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A voice for Sri Lanka's war widows

08-03-2005 Feature

Although Sri Lanka is recovering from over two decades of civil war, the suffering continues for thousands of families, many of them headed by women. The ICRC's Marçal Izard sent this report.



The families cannot forget the loss of one or several loved ones, many of whom disappeared under circumstances that have yet to be clarified. Tens of thousands of civilians and servicemen went missing during the island's conflicts in the south in the late1980s and in the north and east during the1990s.

The horrors of war did not directly affect Manouri Muttetuwegama. However, in her capacity as a respected lawyer and human rights activist, she was appointed to chair several Presidential Commissions on the Disappearance of Persons during the 1990s and has also been a member of the Human Rights Commission.

She and the other members of the various commissions dealt with about 18,000 disappearances. Most of the people who spoke to her about the loss of a family member were women. “War is very much a men’s thing”, says Manouri, adding that women are often overlooked, not only as victims with special needs for protection and assistance, but also as possible contributors to peaceful solutions.

Manouri recalls testimonies of women who lost everything during the violence – father, husband, sons, their house and all their belongings.

“Widows were marginalised by their communities, orphaned girls were deprived of basic education, and thousands of female-headed families st ruggling to survive are still waiting to be counted in official statistics so that they can receive aid”, she says.

During her work on the Disappearance Commissions, Manouri encountered dozens of women whose only treasure was a Red Cross Message, sent by a husband, father, brother or son detained in relation to the conflict.

“They would pull out this paper, often dirty and crumbled, from a pocket close to the breast, a letter that allowed them to carry on despite their traumatic experience”, she explains.

Manouri’s family has a history of lawyers that continues today. Her father struggled against British colonial rule and was the author of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial Constitution. Her daughter Ramani, who studied law in England like her mother, is a well-known women's rights activist.

In the 1960s Manouri herself was one of the very first Sri Lankan women to become a criminal lawyer, working more than 12 hours a day in overcrowded prison cells. She became the President of the Women Lawyers'Association and worked towards strengthening women's rights because, as she says, women's rights are human rights.

When the President of Sri Lanka appointed her to chair a first Disappearance Commission in 1994, Manouri grasped the opportunity to shed light on a dark chapter of her country’s recent history and to give a voice to thousands of women rendered powerless in the wake of war.

Throughout her work Manouri has been left “with enormous respect for the women of our country”, as she witnessed hundreds of widows who had turned themselves into breadwinners to sustain their families.

She also helped women take their cases to court. The mother of a journalist kidnapped in 1990, for example, whose body was returned to her by the tides. 15 years later, the court has finally opened the case – an important sym bolic step for many other women, and, for Manouri, good news for her country's efforts to heal the wounds of the past.