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Meaningful efforts towards reconciliation must involve all the different groups – Tamils and Sinhalese; Buddhists, Christians and Muslims; men and women – to be sustainable. MRG’s previous research had highlighted the absence of a platform for minority women to articulate their thoughts and concerns on the country’s future. To address this, a pioneering project was designed by MRG and a local partner organization, Women’s Action Network (WAN), with the aim of giving a voice to war affected women on the urgent issue of reconciliation.
As the needs of minority women are especially acute, it was essential to gather first-hand testimony from representatives of this group to gauge their impressions of the steps the country should take to ensure lasting peace. However, as many of them had been traumatized by the conflict, it was understandable that some respondents would find it difficult to articulate their views directly. The project was therefore designed, through art and poetry, to help war affected women explore their feelings in ways they might find more accessible than a standard interview format.
After designing the process, another partner took on the work of running the project. They appointed a woman consultant who selected six local organizers – one for each of the target districts – to identify diverse groups of war affected women who were willing to take part in the project. Originally, to allow the women to develop trust in the facilitators and to produce more complex and developed artistic pieces, it was hoped that each woman would attend a three-day workshop. However, as the security situation was tense and it was felt this might attract unwanted attention, the design was changed so that the women attended a one-day workshop but had a preparatory session with the local organizer at their house before the workshop to familiarize them with the format of the event in advance.
The workshops were held in October and November 2014 in the following districts: Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaittivu, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. The following table shows the number of participants per district and their ethnicity.
On the day of workshop, the program began with a song meditation and recollection of the participants’ past as well as present experiences. The facilitator discussed the concept of facilitation with them for around 30 minutes. Four hours of the day were allocated to a session on art and another three hours for poetry.
During the art sessions, the women participants were divided into five groups. Each group was given a scribbled white sheet to find figures in the scribbled lines and paint with oil pastels. This was a joint activity. Within an hour they actively participated and submitted their group work. This was mainly to build confidence among participants as most of them were middle-aged women with little or no prior experience of drawing. The facilitators emphasized that there was no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of drawing in the exercise: participants were encouraged to present their thoughts and ideas on paper any way they chose.
The facilitator next handed out narrow strips of white card and requested each participant to fill a square on the edge of the card with their favourite colour. They were then given paper for sketching and were asked to consider their views on reconciliation. The facilitator asked them to draw whatever images came to mind and then, once the sketches were completed, provided each participant with a white board and pastels to paint with their favourite colour pinned to the bottom right corner. The identification of their favourite colour was useful for the facilitator to understand their emotions and traumas: some of the participants did not use this colour in the drawing at all, suggesting that they were not at all happy with their present situation. Finally, when all participants had finished drawing they were given an opportunity to explain what they drew, why they drew it and how they felt during the process of drawing. The best drawings were selected for videoing.
During the poetry session, the facilitator began with a warm up exercise, working with the participants as one group to identify rhyming words that could be used at the end of each line. The objective of this exercise was again to build their confidence and help them express their experience clearly in poetic form. After this exercise, the facilitator went through three stages of poem writing: participants were first asked to write a poem on the reconciliation of their family, then of their village and finally of the country as a whole. At each stage the facilitator gave opportunities for the volunteers to read their poems and improve their writing through positive feedback. After the final round of composition, the participants were invited to recite their poems to the group or, if they were not willing, individually to the facilitator alone. A number of poems were selected and their authors were filmed reciting them.
In the precarious context of the former conflict areas where the workshops took place, there were a number of obstacles which affected the project:
This project was designed and implemented at a time when raising the issue of reconciliation, outside of the government’s narrative, was dangerous. In addition, it was extremely difficult to work in the former conflict areas due to the high level of surveillance and limited freedom of movement, expression and association. The involvement of an international organization, especially one working on human rights, was also problematic: events had to be deliberately timed when there was no international focus on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, such as during a UN Human Rights Council session, as military surveillance around those times typically increases.
The local partners faced a number of risks working with MRG and receiving foreign funding to implement the project. As there are only a few community-based organizations (CBOs) active on gender issues in the former conflict zone, the risk to them had to be carefully evaluated as, besides the immediate threat to the people involved and the programme itself, this association and type of work could have compromised their future projects. As a result, it took a while before CBOs and some women activists felt comfortable to be associated with the programme.
Originally MRG and its partners had hoped to use drama alongside poetry and art to explore the reconciliation theme. However, this element of the design was revised for two main reasons. Firstly, as the workshops were only a single day, it was not possible to work with three different art forms. Secondly, as parts of each session were being filmed, it was uncertain if participants would be willing to be so visible.
The trainers found there were instances when they were unable to deal with issues of trauma that came up among some participants.
Many of the women who participated in the workshop had a low level of education and literacy. As a result, the facilitators needed to find relevant and meaningful ways to discuss abstract concepts such as reconciliation. In addition, they also lacked confidence in their ability to engage in art and poetry.
The translation of the poetry into English had to be done in such a way that the meaning and representation were retained while also replicating the rhythm of the original Tamil.
Domestic responsibilities of participants: Almost all the women who participated in the workshop were the main carers for their children and elderly relatives. Some of them had difficulties finding alternative care arrangements.