and design, are coming at the right time. Last year David Jia, who founded one of China’s most successful industrial manufacturing firms LKK Design, opened a branch in London – his first out of China – and he sees the obstacles as unavoidable.

“It’s going to be a hard road. We have to change the European mentality about China’s ability to do good design, and there are always problems of cultural understanding, and of detailed communication between designer and customer,” he says.“But they can be overcome. And it’s our responsibility as a leader in this field in China to try to open this path.”

Through working and meeting with Diaspora designers, UCADA organizers have come across other issues that need addressing.  “Many young Chinese designers who arrive in London to study are less likely to have or build a good network, or self promote in the way that others do –  partly because of language difficulties, and a lack of confidence,” says Lucy Shum, who directs the UCADA festival.

Some of the exhibitors agreed. Taiwanese exhibitor Hsiang Wang says that he struggled to find contacts and exhibition opportunities in the UK after completing his Master’s degree. Shanghai-based Zhili Liu, designer of the delicate Shrub table, describes the isolation of a degree in Coventry University, which he spent mostly working alone.

UCADA has responded by setting up dialogues between UK and Chinese designers and an award for emerging Chinese talent and, following the exhibition’s successful run at the Beijing International Design Week in October as part of its London Guest City programme,  it is hunting for other overseas exhibitions to join.

Funding is a particular issue however.  Architect Guangyuan Li and his design partner Mohamed El Khayat took their Reading Chair to the last Milan Furniture Fair themselves, and were pleased with the interest and the opportunities that followed. Yet the chair alone cost them two thousand pounds to transport; they found that they were unable to afford the Beijing event, even though the chair would have made a noticeable splash among a relatively commercial programme.

The UK experience can be quite different for Chinese architects. Na Li works for Foster and Partners and exhibited her design for a Buddhist temple at Cheers. Ten years in the UK has given her a comfortable grasp of British sensibilities, and she believes that her background adds value to her resume.

“In a bigger company, as someone who can speak Mandarin and understand the cultural landscape, you can help it make a lot of connections in China,” she says. “And although I benefited from the more open methodologies here in terms of exploring my work, I feel that I’m still able, like a Spanish, French or any other nationality architect, to bring a fresh perspective to a design.”

The positioning of this Diaspora community between east and west holds promise for innovation across the disciplines. Alice Wang, designer of the Silent Farter [pictured below], opened her Taiwan-based studio following eight years in London. She believes that with a little support, cross-cultural designers such as herself are well positioned to fill the gap between experimental design and the products making it on the shelves.

“Being trained for a few years in Asia focuses you on how to keep the price minimal, on manufacturing or mass production, but often with everything in the same format,” she says “On the other side, in Europe they often care more about the concept, the humour or the theory behind a design, but can struggle to bring these ideas into manufacturing. Merging the two could only be positive.”

Boosting such opportunities and firming up the connection between the two regions could help China’s design credentials develop, while spreading the benefits farther.

As more internationally trained designers and architects are returning to China to become industry leaders, they bring with them the aspirations of older design cultures  in which design is infused into every environment – each bin and bus stop – rather than something found in galleries and appreciated only in creative circles.

In this way, ‘Designed in China’ may someday take on some-broad based resonance.

But until then, initiatives by those such as UCADA and Kurate will continue to both confound and raise Western expectations of Chinese design talent in smaller doses.

“At the moment I think there’s a wall between China and Europe, and it’s hard for us to see what we’re doing on each side,” says Na Li. “But we both want to. I think it’s definitely time for us to try to close the gap.”