Less than a decade ago, Sri Lanka’s lush landscape was the backdrop for a bloody civil war. Today, women are at the forefront of reconciling change.
The sun sets early in Sri Lanka.
Sticky days melted under honied hues of pink and gold, leaving sweat dripping across our foreheads on a rickety seven-hour train ride from Colombo to Jaffna. Tall green palm trees lined stretches of rain forest, field, beach, and bustling street. It was in this haze of a dream-like paradise, this almost impossible postcard polish, that our senses were pulled from honeymoon to hurried. The natural beauty stood as a screen over a country fresh out of decades of a brutal and bloody civil war.
The conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority left 100,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced. The deeper you travel into the north, the more devastation begins to echo the crumbling buildings in messy parallels.
We were taken to Pungudutivu to meet a group of women ranging from their early twenties to mid- seventies, all standing barefoot around a flurry of dyed dry leaves, cutting tools, and handmade baskets that they proudly handed to us as we entered. Shoulder to shoulder, giggling, shy, and embarrassed to introduce themselves, they slowly began to tell us about their lives.
When asked how the war had affected them, most responded unflinchingly. They told us the tragic stories of kidnapped husbands, murdered children, and walks to school so dangerous that education was no longer a viable option. Through the help of the Centre for Peace Building and Reconciliation (CPBR), these women,
who had lost their homes, their livelihoods, and their relatives, now stood united, crafting baskets to sell to hotels and, in turn, slowly recrafting their lives from before the war. As we listened, the harsh emotional reality of their strength emerged.
What was abundantly clear was that these women were not waiting nor asking to be saved—they were willing, working, and ready to find ways in which they could rebuild their lives, as well as build relationships among divided communities. The nonprofit Peace Direct, in partnership with Away, aids in exactly that, supporting the CPBR and working closely with groups that have been affected by conflict—promoting interfaith coexistence and combatting religious prejudice among Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians.
The next morning we woke on the International Day of Peace, an opportunity to reconnect with the women we had met the day before and to see in action one of Peace Direct and the CPBR’s most successful strategies within Sri Lanka. Women and men from surrounding villages, practicing three different religions and speaking two different languages, gathered to take part in an open dialogue centered around a photography exhibition. The photos were taken by teenagers with an assignment to depict their current world. What did it make them feel? What did other areas a short distance away look like in contrast or comparison? What could they all collectively do to make change?
Within our western society, where we snap every meal and every outfit, we take for granted how a single photograph can be so evocative and inspire change. But the pictures of everyday life in Sri Lanka—babies bottle-feeding themselves, children huddled around makeshift desks—spoke of an unimaginable reality to us visitors, and a banner of solidarity and hope among the locals. One woman raised her hand as we all sat in a circle after viewing the pictures. “I see that we can make things work with little. I see that we can do this ourselves.” Fifty heads nodded in agreement.
The heavy heat that the wall fans struggled to circulate smacked at us relentlessly and called for a break—a feast of curries to be eaten by hand and cartons of banana milkshake were distributed. Schoolgirls in their perfect plaits and pristine white uniforms chased us and hid behind our long skirts. Peace, for a moment, seemed so attainable.
The day finished off in action groups, giving all of us a chance to translate the bigger feelings into smaller, more manageable conversations. I stepped out of the circle to talk to a girl with whom I had been exchanging fleeting smiles for most of the session—I thought she looked my age, and I was right. Rilzana, 22, spoke of the struggles her family had been through, and the post-conflict process. I asked her what I had asked every woman who I had met there: “What are your hopes for the future?” and she burst into the same familiar laughter I would eject if someone had asked me that question. “I don’t know!” she protested, grinning and covering her face with uncomfortable hands. “It could be anything, big or small,” I assured her.
She sat on her palms and closed her eyes, thinking deeply, until finally she smiled and replied: “To be a good woman.”
Already, she was supporting her family, opening herself to constructive dialogue, participating in activities to understand the plight of her neighbors. By simply being here, she didn’t need to wish too far into the future. Rilzana, just like all the other strong-willed, brave, and determined females who surrounded her, was already a good woman and so much more. Together, they were the future of peace in Sri Lanka.