Sri Lanka fails to engage women in peace-building

At the end of the military conflict in March 2009, Sri Lanka entered a post-conflict rebuilding period. The current government, elected in 2015, has set up an Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) in recent years. This office is mandated to foster consolidating national unity and diversity, while laying the grounds for long-lasting peace in the country. At the same time, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) has been working on bringing peace to the families of those who disappeared during the time of the civil unrest. Throughout the process of bringing stability to the country, the Sri Lankan government has encountered various challenges, among which the lack of inclusion of women and minorities in the peace-building procedure remains unfulfilled. The government needed to build an inclusive society, yet women continue to struggle to have their voices heard in Sri Lanka. They account for only 5.7% of the seats in the 2015 elected Parliament, and they are still largely absent from mediation boards.

The UN’s Sri Lanka Peace-building Priority Plan (PPP), co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government in 2017, highlighted the need to better include women in the building of peace, both as actors and recipients of governmental projects. The PPP highlights the 90,000 female-headed households in Sri Lanka, two-thirds of which are located in the conflict-affected areas. This fact emphasises the impacts that the civil war has had on women, who now endure great economic hardships due to the loss of their husbands and sons. Most of these female heads of households have to assume the role of primary income earner despite often having very few skills and a significant likelihood of being unemployed. Furthermore, in the conflict affected areas, women remain heavily concerned with the security of their families and themselves. Women and girls in many of these conflict areas must endure high levels of violence being enacted against them due to deeply ingrained patriarchal social practices, persisting psychological traumas from the conflict, and the high level of militarisation in these areas.

The Sri Lankan government has been urged multiple times to do more to include women in the peace-building process. Drawing on the UN Resolution 1325, the 2015 Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 recommended the use of participatory methods that include women and other minorities in the post-conflict rebuilding process. In 2016, the PPP made gender sensitivity one of its guiding principles by noting that “throughout all stages, it is important to recognise the critical role of women, especially those from marginalised communities, as well as the specific violations they have suffered and their specific needs of redress”. Additionally, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) report in 2017 emphasised the absence of a finalised national action plan for the implementation of the UN Resolution 1325. CEDAW has reiterated in several of its recommendations, that more women should be considered to be represented in all transnational justice mechanisms and that the finalisation of a national action plan for the application of resolution 1325 must be implemented.

The Sri Lankan government has made some efforts to follow through with these requests. In recent years, the government has launched a National Action Plan for Human Rights (2017-2021) which includes a substantial section dedicated to the treatment of women. However, more progress is needed. For instance, the 2019 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the development of a national reparations policy that will take into account the specific needs of women and children. Furthermore, other measures could have a substantial impact, such as the implementing of quotas for women in parliament and transitional justice mechanisms, the elaboration of women-targeted projects by the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, and impactful governmental measures to prevent violence against women and girls in conflict-affected areas.

Relations between the European Union and Sri Lanka are governed by a comprehensive Cooperation Agreement on Partnership and Development. The Agreement, based on dialogue and partnership, seeks to enhance and develop the various aspects of cooperation and is mainly focussed on trade. However, the universality of human rights is one of the founding and fundamental values of the EU. Human rights are ‘the silver thread’ of EU foreign policy. In this context, the EU Delegation has prioritised support for the reconciliation process, as well as a continued focus on women’s rights and empowerment. In light of the evidence that Sri Lanka continues to fail to bring gender adequately into the peace process, Europe’s leverage could be vital in bringing about change for not only gender equality in the country but also regional peace and stability.

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