A dialogue highlighting the untold stories of war-affected women in Sri Lanka was held on 29th July 2015 at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH). The Voices of Strong Women was a celebration of the resilience and strength of war-affected women from both sides of the conflict. This event was hosted by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) in collaboration with the Ranaviru Seva Authority (RSA) with the intention of creating awareness on the plight of over 90,000 female-headed households who still face untold sufferings brought on by 30 years of armed conflict. Ms. Shelly Whitting, the High Commissioner of Canada for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, honoured the event with her presence as the Chief Guest. Ms. Robyn Mudie – the High Commissioner of Australia; Ms. Vidya Perera – Senior Advisor, the Royal Norwegian Embassy; Ms. Yamamoto Mariko – Advisor and Researcher, Political Section, the Embassy of Japan and Mrs. Yamuna Wijegunaratne – President, Seva Vanitha Unit of the Sri Lanka Navy were among the other dignitaries who graced this momentous occasion. Several women who were affected by the war, including the wives of soldiers from the North Central Province and those who were widowed by the fires of the war in Mullaitivu, were also present as distinguished invitees.
The dialogue consisted of two main parts. The first included the address of the Chief Guest in which she stated her concerns with regard to the economic insecurity of women living in conflict and post-conflict situations. “Six years after the end of the conflict, the physical devastation is evident but the psychological and social consequences are harder to assess and will not be resolved overnight” expressed Ms. Whitting. Her speech was followed by the stories of two courageous mothers who were widowed by the war; one from a Sinhalese community and another who called Mullaitivu home. Tears poured down their faces as they recalled the trauma the loss of their husbands caused. They echoed the stories of hundreds of other war-affected women when they related the differential treatment and the deprivation they live amidst. The audience too was deeply touched by the stories of these two women. The pain in their hearts was mirrored on the face of every one present. The key-note address at this event was delivered by Kala Suri Dharmasiri Bandaranaike. In his address, Mr. Bandaranaike spoke of how socially instilled differences causes rifts between people of different ethnicities. He very strongly emphasised the evils of war and its impact on the people. He went onto validate that the greatest tragedy in a conflict situation is that the woman suffers most because of the patriarchal system prevalent in countries such as Sri Lanka. Mr. Bandaranaike’s address called on the audience to take a stand against war and to live in unity with those from other ethnicities. This address was followed by a panel discussion which was moderated by Mr. Nawaz Mohammed, the Country Director of Search for Common Ground. The esteemed panellists at the discussion were Ms. Upalangani Malagamuwa – Deputy Chairperson of the RSA, Ms. Shantha Abhimanasingham – Chairperson of the National Committee of Female-Headed Households and Professor Jayantha Seneviratne of the University of Kelaniya. This discussion spoke of issues such as livelihoods provided by the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO), the need for psychological healing amongst the war-affected women and the encouragement such women need to be independent and self-sufficient. As the concerns of the audience on related issues were voiced, several other female survivors of the war also received a chance to speak of their needs. Thus the initial half of the day’s proceedings drew to a close, subsequent to a time of fellowship that followed the panel discussion. During this time, the invitees and dignitaries voiced their gratitude to the organisers for including them in this programme. They were also very much interested in and patronised the display of a variety of goods produced by the war-affected women which included savoury bites, handicrafts made with palmyrah and coconut shells, wall hangings, garments, bags and even artificial bridal bouquets.
The second half of the day’s proceedings was mainly a dialogue between the Sinhalese and Tamil women affected by the war which was facilitated by Ms. Janakie Seneviratne in her capacity as a Gender Consultant. This dialogue helped the participants realise that irrespective of their ethnic differences and political opinions, each one of them despised the war, they were traumatised by the loss of their husbands and they shared common struggles in providing for the needs of their children. This was also an opportunity for these women to expel their ill-feelings and prejudices formed against the other ethnicity as they suggested ways in which they could expedite the reconciliation between one another. Their greatest obstacle was the language barrier but they promised to keep in touch somehow as they exchanged telephone numbers and addresses. They proposed that intercultural events, exchange programmes and visits, health clinics and a mentorship programme be conducted for the welfare of war-affected persons and in order to pave the way for reconciliation and renewed relationships. “We lost a lot of things including our dear ones due to the war” said Sudharma who was widowed at a young age as a mother expecting her third child. Sudharma very truthfully accepted that she blamed the Tamils for the death of her husband. She was thereby very grateful that this dialogue helped her to understand the loss of the widows in the North who experienced her same grief. “Even though we don’t know the language we will definitely try to keep in touch with each other. We will visit them in the North; let’s get together and visit places of historic interest and places of worship.” Sudharma echoed the sincere desire of all participants as she said, “We wish that there will be no more sad incidents of war in our land as well as in our lives in the future”.
As the NCEASL aimed at bringing to light the plight of war-affected women, this programme proved to be an ideal platform for them to share their painful experiences and troubles. It was also noteworthy that these courageous women who are now the heads of their households were portrayed not as victims but as strong voices and a presence in the peace-building and reconciliation process. They were celebrated for the role they played in providing for their families, irrespective of their cast, creed or ethnicities.
Visit our Facebook Album on Voices of Strong Women for photographs and highlights from the event.
A #Dialogue of highlighting the #UntoldStories of #WarAffected women in #SriLanka was held on 29th July 2015 at the…