Nalini Ratnarajah is a human rights activist and a feminist, who has dedicated decades of her life, advocating for gender equality, justice, and peace. In this interview, Nalini talks about her challenging journey as an activist and human rights defender. She discusses women’s participation in politics, her own experiences in contesting parliamentary elections, the need of contextualising transitional justice processes, and issues relating to female ex-combatants in the East.
You have worked for years on improving the political participation of women in Sri Lanka, resettlement, displacement, human rights, and women’s rights. You are a feminist and a human rights activist. Where did this journey begin for you?
I think it was when I was thirteen. This was when the insurgency started in Batticaloa. I was studying in Batticaloa at the time. Somewhere between 1985-87, a student from our brother school was arrested. It was new to all of us. They were arresting older people but it was a first to arrest a school student. All the schools in Batticaloa decided to protest. There was a demonstration to submit a petition to release him. I was very much into that. It was held during school hours. It was a big rally with the participation of all schools in Batticaloa. We were attacked with open fire and tear gas. There was a big pandemonium in the Batticaloa town. When they threw the tear gas at us, we didn’t know how to react. When I look back, this was a turning point in my life.
Today, I would proudly say that I was one of the few Tamil women to have worked with Colombo-based human rights groups and social justice groups. I have been continuously working with them.
On the other hand, both my parents are always intervening to bring justice to others. They did it in a small way in my village, Kallady, in Batticaloa. My mother was more into activism. She always stood up for the justice of others. My father is also someone who cares deeply for the environment and society. I grew up seeing this. Activism is something you can not train and make a person into. It should come within yourself. I am deeply committed to working on issues of women empowerment, minority rights, social development, peace building, and post war recovery. When I look back, I can see that I had begun this when I was very young. It is in my blood.
I began my social activism by involving in the work of post tsunami recovery activities in the Batticaloa district, immediately after the tsunami disaster in December 2004. While I was involved in mobilising affected communities and providing psycho-social support, my involvement spread into other areas, including women’s rights, women’s political participation, human rights, disappeared persons, inter-ethnic relations, victims of war, post war reconstruction, and reconciliation.
In 1983, when the pogrom started and the war was instigated, did that shape your activism in a particular way?
Yes, definitely. During the war, I have witnessed all the armed groups in Batticaloa. I knew about the basic problem of why these groups took arms to fight. The discrimination that they faced was very clear. But I could also see how undemocratic these groups were. Around 1987-88, after doing my A/Levels, I came to Colombo. I used to go home and raise my voice against certain issues. My mother got very scared that they would shoot me or kill me. I said that they can shoot me and they can kill me but they cannot kill my ideas. I was speaking against them because I saw how undemocratic they were.
We could not talk, we did not have the freedom of expression, and we could not question them. I agree with their cause but not with their method. Intellectuals were killed. Human rights activists were killed. The state was also responsible for killings and disappearances. I stand for human rights, justice, democracy, and good governance. Whoever that does any wrong is wrong to me. The armed groups may have come together for a good cause but they should have protected us. They should have had a two-way communication with us. For me, the state and the armed groups were the same.
This really shaped and moulded me because I had to stand up for the families of disappeared persons. Regardless of whether they were Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim, when women cry about their loved ones, it really affected me. I started to investigate and study why this was happening. Then I realised that war is designed by men, waged by men, and written by men where the women are made to suffer. Women need to look after their children, fight for their livelihoods, and their income. There are no women in the decision-making level, making policy or legislation, implementing policies, implementing the law. The patriarchal culture is embedded everywhere. I could see that the war equally affected all women. That was a turning point for me to think that women had to come to the legislation body and policymaking levels.
Is that why you contested for the parliamentary elections in 2010?
Yes. In 2007, nobody came forward to contest the elections in Batticaloa. Both parties approached me because they didn’t have anybody. The war was still going on then and it was a dangerous time. I didn’t make a quick decision at that time because it was life-threatening. But in 2010, when the war was over and when I was very much ready and prepared, I asked these parties to contest. They didn’t come behind me. But they came behind me in 2007 during the critical, dangerous, and violent situation.
One party who promised me nominations at the last minute said that it was too challenging for me. The party leader said that he was concerned about me and didn’t want to put me in trouble. They were using all these cosmetic words. So, all parties forgot me when I was ready to contest.
Then I had to contest in the independent group because I didn’t want to keep my feet back. So, I contested with Muslims and Tamils, saying that the two should unite. I also wanted to create awareness about women’s participation in politics. Actually, I didn’t expect to win. But I made a change. It opened the minds of a lot of women to think that women should contest and enter politics.
When I was campaigning many people scolded me, saying that if I was with a certain political party they would have voted for me. I said why don’t you ask the party to give me nomination.
2007 was a very threatening period. At that time, they wanted to put the women in front of politics but when things got better they pushed us behind. Thirty years of war, all the armed groups had women in their frontlines. It can be suicide bombers, sea tigers, but when women entered politics they were not brought to the front. Now these parties are telling there are no women entering politics and women are not ready. Then I ask them, when you asked women to fight and die they came. How can you say that they are not coming to do politics? This is a contradiction. Because we know that with entering politics comes a lot of perks, facilities, recognition, and influence. So, they don’t want to bring the women.
There are many male politicians who have come from armed groups. Where are the women who were in these groups? The Northern provincial council say women are not coming to politics. Then I say, women came to fight and die during the war. It is only that you are not ready to include them in politics.
The quota system is good because they have to nominate, and that is a must. Without this nomination, the election commissioner will not accept their party to contest in the election. The provincial council election in Batticaloa is going to take place but I am not sure about the local government election. Even though the bill is passed, to have a 25 percent quota, it is our democratic right that there be held an election soon without postponement.
The local government is very important and women should be involved. It is all about their own village, their own town. Women have more needs. The way they look at things are different. They have a better focus on children and family. So, women should definitely come to local government bodies to decide where the money should go, how the money should be used, and what are their needs. Men don’t understand what the war-affected women are going through, culturally, structurally, economically, and socially.
How important is to look at this interconnected nature of economic, cultural, and social rights in political discourses and how can women’s participation in politics help include these rights into policies?
Civil and political rights are important. But for a woman who is starving, who doesn’t have a proper job, lost the husband, son or father in the war, and has to carry the whole burden of being a breadwinner – how will she think about rights when her children are starving? Or if they don’t have proper schooling? So, economic, social, and cultural rights are very important.
Our next generation is also at a dangerous position. Children need counselling because there are children who saw their mother being torn into pieces. They are having this trauma in their mind and we don’t know what’s going to happen. These male politicians talk only about civil and political rights. So, women should come to local government and provincial councils. Without women, we cannot enjoy true democracy or true good governance.
Everyone should understand the significance of women in politics. Bringing women into politics is going to enhance and enrich our country as a whole. It is going to ensure that peace is sustained in the country. When women come forward, we can enjoy true peace. The Sinhala woman will understand the Tamil woman’s agony. The Tamil woman will understand the Muslim woman’s agony and vise versa. They all faced the wounds of the war, equally.
It is nearly a decade since the end of the war in 2009. As someone who is working with communities in North and East, what are some of the key issues that we need to address immediately in post war Sri Lanka?
When you take Sri Lanka, it is now almost 10 years after the war. The transitional justice process is very slow. Transitional justice is a very important thing. My concern is that in 1971 we had an insurgency once. We lost many people, and many disappeared and were killed. There is no justice for them yet. No body talks of transitional justice in relation to that time. Again, in the 1980s, a lot of Sinhala people disappeared, were abducted, and killed during the second insurgency. During that time also no one talked about transitional justice. This time we must ensure that we don’t miss this opportunity. We must punish the perpetrators and give reparation to the affected people. We must make sure that it doesn’t happen again by initiating constitutional reforms. If we miss this opportunity of transitional justice, our children are going to suffer again.
Women’s participation in the transitional justice processes is also very low. There are many issues at the ground level. The main problem is livelihoods. Because of the patriarchal structure women in these areas had a breadwinner in their families, even educated women. They were not trained to make decisions at the family level. Poverty is increasing. They immediately need livelihoods, housing, proper infrastructure, and counselling. Resettlement issues need to be addressed properly.
Screening short documentaries on the daily struggles and stigma faced by female ex-combatants of the LTTE in the Eastern province, you spoke at a panel of the International Movement Against all forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR) on the challenges of transitional justice in Sri Lanka. Could you elaborate on some of the major issues concerning female ex-combatants in the East?
I have done two video documentaries in terms of female ex-combatants in Batticaloa. Especially those who were injured or disabled, they are in a very critical situation because their own community discriminates them for having fought for the LTTE. And men who married them and had children with them have also abandon their marriages. They don’t have proper livelihoods. Some of them won’t say they are ex-combatants due to security concerns. When you look at the statistics, they register themselves as disabled. They don’t openly say that they are ex-combatants. They are supposed to be proud women because somehow they fought for their community. They should be respected. The war is over and they are rehabilitated. These women can’t also go to Middle East because they are rejected at the medical for their injuries.
The ex-combatants in Batticaloa is a different category. This group is not in Vanni. When the Karuna faction was formed in 2004 a number of women in the East came back home. The female ex-combatant in Batticaloa were caught in the middle and was attacked by multiple parties, such as the military, the Vanni tigers, and Karuna’s group, because it looked like they did not belong to a certain category after they came home. This group is forgotten and I am advocating for some livelihood support for them.
When they joined the armed groups, they had not even done their O/Levels. When they came back from the war they were not capable of finding any employment. Another group found that the property of their parents had been given to other daughters in the family as dowry in marriage. The parents thought that their combatant daughters would not come back alive. When they came back they did not have anything to inherit. There are some female ex-combatants who are looking after their sick husbands and maintaining them. They have many medical expenses. Such women cannot go out for jobs, as they need to stay home to look after the sick. They need livelihoods that they can do from their homes. The single ex-combatants who were disabled are not getting any government housing because they are not married and don’t have families. It is necessary to assign lands close to the main roads for these disabled single women. You can’t assign lands in the hinter areas of Batticaloa because there are accessibility problems.
The patriarchal structure and system throughout the country is visible even in this case. Men who are ex-combatants are still married. The wife didn’t leave them. The women who were in the armed struggle are strong women. They ask questions. And in the home, men don’t like that. These women are very bold. They were leaders. They were trained like that. They will have that within themselves but the men don’t like this, when they are not combatants. Men want them to subordinate. So, no one wants to marry them.
The transitional justice process should go very deep and policies should change to look at these situations in context.
Watch the documentaries here:
Is it challenging to be a human rights activist?
Yes, definitely. First, it starts in the family. Women face problems at the home first. It is hard to be a woman human rights activist. The expectation on me is to be a mother. I have to cook, clean the house, look after children. So, this is the first challenge. The second thing is about the society. The society also looks up to me and judge my character, as a woman – how I am dressing, where I am going, with whom I am mingling, is she drinking, is she talking to that man. Even though I don’t like these demands, sometimes I cannot show my true face.
With being a feminist, the other challenge is dealing with this notion in the society that feminists won’t live with a man and that they break families. Yes, we cannot live with a man, if he is so much into the patriarchal system. Because we value democratic principles even at home.
Being a human rights activist also had a threat to my life. In particular, during the previous regime, every time when I went to a protest and came home, I had such a fear in my heart. If anything happened to me what would happen to my children? So, it was very challenging.
And people, too, they always want us to be on the road and protesting. This is the funniest part. Despite all the activism we do, if something happens, they question why I am quiet as a feminist or women’s rights activist. They question, where are these women’s organisations, where are these feminists? I say, no, you stop doing these things first – you tell the men to stop. You will continuously sexually harass and rape women and is it also the women’s responsibility to be on the road, protesting? No, just tell the perpetrators to stop. So, these are the real challenges.
If you could sum up some of the work and activism that you are doing now and you have been doing in the past?
I have been working as a women’s human rights defender, promoting and protecting women’s rights for over fifteen years. I am a researcher and resource person on gender equality, women’s rights, UN systems and mechanisms.
I am the Executive Director of Women’s Development Innovators. I am also actively involved as a regional steering committee member with the South Asian regional initiatives through Peoples’ SAARC, which was created by leading activists, professionals and scholars of the South Asian countries to promote South Asian peoples’ cooperation. At People’s SAARC, we promote common advocacy initiatives at the South Asian level to ensure just, accountable, and inclusive governance in the South Asian Countries. I am also a core committee member of South Asian Alliance for the Poverty Eradication (SAAPE), where I was a contributor for their recent poverty report. I am also a founding member of MEA – Sri Lanka (MenEngage Alliance). I am also a core committee member of the South Asian Feminist Alliance (SAFA) and a task force member of the South Asian Human Rights mechanism.
I am an advisory committee member of the Women’s Centre, Ja Ela. I am a stakeholder representative to back channel multi party dialog process, dedicated towards generating multiple options for an inclusive state building process. I have become a strong advocate of human rights and have extended my human rights advocacy activities to the UN level by participating in the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva since 2009.
For the past eight years, I have been part of the Women’s Political Academy where we have been training women in politics throughout the country.
Any final comments you would like to make?
We must ensure that the transitional justice process takes place continuously and meaningfully. Bring about constitutional reforms soon where everybody will be accepted. We must ensure that it doesn’t happen again in the history, such mass murder, disappearances, or abductions. I would like to see the country without racism and extremism. I hope you, me, my children, and the next generation will have an environment to live with each other peacefully whether we are Sinhala, Tamil, or Muslim, without facing any discrimination.
Access Nalini’s bio: Nalini Ratnarajah – Bio
Date of Interview: 6 October 2017
Interviewer and photos: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage