Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects
Last week, I interviewed Dr. Nimmi Gowrinathan on her work with women in Sri Lanka. For over 7 years, Dr. Gowrinathan served as the Director for South Asia Programs at Operation USA, where she oversaw disaster relief programs. She has also conducted academic research on the impact of militarization, displacement and race in Sri Lanka and worked with human rights NGOs to interview and document the testimonies of women there. More recently, she did an analysis of women applying for asylum to the UK who were victims of sexual torture and sexual violence.
Sri Lanka recently emerged from a 25 year armed conflict that ended in 2009. The Tamil-speaking population, which predominantly lives in the North and the East of the country, were among the worst affected by the war and yet access to legal aid in some of these areas appears non-existent. Can you talk about what some of the main legal issues are that Tamil women are facing?
One of the biggest most practical issues is documentation. A lot of people [during the war] lost birth certificates, death certificates, and marriage certificates. When it came to reclaiming land, or looking for someone who is missing, or even proving they had a family member in the hospital, that became very difficult for women in particular to prove, without access to those documents.
There are other concerns like children who were married in these early marriages towards the end of the war to prevent recruitment. There’s no documentation from that. Whether these children are still married, or it was not official – that’s very ambiguous and it puts younger women in a difficult position, particularly when you’re talking about dowry and land rights.
Barriers to Women Reporting Sexual Violence & Human Rights Violations
There are a number of barriers to people reporting. One is the language barrier. The documentation and even the reporting about intimidation or harassment is getting misrepresented or the numbers are underestimated because people are not able to report them in Tamil because the documentation happens in places like the police stations in Jaffna which [speak] Sinhalese.
Two is the fear of redress by the military. Let’s say it was a violation committed by the military, people are afraid to report it, especially things like rape and sexual assault, for fear the military will then come after them. If it is actually reported, there’s very little faith that anything will come from that. I have certainly not seen that many cases that have been followed through, outside of the very high profile ones that are used to show they’re doing something about the situation. Most of the cases, I think I worked with, were with women who were with the church or under the protection of the church. In that situation, the church sort of acted as legal advisors on their behalf. They’re not trained lawyers or anything, but would negotiate on their behalf and that seemed to have somewhat more success than the other cases that were individually represented.
Do you see a role for religious institutions in providing legal aid if legal aid clinics or other avenues aren’t available?
Post-war a number of the sensitive populations have been under the care of the church and I think on the whole they’ve done a very good job to meet the needs of the population that they sort of had to deal with [all at once] – the medical needs, food needs, family reconnection and all of that. At the moment that is one of the most useful places for legal aid to operate through. It may be one of the only viable arenas to provide legal aid, though I know there are active civil society groups that are trying to do legal aid on a smaller scale all across the northeast. But particularly for sensitive populations, I think the church would be a good space to provide that.
Why do you think churches have been more successful than others?
The church has occupied a space of relative respect and has institutional strength. Particularly in individual cases, if an individual woman would go talk to the military about a rape, or a baby born by rape, she wouldn’t have very much success. But those are the kinds of things a church could negotiate on her behalf and not be seen as a political threat or something antagonistic to the current administration. It’s not always successful but it does have a better chance of negotiating on behalf of a civilian.
When implementing successful legal aid projects to strengthen access to justice, one of the most critical components of it is to understand the local culture. What aspects of the local Tamil culture do you think needs to be understood or has been poorly understood thus far?
From my experiences, getting women to report a crime, particularly severe crimes of rape or sexual assault, it’s obviously very difficult for any woman, and in this particular Tamil culture, if she reports this, it not only places her outside her own family sometimes but also outside of her community. [She’s] stigmatized and then becomes a target for military who may be watching and don’t want her to tell the story. So on the one hand, the reporting of the incident itself is difficult, and on the other hand, as an outside intervener, you want to be able to promise her some outcome of doing this, some legal process that would allow her some sense of justice or allow the perpetrator to be dealt with and have him or her penalized but you can’t make that promise in the current context. At times, it feels like you’re pushing these women to report this and putting them in a very precarious situation, knowing full well the current system isn’t going to allow her any sense of immediate justice and it’s likely the dangers of reporting it is far higher than the rewards for seeking justice.
What kinds of international assistance could help strengthen access to justice?
[They] can support legal aid initiatives and organizational capacity in the northeast. And from a knowledge-transfer or expertise point of view, if there are organizations that are able to offer advice on how to access justice in a context which is highly militarized, where it is dangerous, or where sensitive information is being transmitted – that would be useful. I’m sure there are lessons learned in other cases that would be very helpful for groups [working on legal aid] in the northeast.
What tools would be useful for women to better understand their options in seeking access to justice?
This is partially being done by some organizations there, but there needs to be a better way of relaying information. Awareness and education for these women about what the current legal system offers them, what the challenges are, what the barriers are, how to access legal support, what the current codes and laws are in their particular village and district, etc. By doing that, it allows women to understand the aspects of the existing system they would need to challenge to achieve any sort of real justice.