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From the Heart of Conflict in Sri Lanka, Women Build Peace

20 September 2012 No Comment

Visaka Dharmadasa

Visaka Dharmadasa
Sri Lanka

“We the women of Sri Lanka believe that together we can bring back the golden era of this country, when the Sri Lankan women adorned with jewels were able to travel alone from the northern to the southern tip securely.” -Association of War Affected Women, Sri Lanka

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September 27th, 1998, is the day that the war came to my doorstep. I received the news that my second son, an officer in the Sri Lankan Army, was missing in action from the battlefield. From that day on I have never looked back.  I wanted to see an end to the armed conflict that engulfed my country.

Triggered by my pain as a mother, I contacted other women who had lost their sons and husbands during the conflict. I learned that I was not alone in my search and in my affliction. We, as mothers, wanted to stop the war and we knew there was only one way we could do it. We would have to work jointly with the mothers of the other side of the divide. Our call was “rights to life for all.”

We decided to call on our government and to open dialogue with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to finally agree on a mutual respect of the combatant’s identification tags in order to be able to identify them. Since then, we aim to further participate in the agreement of these basic matters, but we also had ambitions of reaching greater goals to achieve peace in our nation. We named our work “building peace from the heart of the conflict, the battle field itself.”

Step by step we began to collaborate among ourselves based on trust. We did not hesitate to write letters and requests to both parties in the conflict to respect the International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions. We decided to confront the challenges that fighting within the battle could imply. These challenges were not only the physical dangers that crossing a country in war could signify, but we also fought against the passive stereotype of women as victims during conflict. Yes, we were victims, but we were also peacemakers. During the struggle, I was able to lead a group of seven women to the Tamil Tiger’s territory in the height of war, to know the fate of our sons who were reported missing. Our nature as women helped us to make the journey and to return safely.

Leaving behind years of struggle and pain, we were able to connect very easily with the youth of the Tamil Tigers. We saw them as our own children. We came to acknowledge that we as women, especially as mothers, have the ability to understand their feelings and to win their trust.

Conference with Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee to draft Sri Lankan Women's Agenda on Peace Security and Development

It is interesting to see how some circumstances in your life lead you to a greater destiny without noticing. When we embarked on this mission our intentions were only to know the fate of our children. However, once we reached the Tamil zones and met the youth of Tamil Tigers, we were also able to understand their side of the story. This understanding and sharing of experiences paved the way for Sri Lanka to move towards a ceasefire. We, the women of Sri Lanka, were at the very heart of this process. We collected 70,000 signatures from mothers and others calling for an end to hostilities and handed over the signatures to the Royal Norwegian government, inviting them to facilitate a process of peacebuilding.

The day I went to look for my son, little did I know that my struggle wouldn’t stop there, that a constant fight to achieve peace would become my life, my everyday work. Since the creation of the Association of War Affected Women, which I have the honor to direct, I have been able to work side by side with courageous women committed to achieve sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. We believe that peace must be negotiated through an inclusive process.

The Association of War Affected Women is a space for those women, specifically mothers and wives of servicemen missing in action, and those whose lives have been affected by the conflict. But more than that, we also seek to safeguard the rights of our people and to strengthen our democracy. Our work today goes beyond words; we have taken concrete steps and actions. We have been training women on political participation, we are implementing workshops in the affected zones to sensitize people and to raise awareness of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, we have drafted the “Sri Lankan Women’s Agenda for Peace Security and Development” and handed it  in to the Government of Sri Lanka, and in a broader sense, we have learned to collaborate with the different sectors of our society which are compromised with the well-being of our nation.

As I said, little did I know that my struggle wouldn’t stop back then. Little did I know that I would not stop until we achieve a peaceful Sri Lanka, a land in which all its peoples are able to live with dignity and to enjoy equal rights.

Check out the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) online to learn more.

Edited by Sophia Hernandez Reyna, AWAW

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