Stina Eriksson currently works for UNDP Sri Lanka, monitoring and evaluating peacebuilding projects. She and her colleagues work to implement resolution 1325 in the Sri Lankan peace process. Read her story about her work to support women peacebuilders.
The room is small and already overly crowded. Organisers run in and out through the back door in search of more chairs, while women and a handful of men find a place to sit on the floor, the stairs or, like me, stand at the very back of the hot and sweaty venue hosting the evening’s panel discussion. To honour the memory of Sunila Abeysekera, one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent feminist activists, the Colombo-based Women and Media Collective has invited some of the friends that Sunila had made during her life-long fight against patriarchy. Accompanied by the constant whir of the ceiling fans, these friends from Sri Lanka, India, Peru and the United States tell their personal stories about the feminist wave of the 1960s and 1970s, why they became feminists and how feminism propelled them out into the world and united them.
I currently work for UNDP Sri Lanka, monitoring and evaluating peacebuilding projects. I attended that evening’s panel discussion to learn more about the feminist movement in the country, aiming to gain some input and valuable perspectives for a memorandum on gender mainstreaming I was drafting. Together with the rest of the audience in that overcrowded room, I listened enraptured, laughing at an anecdote about how Sunila took her young daughter with her to feminist meetings and discussions around the world. One evening the young girl sat hidden under the table, listening to the women’s intense discussions, when suddenly she cried out from her hiding place: “All you do is talk and talk! And why is nothing happening?”
Clearly, for a four-year-old there was too much discussion and not enough action. But the women who spoke to us that evening were in fact both dynamic and driven. They told us about the thousands of women who gathered in Nairobi in 1985 for the Third World Conference on Women, which laid the foundation for the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women that was adopted in 1993. Additional milestones followed, including the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and United Nations Security Council resolution 1325. I listened to their stories, captivated, moved and inspired by what women mobilising across national borders can achieve – an important reminder and comfort for the times when it feels like progress on gender equality has come to a standstill.
A month later I met Visaka Dharmadasa. We were seated at the same table at a workshop, when she began to speak about the Association of War Affected Women, the organisation she founded after her son went missing during the war. Visaka is just one of thousands of women still wondering what happened to their loved ones who were forcibly recruited or kidnapped, or went missing in action. Visaka’s organisation supports women in their search for husbands, sons and daughters, and also actively pushes for women’s participation in the country’s peace process.
Visaka described how several years ago she had received threats because of her work, and it struck me once again how much women have suffered, struggled and sacrificed to gain a place at the decision-making table. Even for Sunila and her comrades, it was their own and other women’s suffering that mobilised them to bring about change. It is these women – the strong and assertive, as well as the ones who are silenced – to whom my colleagues at the UN and I are ultimately accountable as we work to implement resolution 1325 in the Sri Lankan peace process.
Written by Stina Eriksson