WILPF Sri Lanka Group, originally founded in 1953, was revived in 2018 through the efforts of several passionate women who came together to appoint a new board. Since its approval, WILPF Sri Lanka Group has formed new partnerships with other civil society organisations and carried out projects in several areas in Sri Lanka. The projects have focused on a variety of topics, ranging from access to resources to women’s political participation and prevention of sexual harassment.

At the moment, WILPF Sri Lanka Group’s work is extremely relevant. Sri Lanka’s civil war came to an end a decade ago, in May 2009, after twenty-six years of fighting between the country’s government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In 2015, the Sri Lanka government co-sponsored the UN Human Rights Council’s Resolution 30/1 Promoting reconciliation accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. However, to this day, it could not be fully implemented as it was done without the approval of the cabinet and the parliament. 

Photo credit: Brigitte Cassigneul

Although the country is one of the oldest democracies in the region, enjoying universal suffrage since 1931, and has achieved impressive milestones such as being the first country with a woman at the head of its government, women’s political participation has continuously been low. The introduction of quotas in 2016 reserving 25% of government seats for women was an important step forward but efforts must be made to ensure these provisions are implemented to avoid backsliding.

In this interview, WILPF Sri Lanka Group discusses its projects, the group’s long and short term ambitions, and the situation of human rights, in particular, of women’s rights, in the country. Furthermore, the interview touches on what it is like for WILPF Sri Lanka Group to work in a post-conflict environment and explores some of the challenges the group faces in its work.

WILPF Sri Lanka was inactive for some time before being revived, what has prompted the group to come back?

WILPF Sri Lanka Group was managed by a group of women who were very active some time back but are now in their retirement age or have passed away. With the blessing of the old activists, we called a meeting in July 2018 to revive the Group and appointed a new board. The members of the new board, Prathapa Tiranagama, Nadee Gunaratne, and Nayani Perera, are longtime WILPF members with experience in law, community service, and civil society work. Like the board, the other members of the revived group have a wealth of experience and are committed to working on community service, peacebuilding and increasing women’s political participation.

Since August 2018, we have conducted several projects that have brought people together to advocate and mobilise for peace, justice and social harmony. 

What have you been able to achieve through these projects? What impact did they have?

The Livelihood Project helped resolve a significant problem: it helped people gain access to water in Kanthale, Trincomalee District, Eastern Province between July and November of 2018. In the dry zone, where it does not rain often, people have to walk a long way every day to collect water – the people of Kanthale have been suffering from drought for almost two years. Through the Livelihood Project, WILPF Sri Lanka Group constructed community wells in the region, allowing local residents to have direct access to a vital resource. Therefore, it was a successful and impactful project.

The Women, Peace and Security Project conducted in the Eastern Province also had clear positive results. The project, which was carried out in partnership with Towards Responsive Citizens between September 2018 and January 2019, began with eight focus group discussions which were used to design trainings according to the participants’ skills. The participants then received tailored trainings on leadership skills, political participation and SWOT analysis and were introduced to WILPF’s SDG toolkit. The project’s greatest impact was that it connected the participants to the district election commissioner, enabling an important dialogue to take place between them.

Finally, the session on children’s rights and prevention of sexual harassment that was carried out upon the request of parents from the Southern region of Sri Lanka was also successful. The parents were happy with the sessions and requested more on a variety of other topics.

What will be the focus of WILPF Sri Lanka Group’s work in the coming years?

We have decided to focus primarily on campaigns and advocacy related to human rights, peace and security. We hope to publish such programmes in the WILPF newsletter, on the website and on the Facebook page recently created. Apart from that, WILPF Sri Lanka Group expects to continue the work started in 2018.

We also look forward to strengthening partnerships with other organisations such as  Lawyers for Human Rights and Development, Rural Women Organisation Network (RWON), and Towards Responsive Citizens. With the Lawyers for Human Rights and Development, WILPF Sri Lanka Group will advocate on legal issues related to women. RWON works on rural women’s development. WILPF Sri Lanka Group and Towards Responsive Citizens, on the other hand, have conducted a few programs in the Eastern Province to increase women’s political participation in Sri Lanka which they would like to expand in the coming years.

Since this is the start, reviving the Group will be a slow process, however, depending on what is needed, WILPF Sri Lanka Group will partner with relevant agencies and societies to expand its work.

The civil war in Sri Lanka came to an end in 2009 after almost three decades of fighting. How does operating in a post-conflict environment affect WILPF Sri Lanka’s work?

Post-conflict, WILPF Sri Lanka Group started to pay more attention to reconciliation, social cohesion, constitutional reform, and good governance. So, the recent programmes held by WILPF Sri Lanka Group together with Towards Responsive Citizens to increase women’s political participation in Sri Lanka were very effective. The Eastern Province was selected for the programmes because it is a conflict-affected region where women’s representation in public is very low due to social and cultural reasons.

We believe that, with our expertise, we can contribute to the work of civil society by carrying out research and studying issues affecting reforms in post-conflict Sri Lanka.

Photo credit: Brigitte Cassigneul

In your opinion, currently, what are the main issues related to human rights, gender and militarism in Sri Lanka?

In terms of human rights, a key issue is the proposed Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) which was meant to be a replacement of, and improvement on, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1978. The CTA is problematic as some of its sections violate the rights of people, especially the right to free speech. In regard to gender, the lack of a proper system to hear sexual gender-based violence cases in courts presents a significant problem. As a result of it, victims are often secondarily victimised. A court system reform to address victims’ rights needs to take place. Furthermore, women in decision-making roles need to be empowered. Finally, in terms of militarism, the main issue is that the military community should be engaged in the reconciliation process, as mere reconciliation without the meaningful participation of military officials will not be successful.

In your opinion, what are the main barriers hindering the creation of a regional human rights mechanism in Asia?

The lack of a cohesive vision for a mechanism is the main barrier. The presence of multiple religions, cultures and ethnicities in the region means that there are different religious and personal interests which create a lot of confusion and conflict about what a regional human rights mechanism should look like.

The creation of a regional mechanism is certainly a long-term objective for WILPF Sri Lanka Group. The members of our group are knowledgeable and want to work on large scale projects. However, as a recently revived group, WILPF Sri Lanka is currently focusing on its existing local projects.

Where do you see WILPF Sri Lanka Group in five years?

WILPF Sri Lanka aims to be very active in five years, we will help partner organisations write shadow reports to the UN and engage in actual activism, advocacy and lobbying with WILPF’s International Secretariat. In Asia, the main weakness is that, due to various cultural constraints, there is no regional mechanism to protect human rights. In the long term, we aim at supporting solid objectives not only on a national level but also on a regional and global level.