Last month marked 500 consecutive days of the roadside protests by families of the disappeared in the North and the East of Sri Lanka, that began in February 2017. As far as milestones go, this is one full of the pain, heartbreak and disappointment of not knowing what happened to your children, spouses and other family members who have been separated from you for years and for some, decades. The protests, led largely by mothers of the disappeared, began as a response to the constant and consistent failure of the Sri Lankan state and consecutive governments to provide answers on the whereabouts of their loved ones, information on what happened to them, or access to justice nearly a decade after the end of the war. As stated by a civil society statement addressed to the President of Sri Lanka quoted below, the mothers and families of the disappeared had reached the end of their tether.
These protests come after families have exhausted most other avenues, including appearing before previous commissions of inquiry and other investigative mechanisms, making appeals to various state institutions, filing complaints with the Police and Human Rights Commission, making enquiries with the Army and Navy, and appealing to international bodies. In sheer desperation, they began and continue to protest.
Unfortunately, enforced disappearances are not a new phenomenon in Sri Lanka and even in 2009, a United Nations study found that Sri Lanka had the second highest number of disappeared people in the world.
What is also not new is women organizing to call for an end to the war and women leading campaigns and protests against forced disappearances. There is no single narrative to how women experienced the war and each of our experiences have been influenced by our ethnicity, religion, language, class, income, age, locality, ability and a host of other identities and factors. However, Sri Lankan women have historically organized and protested within and across our identities, especially ethnicity, during different points in time, largely anchored by the relational respectability of motherhood.
As documented by Sarvam Kailasapathy, the Jaffna Mothers’ Front (also referred to as the Northern Mothers’ Front) formed in July 1984 to protest and demand the release of their sons who were forcibly taken away by the Sri Lankan armed forces. In 1990, the Southern Mothers’ Front was formed to protest the disappearances and killings by state and non-state actors and Sunila Abeysekera noted that “perhaps a measure of the power and success of both groups (is) that their call was co-opted by mainstream political parties”. Around the same time a broad network of women’s groups came together as Mothers and Daughters of Lanka (MDL), its membership cutting across different ethnic and religious groups.
It is clear from this brief history that “Motherhood as a space of protest” is well established in Sri Lanka (as with other countries where similar activism has happened and is happening) and the challenges, setbacks and threats they continue to face have not fundamentally changed over the years, although exacerbated for minority groups. So where does reproductive justice come into the play? This excerpt from Motherhood as a Space of Protest: Women’s Political Participation in Contemporary Sri Lanka by Malathi de Alwis is a fitting prelude:
As in the case of the Madres of Argentina or the GAM (Mutual Support Group for the Reappearance of our Sons, Fathers, Husbands and Brothers) of Guatemala, the rhetoric of protest used by the Mothers’ Front too can be read as confronting a repressive state by revealing the contradictions between the state’s own rhetoric and practices. By appealing for a return to the ‘natural’ order of family and motherhood these women were openly embracing patriarchal stereotypes that primarily defined them through familial/domestic subject positions such as wife and mother. However, by accepting this responsibility to nurture and preserve life, which is also valorized by the state (de Alwis, 1994), they revealed the ultimate transgression is the state as well for it was denying women the opportunities for mothering through a refusal to acknowledge life by resorting to clandestine tactics of ‘disappearance’ (cf. Schrimer 1989: 28)[i].
Motherhood is highly lauded in Sri Lanka as with the rest of South Asia, whereas womanhood often is not, also as with the rest of the sub-region. Sri Lanka is our motherland and frequent references are made to how we must protect and preserve “Mother Sri Lanka”. Many of the majority Sinhala-Buddhists subscribe to the view that “the mother is the Buddha of the home” and other Buddhist depictions of motherhood including as a way of moral cultivation.At the same time, they subscribe to the view that women are inferior to men and wish upon women the extra merits needed to be born as men in their next incarnation as our President did a few years ago. The different ethnicities and culture in the country have various rituals and practices around menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth, and motherhood beyond the traditional family structure is frowned upon and discriminated against. Low maternal mortality ratio in the country is often pointed to as evidence of the state’s commitment to protecting mothers and yet the national aggregate often hides the higher rates in certain areas and among marginalized groups of women. The focus of national policies and service delivery on maternal health and the lack of attention paid to gaps in contraceptive prevalence, consequences of criminalization of abortion, lack of comprehensive sexuality education, etc. reflect the state’s refusal to recognize women as anyone more than biological reproducers, carers, and mothers.
More examples of the differential treatment of mothers and women and how the quest to protect the ‘sanctity’ of motherhood infringes on women’s human rights? Feminization of the migrant labour force in Sri Lanka has been well accepted and a much needed source of foreign revenue for the country but in 2013 the government issued circulars imposing restrictions on women with children migrating for work, such as a compulsory ‘family background report’, institutionalizing the patriarchal view that a woman’s or a mother’s primary responsibility is the welfare of her children with no division of that care labour with the father, other family members, or wider community. And then you also come across mind boggling examples of state commitment towards mothers such as the recently launched dress code for pregnant teachers by the Ministry of Education.
So how is it that a country that claims to place motherhood on the highest possible mantle, often at the cost of rights, mobility, health, and income of the very women they are trying to protect, remains unable to deliver reproductive justice to mothers (and parents) all over the country whose children have died or disappeared in the war, various pogroms, and the post-war period of Sri Lanka?
Reproductive justice is a framework that “analyzes how the ability of any woman to determine her own reproductive destiny is linked directly to the conditions in her community and these conditions are not just a matter of individual choice and access”. Reproductive justice is about women exercising their right to bodily autonomy and making decisions on whether or not to have children, how many children to have, etc. but also the right to be able to parent those children in safe and sustainable communities without the fear that your children will be subject to violence and hurt, or killed. Freedom from violence is reproductive justice.
For decades, mothers in all parts of Sri Lanka have been denied reproductive justice and some more than others. What were the Mothers’ Fronts of the North and the South calling for? They were calling for reproductive justice in the form of safe return of their children, and safe communities for their children through self-determination and peace. What were mothers hoping for as their children stepped out of home to go to school, work or anywhere else during the height of the war? For their children to come back home safely without getting caught in a bomb blast, being detained at a checkpoint or being abducted. Reproductive justice. What are the Tamil Mothers of the Disappeared calling for today? In essence, reproductive justice.
The major difference of Motherhood as a space of protest then and now is that the state and a majority of the country, especially the majority Sinhalese and the majority ethno-religious group of Sinhala Buddhists, have bought into and are promoting the current narrative of post-war reconciliation and peace, and have moved on. Especially in the South there is less or no fear of your children being in danger (not quite the case if you belong to a minority group) as there was during the war and intersecting privileges of ethnicity, religion, locality, class, etc. have given way to a deep apathy about the fate of those who remain forcibly disappeared and the concerns and demands of their families. Apathy even as bodies are being unearthed this very moment in areas where thousands of people disappeared while in the custody of security forces and journalists are being issued court orders to stay away from the site of investigation.
There is no reproductive justice when the President promised the mothers and families over a year ago that the government will release the lists of those who had surrendered or were detained by the armed forces during the last phase of the war and then doesn’t keep his promise. There is no reproductive justice when at least seven women protesting have died in the course of the 500+ days and there are others showing deteriorating conditions. There is no reproductive justice when a woman representing families of the disappeared who shared their plight at the Human Rights Council is harassed and attacked on multiple occasions for it, including by the Criminal Investigation Department. There is no reproductive justice when the latest commission appointed to investigate disappearances (tenth such commission and a three-year delay in being set up) includes a former army general, producing little public trust in the process and in a system that has already failed them multiple times.
It is imperative that the Sri Lankan state, the present government and the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) act swiftly, transparently and with accountability to ensure that the demands of the families are finally met[ii]. It is also imperative that all Sri Lankans rally behind the struggle of the families and mothers of the disappeared and insist that adequate measures be taken to fulfil Sri Lanka’s transitional justice commitments and ensure reproductive justice for them.
Sri Lanka can no longer continue to boast about how much we care about mothers and their wellbeing for as long as there are mothers suffering physically and mentally on the roadside and outside government offices looking for answers, some of them paying for it with their lives. We will continue to challenge the Sri Lankan state’s patriarchal attitude toward motherhood, but we will also subvert the same rhetoric, policies and achievements on motherhood until there is reproductive justice for all mothers, and all women, in the country.
Disappearances in Sri Lanka: 500 Days of Protests | Sunday Observer
Memo to Sri Lanka Office of Missing Persons (OMP) By Tamil Mothers of Disappeared About Why They Lack Confidence In OMP | Tamil Mothers of the Disappeared
Community Memorialization Project | memorymap.lk
Release the List | Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice
[i] de Alwis, M. (2008). Motherhood as a space of protest: women’s political participation in contemporary sri lanka. In P. Banerjee (Ed.), South Asian Peace Studies: Women in peace politics (Vol. 3, pp. 152-174). New Delhi: SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd doi: 10.4135/9788178299686.n10
- Release a list of all those who surrendered or were detained by the Armed Forces during and post-war. In particular, those who surrendered during the last stages of the war.
- Release a list of all secret detentions centres run by the Armed Forces and Police during and post-war, their current status, and an annual list of detainees held in such centres (during and post-war).
- Release a list of all detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act/Emergency Regulations or unlawfully in any legal detention centre. Release a list of detainees held in legal detention centres/remand prisons/prisons annually from 1983 onwards.
- Release these lists to a representative group of families of the disappeared, their lawyers, and any representatives they authorise.
- Publicly release all reports of committees/commissions on disappearances appointed by governments over the past 30 years, and the government’s responses to those reports.
Image credit: Vindhya Buthpitiya