Interview with Visaka Dharmadasa on War-Affected Women in Sri Lanka

In this interview, Visaka Dharmadasa, the Executive Director of the Association of War Affected Women in Sri Lanka, discussed her grassroots work fighting violence against women, where she said the issue has become a priority “even for the police at the ground level” in Sri Lanka, who told her it was one of their biggest challenges.

She said the police would come up with solutions. “Women do come with solutions, but to implement them—they can't. They have good ideas, but who is implementing them? But with the police, they implement.” 

One success she noted was the significant reduction of violence against women in Kilinochchi’s police division, “which is at the heart of the biggest battle.”

“It's a huge challenge everywhere, no matter whatever social strata you come from, whatever economic situation that you are in, especially when we speak about domestic violence,” she said.

“But when it comes to the violence on the streets and the workplace and numerous other kinds of sexual harassments, there is the need, of course, of making the society aware. And like in India, after there was a huge uprising [over the rape case]… we are really looking forward for this to spillover to Sri Lanka. We think that there can be one campaign which will put Sri Lanka back again to what it was.”

“We can come together as women across all differences, not only in Sri Lanka—we are really looking forward to have South Asia as a region rid of armed conflicts. It is women who will be playing that crucial role.”

The interview was conducted by Maureen Quinn, Director of Programs at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript:

Maureen Quinn: Good afternoon, I want to welcome Visaka Dharmadasa, the Executive Director of the Association of War Affected Women in Sri Lanka to the Global Observatory. Visaka, you were a participant in the International Civil Society Action Network Forum in Istanbul. We're having a discussion on the results of that forum tonight at the International Peace Institute. So I want to discuss with you your experience in Sri Lanka, as well as the results of this regional discussion.

So, Visaka, here at the United Nations, at the Security Council, there is always a lot of regular conversation around security sector reform and the process of post-conflict reconciliation. But you are working at the grassroots level, addressing these issues in concrete terms in northern Sri Lanka. Could you please tell us about your work and any practical lessons that you would share with our audience?

Visaka Dharmadasa: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. For me, I must say that we do the work practically at the grassroots level, everything has to be taken into consideration. The priorities in Sri Lanka for the people is shelter and food, and of course, when we speak about women, there are huge issues—bigger challenges, like when I speak to the police on the ground what they say is after the war ending the biggest challenge that they face is the violence against women. So that has become a priority issue, even for the police at the ground level.

What I want to tell you is that particular disconnect between what they're talking about at the Security Council and what is happening in the ground. That's exactly what I think—that I can really bridge that particular gap, because I see there's a big gap.

MQ: How about a lesson learned from your work? You've also done training of the police at the community level. Can you talk about what you have been able to achieve? I know that you have been doing this work for several years. You founded this organization, and you received a [humanitarian] award in 2006. What can you say about what you have learned working with police?

VD: Every day we do learn lessons. We don't do training with police. We have consultations. We get them to tell about the issues, especially when we speak about the four pillars of 1325 and ask them to go into small groups and select the most relevant.  They always select the violence against women. That was really significant from the ten districts that I've worked with. And then, it was very nice because the police would come up with solutions. Women do come with solutions, but to implement them, they can't. They have good ideas, but who is implementing them? But with the police, they implement. 

My success story to all that I have done, of course, bringing the liberation Tigers and the government of Sri Lanka for a ceasefire—that was our biggest success. But the second biggest success I've seen is that significant reduction of violence against women in Kilinochchi’s police division, which is at the heart of the biggest battle. There, we were able to reduce significantly the violence against women, especially because the police understood that it is a huge social issue and a big challenge that they have to overcome.

MQ: That is significant. Could you give an example of one of the solutions that the police proposed?

VD: In Sri Lanka we have a system of people donating their work times. We have people coming together, as volunteers to work, so police every week they selected one village and they went to the village and they said "okay we'll clean the drain this time, we'll clean the wells" or something like that, which is a social thing to do together with the villagers. Then, the women are told that we [the police] are there to help you, so don't be scared. And they spoke to women and told them to please come. And, of course, when police are speaking to the women, the men folk, especially for domestic violence—they knew now that the women have the access, and they are not scared. So that is something which is really nice.  In places where it was very difficult, where trust was a really big issue, we used religious leaders.

MQ: What is needed and can be done to prevent violence against women, whether in times of war or in times of peace in Sri Lanka?

VD: It's a huge challenge everywhere, no matter whatever social strata you come from, whatever economic situation that you are in, especially when we speak about domestic violence. It's a very big issue, and economic independence of the women gives also a social status which up to a certain extent can reduce domestic violence. But when it comes to the violence on the streets and the workplace and numerous other kinds of sexual harassments, there is the need, of course, of making the society aware. And like in India, after there was a huge uprising [over the rape case], we are really looking forward for this to spillover to Sri Lanka. We think that there can be one campaign which will put Sri Lanka back again to what it was.  We are a democracy, we want good governance and all this is a concern, because it is a soft issue, that we can use that soft issue to address all of these hard issues as well.

MQ: Are women playing a role in the reconciliation process or processes? And can you give an example of that?

VD: Women are the people who are the major players on reconciliation. By nature, they are the ones who could really think that your son is like my son. It's inborn within them. So if you asked me, women are the most important reconciliation agents. Because we can come together as women across all differences, not only in Sri Lanka, we are really looking forward even in the region to have South Asia as a region rid of armed conflicts. It is women who will be playing that crucial role.

MQ: My last question for you is, what role do you think the international community can play to support your work around reconciliation, around issues preventing violence against women?

VD: You know the international community can play different roles in different countries, again in different contexts and also at different times. It all depends upon, especially when it comes to women groups, it's knowing that we have a strong network as women groups. When it comes to Sri Lanka the regional players are much more important than even the large international community.

MQ: Thank you very much, Visaka. And particularly your ending your comments on the importance of the network as we are having the event here at IPI today with the International Society Civil Action Network. So thank you very much.

VD: You are welcome.



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