Ampara Clashes: A Reflection on Nationalism, Pronatalism and Women’s Bodies

March 7, 2018

BY Sachini Perera

Note: At the moment of publishing, Sri Lanka’s government has imposed a nationwide state of emergency after mob attacks against the minority Muslim population in the district of Kandy, following the attacks in the Ampara district that are discussed in this blog post.

On the 26th of February, a clash between two groups was reported in Ampara in the East of Sri Lanka. The two groups were described varyingly in reports as Sinhala and Muslim, Sinhala-Buddhist and Muslim, and Buddhist and Muslim and as Tisaranee Gunasekara notes “A clash implies two parties fighting each other, but in Teldeniya and in Kandy – as in Ampara last week – there are just armed perpetrators and unarmed victims”. The clash resulted in at least five people being wounded and a mosque and several shops and vehicles being damaged. According to most reports, the clash stemmed from an allegation that a Muslim-owned restaurant in Ampara was “mixing sterilising medicine with food they sell”. While it is not clear from the reportage whether it was the fertility of men, women or both that were supposedly being affected by this claim of sterilization, it is not an unfair assumption that perceptions would be coloured by similar claims in the past, that were about women’s fertility.

There is no part of this story that is new for Sri Lanka. Attacks against minorities are not new, including increased attacks against Muslims in the recent past. Panic around the perceived effects of family planning on population, and the  perceived impact on particular communities, is not new, especially among the majority Sinhala-Buddhists but not just limited to them. Low level of knowledge on sexual and reproductive health is not new, manifesting in many alarming ways including misinformation and social stigma. Most of all, the role of women and women’s bodies in all this is not a new phenomenon by any means. As noted by Chulani Kodikara in 2014, “As in other cases of ethno-religious nationalism, women are also being cast as the biological reproducers of the nation, with explicitly adverse consequences for women’s bodily integrity and reproductive rights”.

There are varied responses being published about the recent clash and the claims about sterilization pills, from the culture of impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such attacks to media reportage of the clashes to the apparent dearth of scientific literacy in a country with high educational indicators.  However it is important to recognize that misogyny in the form of controlling women’s bodies is the systemic issue deep-rooted in this point of convergence between nationalism and pronatalism. Misogyny coupled with a lack of relationship and sexuality education form the driving force behind why, despite all evidence to contrary, an educated public buys into a perceived and manufactured demographic crisis.

One could argue that currently sexual and reproductive rights in Sri Lanka begin and end in low maternal mortality ratio (MMR). As noted by the Women and Media Collective, even MMR has to be considered with the caveat that “the favourable national maternal mortality statistics hide regional and sectoral differences.” Gaps in contraceptive prevalence and unmet need for contraception, criminalization of abortion and homosexuality and heavy backlash against attempts at reform, stigma around HIV/AIDS, lack of comprehensive sexuality education, female genital mutilation, non-recognition of marital rape, and legally allowing child marriage under the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) are but some of the issues that indicate that sexual and reproductive rights, especially for women, are both sorely lacking and being violated in Sri Lanka. These gaps and violations are further exacerbated and often invisibilized when intersected with age, class, ethnicity, religion, economic status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, abilities, urban or rural locality, etc.

All these gaps and violations of women’s sexual and reproductive rights share two common elements that are rooted in patriarchy. One is a refusal to allow women and girls bodily autonomy and bodily integrity. In other words, control and agency over our own bodies and decisions relating to them. The other common element is closely related. It is the refusal to recognize women as anyone more than biological reproducers, mothers, and the non-recognition of women as sexual beings entitled to pleasure and sexual behavior outside of reproduction including transactional sex.

It is these elements that we see play out in this point of convergence between nationalism and pronatalism, with women’s bodily autonomy and human rights as individuals being ignored, superseded and violated for the “greater good” of growing the ethnic group. We have Sinhala Buddhist extremist groups calling on the government to ban vasectomies and tubectomies “to increase the Buddhist population” and calling on families to ordain unwanted children to increase the number of Buddhist clergy. At no point are women (or men for that matter) consulted on this and it is considered a given that the bodies of Sinhala Buddhist women are serving the sole purpose of being vessels to bring forth future generations of Sinhala Buddhists. The same groups have been instrumental in fear mongering with regards to family planning and contraception with unsubstantiated claims that these have made “890,000 Sinhalese women infertile during the past decade”.  While the veracity of such statements are easily questionable, they still manage to incite panic because of the dominant narrative that women are first and foremost meant to be mothers and the reproducers of the nation and that any threat, real or perceived, to that role should be addressed immediately.

As with the recent incident in Ampara, the idea of forced or coerced sterilization is another point of convergence between nationalism and pronatalism that manages to cause alarm, and as this incident shows, incite violence between communities. Here, the lack of sexuality and relationship education also plays a role in perpetuating the misinformation and panic. While the reporting on the Ampara clashes has not been gendered in terms of whose fertility was supposedly affected by these “sterilization pills”, men’s fertility and virility are equally steeped in patriarchal ideas of masculinity although hegemonic masculinity results in women’s fertility being discussed and questioned first and more frequently.

Forced sterilization (as well as forced pregnancy) is recognized as a crime against humanity in international criminal law and as a war crime under the International Criminal Court (ICC). The International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action (ICPD PoA) states that reproductive rights includes the right of all people “to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, as expressed in human rights documents”. Therefore forced sterilization is not an issue to be taken lightly and is a major violation of individual bodily autonomy.

However, the reactions to unsubstantiated and unscientific claims of coerced contraception or sterilization on Sinhala women by Muslim-owned shops, whether through toffees or “sterilization pills” mixed with food, are not reactions to the possible violation of women’s sexual and reproductive rights. The panic and consequent violence are rooted again in the idea that women are reproducers and any threat to that role is a threat to the ethnic group they are reproducing for. There are several other contributing factors too. One is the historical and enduring tensions and mistrust between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils and Muslims as well as the ethno-religious nationalism of Sinhala-Buddhists that has become more pronounced in post-war Sri Lanka. Another is the rapid spread of disinformation and misinformation, not just through social media but also mainstream media. Add to this volatile mix, a population that has not received adequate sexuality and relationship education in or out of school, who are unable to  recognize women beyond their reproductive capacity, or verify claims about sterilization due to insufficient information about sexual and reproductive health.

On the other hand, there have also been recorded instances of Tamil women’s reproductive rights being violated by being coerced by public health officials into taking long-term contraception without full and informed consent. This shows that the need as well as the patriarchal entitlement to control women’s reproductive choices goes both ways depending on which ethnic group is being targeted.

It is worth noting that the convergence of nationalism and pronatalism is taking women further away from enjoying reproductive justice. In addition to all the aspects covered above, Sri Lankan mothers regardless of ethnicity have for decades not been able to parent their children in safe environments without fear of violence from individuals or the government, an essential element of reproductive justice. This is a topic that remains largely untouched and unaddressed and the rising communal tensions in post-war Sri Lanka show no sign of possible change.

In conclusion, while we are yet to see policies such as the family planning policy being rolled back due to pressure from extremist groups, we have in the past seen a President issue a directive to halt sterilization surgeries in public hospitals that was lifted later. Many legislative reforms necessary in order to grant women and others their sexual and reproductive rights are being stalled due to a lack of political will. There is a high possibility that we will reach a discursive moment in which national policies will affirm (or reaffirm) women’s perceived role as mothers and reproducers which will then not only take away our sexual and reproductive rights, but also affect other social, economic and cultural rights including rights to education, work and food. Therefore while we question incidents such as the recent clash in Ampara in terms of state obligation, impunity of perpetrators, scientific and media literacy and so on, it is crucial that we identify these incidents as yet another manifestation of systemic discrimination against women, especially those further marginalized due to ethnicity, class, income, etc. so that our solutions reach the root of the issue rather than address them superficially.

Photo credit: Gwenael Piaser