Sri Lanka: using arts and poetry to confront the legacy of conflict for minority women

By Nicole Girard

MRG became involved with Tamils in Sri Lanka with our first report in the 1970s, with regular updates thereafter. By the time Neelan Tiruchelvam joined MRG’s International Council in 1994, MRG was establishing a South Asia regional programme involving him and Radhika Coomeraswami, who were joint Directors of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Colombo. Both were distinguished lawyers, with Neelan Tiruchelvam being a Tamil parliamentarian. In Nepal, March 1999, he was elected Chair of MRG’s Council but was assassinated just three months later because of his strong stand for minority rights and for proposing a peaceful resolution of the Sri Lankan conflict. His life and work for peace was celebrated in a statement by the UN Secretary General. He was succeeded on the Council by Radhika Coomeraswami, who was a strong advocate of women’s rights and children’s rights; she later served as the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, drawing on her personal experience of conflict and wars.

In Sri Lanka as elsewhere, women’s experience of war is different from that of men: their gendered roles and responsibilities affect the way they endure and recover from conflict. For Tamil women, the conflict and its aftermath posed specific threats of economic insecurity and sexual violence, many suffering the impact of losing male family members to unsolved disappearances. Understanding this gendered impact of war was key to MRG’s arts intervention with Tamil women in Sri Lanka, exploring concepts of hope and reconciliation, to lay the groundwork for future justice and redress.

Although the protracted conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) officially ended in 2009, 20,000 persons are still considered missing. Women have been at the forefront in demanding answers regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones, endlessly putting pressure on authorities and the various commissions that have been established to address these and other post-conflict justice and reconciliation issues. And yet, women’s experience of war and the plight of their loved ones have been side-lined throughout. While hundreds of Tamil women had testified at the government-mandated Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission between 2010 and 2011, women’s stories were consistently interrupted and brushed over by commissioners.

In 2013 MRG, in partnership with the local Women’s Action Network (WAN), decided to take an alternative approach – using arts and poetry to give women a space to explore their experiences of war and loss. This was something that, until then, they had been unable to access, either through formal justice mechanisms or other healing initiatives. ‘I have participated in several workshops and programmes regarding peace-building and livelihood improvement,’ one programme participant recalled:

They all called and forced [us] sometime to forget the past and walk ahead. It [the MRG project] is the only programme [that] called us to memorize and to accept the past. We had the chance to share the real pain and get free a bit.

The format of the programme involved four hours allocated to art and another three for poetry exercises. Despite having little experience with either art or poetry, the women were guided first through group-oriented exercises and then moved on to individual expression. Participants were asked to draw what reconciliation means to them and then were given the chance to explain their drawings and how they felt during the process. ‘I did not use my favourite colour green in this picture,’ a 24-year-old Christian Tamil woman explained, ‘because our situation is not green now. It is so very challenging. In 2008, my brother was kidnapped by some unknown people who came in a white van. We still have hopes that my brother is alive.’

MRG’s Deputy Director Claire Thomas afterwards reflected that participants rarely had the chance to really engage in artistic expression, and its nurturance ‘had made for a more meaningful and personal exploration of reconciliation than would have been the case through a more traditional discussion format’. Thousands of Tamil women have a similar story and yet they are still not being heard by authorities. Despite this, some women at the workshop continued to have hope in the future and the potential that ‘reconciliation’ might bring. As captured in one woman’s poem:

Love is reconciliation
Relationship is reconciliation
Reconciliation is like a flower with fragrance
Pleading you, reconciliation, come to us
We have an eye on you…
We have dreams…
Don’t pass as a dream… come alive…