Women in Terror and Women in Peace (Part I)
“The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”
William Ross Wallace
For many Sri Lankans like me, this proverb is not merely metaphorical. It is very much a materiality as Sri Lankan history evinces evidence of women playing an instrumental role in different aspects of social life. There is evidence of female queens documented in the chronicles of ‘Mahavamsa’ and the significance of women in traditional social relationships. In recent times, especially with the conclusion of the atrocious thirty-year war which left scars of ethnic discrepancies and a grave cost of life, money, and material; the role of women in counter-terrorism and peacebuilding has been a debate that has attracted national and international speculation in the recent times.
In the contemporary international system, given the number of inter and intrastate conflicts that shadow our societies, the reality is that women are affected differently in comparison to their male counterparts. Women are often victimized and are prone to endure grave sufferings commemorated by conflict. This violence against women that perpetuates discrimination and innate inequality generally reflects the deep schisms within societies that degenerate communities, and ultimately push them into conflict. Thus, women are an important stakeholder group and are pivotal as non-state actors in the process of peace-building, especially in a post-reconciliatory nation such as Sri Lanka.
In this light, not only is this topic timely and sensitive from a global perspective, but I believe that Sri Lanka’s experience as a country emerging from 30 years of protracted conflict, underlines both the challenges and opportunities that States and civil society actors face in employing women in peacebuilding and reconciliation.
Terrorism and Women: Insights from the Thirty Year War
Referring to the Northern Separatist conflict, Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy noted five different ways that women were affected during the protracted conflict period in Sri Lanka: as victims of direct violence, they were raped, killed or maimed during the conflict; they also constituted a majority of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who often live in welfare centers. Many also emerged as war widows with specialized needs and concerns once the war came to an end. In addition, there are instances where women have resorted to sex work as a result of extreme poverty and other social conditions. Lastly, women have emerged as combatants, fighting for militaries and armed groups in frontline positions.
We witnessed this new trend of women in war firsthand, during the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE) movement. Not only did the LTTE form an all-female military unit comprising young women and girls, who joined willingly or by conscription; a particularly disturbing trend that it employed, was the use of women and girls as suicide bombers. Notably, many of these women joined the LTTE for different motivations and as Dr. Coomaraswamy emphasized, they were initially used as propagandists and service providers, then recruiters and fundraisers. In this regard, one should bear in mind that the recruitment of women into the fighting ranks signals the militarization of civil society which in its essence symbolizes the degenerating notions of civilization.