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CHAPTER ELEVEN - PART I - WOMEN

Introduction

"What right do they have to cause this loss to us and to the country ?"

This chapter deals with several aspects in which women were affected during the period under scrutiny by this Commission, the continued effect on women of the excesses committed during that period and the reaction of women to the situation including the activities of women both at a socio/religious level and at a political/legal level as recognition of resistance to the existing dominant political environment.

The Commission makes specific recommendations in respect of some of the issues arising from the experience of women.

Women as Victims

The Commission found that women were victimised in two ways: as abductees or detainees and as persons left behind. 1

Abductees/Detainees

201 disappearances of females were reported to the Commission of which 177 were inquired into. The disappearance of 148 of them was established. Approximately 50% of the cases were from the Southern Province; over 25% were from the Matara District.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, U.N. Special Rapporteur on "Violence against Woman including its Causes and Consequences", in her evidence before the Commission drew attention to the fact that the practice of sexual or other violence against women is an international trend of war in recent times, and made a specific appeal that a consideration of this aspect should form part of our Report.

The removal or killing of a person has at times been sought to be justified as an extension of the working of the criminal justice system (arrest, detention, sentencing-imprisonment and death). i.e. that this act was occasioned by a break down in the state's or anti-state group's concept of law and order.2 The sexual violence practiced on woman however can not be sought to be justified in the same manner.

 

1. Apparent Motives Attached to the Disappearances

(i) Personal involvement in political type activity - 15% Most of these omen were directly involved with political activity, 3 but three were killed due to the nature of their employment.4

(ii) Family involvement in politics - 33% These include women who were abducted as hostages instead of the actual target. Of the members of the families involved, there were only 2 incidents of disappearance of woman due to political activity of a female relative.

In one case, a woman was killed by soldiers who were looking for her two sons on the basis that she was "loud mouthed".

In one of the most devastating examples before the Commission of women victimised in this manner the security forces killed seven members of one family including six females (one six years old) on the basis of one male's alleged involvement with the JVP.

(iii)Personal motives - 13%. - The personal motives involved incidents when persons disappeared or were killed due to disputes within the community. However, several cases also point to a personal motive against the individual woman who had disappeared. In one case the mother of a young woman who had disappeared stated to the Commission that "my daughter was very beautiful. She refused a proposal of marriage from a police constable and disappeared a few days later". In another case, a mother of a girl who had been raped and killed and the body recovered stated to the Commission that she was killed "simply because of her womanhood".

(iv)Other political motives - 9%.- This included ideological position of various political groups such as non-cooperation with the State, not working on certain days and not assisting the "other side". As far as the state forces were concerned, a further motive of the need to cover up irregular/illegal acts was also established.

* A woman and her daughter were abducted and the woman killed by the JVP for refusing to cook/provide food for its cadres.

* A woman who provided meals for a relative who was a member of the JVP was killed by the security forces, most probably as a warning to others who assisted the JVP in some way or the other.

In a striking mixture of personal motive against the disappeared women as well as evidence of a dispute within the community was a case of a disappearance of two women following a complaint made by them to the office of the Deputy Inspector General of Police regarding the disappearance of some of their male relatives from the custody of the local police. Despite overwhelming evidence the local police denied arresting the four males, and then attempted to justify the arrest and provided further information. Although the men are now, supposedly arrested in connection with some crimes, no record of these crimes exists. Inquiries revealed that some of the men had a reputation of committing petty crimes and their activities were monitored by the JVP. One of the women was a keen social worker and was involved in most village activities including supplying food to persons in hiding from the police (suspected of JVP activities). Although several members of families had visited the men in the police station, it was only the two women who disappeared. The only conclusion that the Commission is able to come to is that the women most probably disappeared due to their complaints to the D.I.G.

The dilemma of most ordinary people is highlighted by this case. One's activities were being monitored by every one. One's friends and relations needed one's assistance due to being under suspicion and not/providing assistance could in itself be dangerous. While the whole community is able to give evidence of the arrest and subsequent detention of these men for over two weeks, the police could keep denying the arrest even up to date. Requesting further investigations during that period was not only fruitless but else proved dangerous.

(v). Motive Unknown - 28%-.

* A 46 year old mother of two was killed by unknown persons who came to her house.

* One woman and another villager were killed when a soldier went on a drunken spree in the village

(vi) Outside Mandate - 2%.- Disappearances that occurred before the date of inception of the Mandate.

 

2. Ages of the Disappeared

The biggest single category age-wise were within the age 20-30 years (approximately 35%). A relatively high number of women of between the age of 40-50 years (approximately30%) also disappeared. Almost 10% of the incidents reported to the Commission involved disappearance/killings of girls under 18 years. Another 10% of the incidents reported were of women over 50 years of age. It is the opinion of the Commission that these statistics are an indication of the arbitrary nature of the disappearances and/or killing of women.

 

3. Experience of Woman detainees and abductees

Whilst this Commission is unable to come to definite conclusions regarding the range of experience of women who disappeared due to inadequate evidence, the following cases are an indication of the sexual harassment faced by these women. In some cases where the bodies of the women were recovered, the bodies bore evidence of sexual abuse including rape. In many cases women were abducted or harassed in place of their male relatives.

* A 17 year old girl was blindfolded, stripped, subjected to various comments from the abductors and forced to participate in sexual acts with her fellow detainees. This girl together with all but one (the witness before the Commission) were killed the next day and their bodies set on fire.

* In a case presently before the Magistrate's Court of Colombo, a woman was abducted in 1990 by a group of police men and allegedly subjected to gang rape. She was returned to her home within 24 hours of her abduction by the same men. The non summary inquiry into the incident is still continuing.

* In a case presently before the Magistrate's Court of Matara, a woman was allegedly raped by a group of soldiers and her uncle, who reported the incident to the police, disappeared a week later. This inquiry is being conducted over seven years and is yet to be concluded.

* Army personnel in search of a youth who was away from home, wanted a member of the family as hostage. They rejected the father on the basis that "no use of old codgers, we'll take that girl" and did so. This girl and another girl were abducted from the same area. It has been established since then that both girls had been raped and killed and their bodies had been burnt. The mother of the first girl told the Commission "people know about this (the rape) so I have nothing to hide. She was so small and fragile. I don't know why they did this to my little girl".

* Army personnel who abducted from his home a JVP Trade Unionist, deposited him in their vehicle, and returned to abduct his 16 year old daughter too, before their departure. Both father and daughter have disappeared.

* A women was assaulted and her ten month old daughter was buried up to her neck in the garden by Army personnel in search of her husband. Her ten year old son was abducted at the same time. Reports indicate that the husband was later killed but there is no news of her son to date.

* A man was killed by persons who were allegedly attached to the neighbourhood Navy camp. His wife told the Commission that "my husband was shattered into pieces by the gun fire. Then, they took away my only two daughters". The two girls remain missing to date. The mother continues to list them as part of her family, even up to the date of giving evidence before the Commission.

These are some examples.

 

4. The Climate of Impunity

"Any one could behave in this manner during this period"

The Commission is of the opinion that the climate of impunity existing during the major part of the period under scrutiny lead to the victimisation of women as much as men. Not only were personal scores settled but some of the personal scores seem to be linked directly with the femaleness of the victim. Further, all parties to the civil conflict had an established pattern of warning off potential members of the other side by killing or harassing relatives of known members of the opposite camp. This practice obviously affected the persons who were most at home - women and children. "Rape is never in good faith". 5

The Commission has recommended that the contents of and the need for the Indemnity Act requires serious reconsideration. 6 The Commission is particularly concerned with the fact that the present Act indemnifies acts which are done in "good faith". As far as women are concerned, much of their experience does not tally with any possible involvement of the concept of "good faith".

Shooting while you are being shot at could be an act done in good faith even if it results in death. Rape can never be in "good faith" - killing and burning one and a half year olds is not in "good faith".

Many violations of the rights of women and many acts of violence against women which cannot be considered necessary in the ordinary course of law enforcement were committed upon persons who gave evidence before us and may have been committed on many more. Presently, there are several cases pending in courts of charges of rape and sexual abuse against members of the armed forces and the police. In this context, we urge that urgent action be taken with regard to the Indemnity Act of 1982 as amended in 1988.

People left Behind

1. Effects of Disappearance of Women on Families

It is the children of the mothers who disappear who suffer the most the disgusting activities of both the governmental and anti-state forces during that period has lead to the deprivation of many mothers of many young children.

Over 50% of the incidents analysed by the Commission were of women who had children. over 30% of the incidents analysed by the Commission were of several members of the family being killed or disappearing.

* In a case where a women was taken hostage instead of her husband, her neighbours refused to open their doors to her twelve year old son.

2. Effect of Disappearances of Family Members on Women

I am like Patachara - driven from police station to police station looking for first my husband and then my two sons.

(i) Breadwinner of the Family

Someone has to find the money to feed the rest
My mother is in the Middle East
My husband/children do not want to/can not work so I work as a labourer
I take care of my mother-on-law as well.

There was overwhelming evidence of women being thrust into, the role of primary breadwinner of a family due to the disappearance. In some incidents, the sole or primary breadwinner had disappeared. In some, the primary breadwinner had been rendered incapable by the fact of the disappearance of another (illness, depression).

Many women, although initially uncomfortable with the role seen to have responded positively to this further challenge to their survival. The fact of disappearance thus effected a further transformation of the role of women into an economic force at local level.

(ii) Loss of financial support

Help me by helping to educate my twins.

The social fabric within which the disappearances recorded by this Commission occurred included very few employment opportunities for women. Thus, they had no alternative but low-paid or non employment. The family under these circumstances as a whole suffer.

(iii) Deprivation of Inheritance

They told me that it does not belong to me or the children.

The Commission recorded several instances where women have been deprived of their lawful inheritance by their in-laws on the pretext that the husband is not necessarily dead. Many of the women also complain of being edged out of their husband's property, highlighting their vulnerability.

(iv) Uncertainty

They want me to get married again but he might still be alive

Tell me whether to celebrate his birthday or commemorate his death

If he died of a fever, a bus accident, I would have been informed

It is very difficult to explain to a child the absence of a father

Countless women bore witness to the fact that the most devastating aspect of disappearances as opposed to a killing and recovery of a body lay in the inability to cope with the loss due to uncertainty. Many believe that their loved ones are being held in secret detention camps. The need to know the "truth" was clearly witnessed at the exhumation of the mass grave at Sooriyakanda in 1983. Several persons kept vigil desperately attempting to identify the exhumed remains as that of their disappeared loved one.

(v) Trauma

Widow/mother/sister/committed suicide

My heart wished to bring him (corpse) home but no one would help me

Now I am not in my right senses

I am consumed by flames each and every moment

Returned destitute from Lebanon due to the war to find sons missing

(vi) Precious resources used up in looking for the disappeared

I mortgaged my dowry look for my son - please find him

I looked everywhere for my daughter but it was of no avail. Now I have given up, partly because I can no longer continue on the same basis and partly because I am emotionally exhausted.

(vii) Guilt

Many Women feel that they were responsible for the disappearance.

* A woman who visited her parent's home had her husband abducted by police offices who were searching for her brothers. The husband remains missing to date. This woman still deals with the double trauma of the disappearance of her husband and the sense that she is in some way or the other responsible for his disappearance.

Reaction

(a) Legal/Political

I went to the police station and they chased me away like a dog

I filed a Habeas Corpus Case but it is in Colombo and that's very far.

I did not know of Habeas Corpus but I complained to the Presidential Commission but was told I was out of time.

I wrote about 100 letters but got replies only from the ICRC

The police station did not record the statement so I went to the Army camp and they did.

I signed a petition.

I went to the JOC - never heard of it until then - I am illiterate - others told me.

This Commission wishes to record the fact that many of the women who gave evidence before it did not have a functional level of literacy but had taken at least some of the basic steps towards an inquiry into the disappearance/killing of their loved ones. However, the responses to these attempts were, at best, lukewarm and in some instances actively hostile. the attempts of the ICRC to trace the whereabouts of persons and the sensitivity with which they responded was borne out by the numerous letters produced before the Commission which were prompt replies in Sinhala and follow-up letters where relevant from the ICRC to families. While several non governmental organisations provided free legal assistance for persons wishing to access the legal system, and actively encouraged persons to resort to legal action, the lengthy delays and the distances to be covered discouraged many women from pursuing these cases to their end.

I went to the police station and they chased me away like a dog.

(b) Women's Organisations

I am the branch President of the Mother's Front

I went for many Meetings/Marches

The political response to disappearances and removal of persons by women had the capacity of shaking the system to a fair extent. Many women who had rarely left their home areas went in search of politicians with a reputation for or, in their perception, a duty to help trace the disappeared. The formation of groups of women into organisations, such as the Mother's Front and the Mothers and Daughters of Lanka as well as the Organisation of Parents of Families of disappeared in 1989 and 1990 also signaled a change in the activities of the patterns of disappearances. These organisations not only proved to the woman their own strength and political power but also provided for the first time a platform for shared grief.

(c) Last Resort

I consulted 72 soothsayers.
I am still doing Bodhi Poojas.
As many as 50 mothers stay near the camp at a time to catch a glimpse of their child.

This Commission notes that in addition to attempting to have their complaints/statements recorded and going around looking for the disappeared, many women consulted astrologers and soothsayers to verify whether their loved ones were still alive and if so their places of detention. They conducted religious ceremonies to protect the disappeared from any harm. An informal network of information regarding possible places of detention and places to complain to existed and also, in some situations, support from others congregated at the same place on the same quest.

The Commission was struck by the fact that whilst different women had been involved in a variety of activity and many had taken some steps to locate their loved one, an overwhelming number of women consistently consulted astrologers and soothsayers and conducted religious ceremonies. This leads to the conclusion that these were people losing faith in the legal and political system in place and preferring to rely on the least threatening and, in many ways, the most reliable source of comfort, for information. This may seem the response of illiterate, uneducated peasants, However, the Commission notes that persons of all educational and social backgrounds had relied on this last-resort remedy available.

Problems

(a) Erasure of Abductees' experience.- Much of the evidence of the experience of abductees has been gathered by this Commission on the basis of post-mortem reports or other evidence in cases where a corpse had been found. Although this is sufficient to assess the physical impact of the abduction, it is no guide to the emotional experiences of abductees. Only a few returned detainees were available to give evidence before the Commission of their experience and of the experience of others.

* It is recommended that steps be taken to ensure the investigation of the arbitrary removal and experiences in detention of returned detainees.

The other source of information regarding the abductees' experience is the abductor or persons assisting the abductor and the Commission identifies the importance of encouraging persons who may have been involved with the abductors, especially those who were only peripherally involved to give evidence of scenes witnessed by them.

* It is recommended that the possibility of awarding indemnities based on the extent of these people's involvement or their ability to make reparation by explored.

(b) Sexual Abuse.- The issue of sexual abuse of detainees including of men has been brought to the attention of the Commission on many occasions. It is apparent that sexual abuse is being used as a further form of punishment and control. The Commission recommends that:

(a) Rape/sexual assault in custody to be recognised as torture;
(b) The reversal of the burden of proof in cases of custodial sexual abuse and also the award of punitive damages following conviction.

In many cases, the first medical officer a detainee comes into contact with is the Judicial Medical officer (JMO). It is recommended that"

(a) The JMOs are provided with training on detecting cases of sexual abuse; and
(b) Effective counselling services are made available to the victims, both while they are in custody and after they are released.

(c) Continuing Victimisation.- "Quite spontaneously swamped by grief which seemed to come from the bottom of their hearts, they began to beat their hands on their chests and will" 7

(i) FINANCIAL

I spent the compensation on an alms giving.
I don't want to gain money for my husband's loss.

* It is recommended that compensation to families of the disappeared or killed during this period goes beyond mere "cash" to the provision of scholarships or employment.

* Further, when financial assistance is provided, that effective training/counselling is provided on savings including encouraging group activities.

* Assistance for/training on home based self-employment for women is another alternative that needs urgent implementation.

(ii) INABILITY TO COPE

I am out of my senses since I saw my son's headless corpse in the river.
I beg in order to eke out a living for my children
I can not bear the uncertainty for much longer

One of the most obvious effects of this period has been the devastation of people's emotional ability to cope. Many witnesses before the Commission seem at the end of their tether. It is recommended that:

* Speedy action is taken to establish counselling services all over the country. Assistance can be sought from non governmental organisations which are already involved in providing these services to a certain extent.

* It is further recommended that as far as the exhumation of mass grave in concerned, the exhumation is conducted in a scientific manner by qualified investigators 8

(iii) STIGMA/COMMUNITY HOSTILITY

The Commission noted that many families of the disappeared or killed suffer from being stigmatised on the basis of the disappeared person's political activity. Considerable tension exists between members of families of persons who belonged to rival camps. The community hostility towards families affected by the removal of persons was heightened by the former system of the distribution of compensation only to families affected by subversive act.

It is recommended that:

* Both the counselling and the compensation be based on the need for rehabilitation of the whole community and reparation to the community. The counselling should include attempts at reconciling families of members of different parties to each other on the basis of shared loss, and to reconciling the community to the fact that families can not be held responsible for the acts of individuals, and to the reality of the additional sense of loss suffered by the families concerned. It is also recommended that as part of the process of reparation activities which are of common benefit like the repair of public amenities or the provision of public services be undertaken.

CONCLUSION

Women are always victims - The future of this country hangs on these women's ideas and ideologies9

Disappearances started before 1989...did not stop after 1989...even if one disappearance occurs now it is evident that the system is still in place. If there is no investigation - discovering the truth and acknowledgement - it can continue to happen.10

This Commission notes that violence against women was used as a tool of control of a community (family, village, peers). The Commission also notes that much of the pain of the violence against the men is borne by women and families. In this event, the Commission also recognises that it is the women who will play a major role in the possible prevention of events of this nature from occurring again.

The conflict which lead to the establishment of this Commission, on the other hand, has had very little input from women at a decision making level. During much of the period under scrutiny by the Commission there were no women in the Politbureau of the JVP and the Commanders of the armed forces, Inspectors General of Police and the Ministers in charge of Defence were all men.

Under these circumstances, the socio/political impact of the establishment of the political groups by the women and their religious activities can not be underestimated. An unprecedented merger between the political and cultural forces was witnessed in 1993 when the political forces appropriated the religious rituals at the Kali Kovil in Colombo and the Devale at Kataragama in "appeals to the Gods" for justice.

This Commission concludes that the encouragement of active political participation of women at all levels including at decision making levels could minimise the possibility of the eruption of similar violence in the future.

 

End Notes:

1. In this section, the term "victim" is used as in the case of a victim of an offense or as situation beyond the control of the immediate person.

2. "Excesses"

3. Party membership/activism, Union membership.

4. Employment in the State sector.

5. Rabhika Commeraswamy.

6. See Chapter Seven.

7. Mathulatha, District Secretary of the Mother's Front, Matara, describing the first meeting of the Mother's Front in 1990.

8. Suriya Wickremesinghe, Secretary, Civil Rights Movement, also recommended the same.

9. Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu

10. Sunila Abeyesekera, INFORM

Posted on 1999-01-01



remarks:1


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