“Women have borne the burden of the war, they have fought throughout their lives, and they have held the social fabric together. They must have a say in designing the new future for Sri Lanka.”
Nimalka Fernando is a lawyer and social activist. She is the president of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) and the Women’s Forum for Peace in Sri Lanka. Nimalka is also an active member of Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, a diverse coalition of women’s organizations in the country. They have launched many campaigns against political violence and violence against women. Most recently, they are working towards increasing political representation of women to bring the voice of women and the idea of gender equality into the public realm.
Can you describe the work you do in Sri Lanka?
I have been working on peace in Sri Lanka for the past 30 years. Although the conflict is presented as mainly political, we as women try to shine light on the human rights violations. The work in women’s rights and peace building relies on facilitating interactions and conversations between the main communities in conflict, the Tamil and the Sinhalese.
What has been the biggest challenge in your work?
As part of the majority community, peace work is very much an issue of being accepted by the minority, and getting them to trust you as we all work towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
So how do we build trust? That is the biggest question. The war left in the minds of Tamil community a sense of defeat, while the mindset in the south was one of victory. The Tamil hearts and minds have been crushed by the war, while the Sinhalese majority has celebrated it as a victory. So to talk about reconciliation from that state of affairs is very difficult; we need to overcome the entire culture of heroism around war. There has yet to be an apology from the state for the devastation caused by the war and no political leader has admitted that we need to address the devastation in a human manner. For most of the political leaders, it’s a political game—but when you meet people at the ground level, it is a genuine grief. So how do you bring that grief into a political space, and how do you take the political resolution to a grieving mother?
What do you consider to be the most effective strategy in peace-building?
To achieve peace, at the political level, it’s about facilitating power sharing with the Tamil community. At the personal level, it’s about building trust among women. We do this by bringing Tamil women to the south, and Singhalese women who have not experienced the extremes of the war to the north.
What can the people in Sri Lanka do?
Within Sri Lanka, people need to overcome the fear of the other. We need to combat all elements of religious extremism, ethnic extremism, and national chauvinism.
I’m currently focused on addressing the Sinhalese women and raising political awareness in our majority community so that when we come to a political referendum in Sri Lanka, we are not defeated. The Sinhalese majority have to take the message of peace and the hard reality to our own community so that the Tamil people know that we are with them.
What would you like to see from the international community?
I’ve received a lot of solidarity when my life was at risk for my advocacy in the last 10 years from women’s groups and human rights groups. We have survived with this kind of solidarity. It’s this solidarity all over the world that will build a culture of peace.
The international community also needs to understand that peace and stability in one part of the world directly affects peace everywhere. Without demilitarization and disarmament, we will only continue to mend the wounds of violence.
Read more about Mothers and Daughters of Lanka here.