Statement on Women’s Day 09 March 2009

Statement on Women’s Day March 8, 2009:

As the world is celebrating international women’s day 2009 on the theme “Women and men united to end violence against women and girls”, we the undersigned civil society organisations from Sri Lanka wish to highlight and express our deep concern at the increasing vulnerability of women, especially those living in the conflict affected areas to violence and brutality in the context of the ongoing conflict between the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and increasing militarization and societal violence in Sri Lanka.

This year’s women’s day is commemorated when there are serious concerns about the human rights and humanitarian situation in the North of the country, where intensified hostilities by both the government forces and the LTTE are causing death, displacement and injury of civilians and humanitarian actors. Among the casualties are an increasing number of women and children. Of more than 1,100 persons who have been evacuated from the Vanni to the Trincomalee Hospital by the ICRC in the last few weeks, 661 patients were women including 256 serious cases. There are also a growing number of pregnant women who have been evacuated or who had fled the Vanni, giving birth in Vavuniya and Trincomalee hospitals. Information released by the Regional Director for Health Services in Mullativu in March indicates that starvation and under nourishments due to lack of food is a growing concern in the Vanni particularly affecting women and children. The civilian population is trapped within the Vanni as the LTTE is not allowing the civilians flee and is even shooting at civilians attempting to escape, even nuns.

Women are a significant proportion of those who have been displaced in the recent phase of the conflict and who are living in poor overcrowded conditions in camps in Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna. Women are particularly affected by the lack of privacy and lack of adequate spaces to bathe and change. The screening and separation of those entering government controlled areas from the Vanni is a grave concern which needs urgent attention. Many women who were evacuated by the ICRC to hospitals report that they have no idea about the whereabouts of their family members, including their children. We also highlight the urgent need to address the psychosocial needs of those fleeing the Vanni, many who have directly witnessed and experienced violence and the loss of their loved ones.

Another spectre that haunts periods of heightened conflict in Sri Lanka is violence against women including sexual harassment, abuse, rape, torture and even murder of women by armed actors in the North and the East. Most of these go unreported, uninvestigated and unpunished with a few exceptions. Over the last few months there have been a number of individual cases reported from the East, of women and girls being raped. Most recently, on Sunday March 1st, a 14 year old girl from a village in Vellaveli, Batticaloa was sexually abused and has been admitted to hospital, where her complaint of sexual abuse has been confirmed. Following an identity parade on this case a police officer has been identified and remanded. On March 4, a woman from a Women’s Development Society in Batticaloa was murdered and her body thrown into a well. We appeal that the due process of law is followed in these cases and the perpetrators brought to justice. The case of Krishanthy Kumaraswamy, as far back as 1996, remains the single instance where the state showed unprecedented political will to prosecute the perpetrators of that heinous crime.

The present fear of reporting and possible reprisals in reporting has spread a blanket of silence among the victims and affected communities. We wish to highlight that continuing violations and violence against women by armed actors has been made possible by a climate of impunity and the breakdown in the rule of law; by the threat of further violence against complainants and witnesses. While the Government refers to various initiatives it has taken to address the numerous human rights violations in the past, these are yet to yield any substantial results and there has been no political will or commitment to deal with past crimes against women. As the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, also pointed out during her visit to Sri Lanka in October 2007, “in the absence of more vigorous investigations, prosecutions and convictions, it is hard to see how this will come to an end”.

Violence, intimidation and harassment of women has also been made possible due to continuing lack of implementation of Presidential Directives of 07 July 2006, (re-circulated by Secretary, Ministry of Defence on 12 April 2007) issued to Service Commanders and the IGP which lay down rules and procedure to be followed in search, arrests and detentions, as well as treatment of women and girls during such search, arrest and detentions.

On this women’s day 2009, we therefore appeal to the government, LTTE and all other key actors to:

• Set up a mechanism in the North and East mechanism led by women, where victims of violence can in safety and security make complaints without the threat of further violence;

• Ensure that these complaints are independently investigated in a gender sensitive manner and that perpetrators brought to justice;

• Fully implement presidential directives with regard to search, arrests and detentions, as well as treatment of women and girls during such search, arrest and detentions;.

• Ensure screening of those fleeing the Vanni is continuously observed by the ICRC who are provided access to all detention centers and those detained;

• Ensure camps and hospitals in the North and East are prepared for the influx of displaced and injured civilians and have separate facilities for women;

• Make it compulsory that all camp committees will have at least one women member; • Ensure that all mechanisms established by the government in relation to the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the Vanni, should have women in decision making positions;

• Ensure that agencies assisting the displaced and injured are provided information and access to camps, including information of women who are injured and needing special care, pregnant women, women separated from their families, women who have lost loved ones;

• Act in a transparent manner in relation to humanitarian and human rights concerns in order to win the confidence of civil society organisations and the international community who are raising legitimate concerns about these issues, and

• Protect all civilian life and take measures to guarantee the security of all civilians.

Signed: Civil Society Organisations against Violence against Women

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