Jensila has established a multifaceted and systematic approach to unite and empower internally displaced persons (IDPS) from the Tamil and Muslim communities in war-affected northern Sri Lanka. Through her efforts, she has formed a unique grassroots, community-driven reconciliation process that is strengthening the ability of minorities to collectivize and fight for their rights.
The New Idea:
A Muslim IDP who was forcibly evicted from her northern hometown by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), Jensila has worked on reintegration and unification issues for 18 years. Moreover, Jensila has leveraged her leadership position and acceptance within the two minority communities to create inter and intra community reconciliation mechanisms at grassroots levels. She has crafted various policy level campaigns to bring both the Tamil and Muslim IDPs to forget their bitter pasts and ultimately bargain together for their share of power in a hostile political environment.
In her effort to reconnect the Tamil and Muslim communities, Jensila has founded three organizations: Community Development Organization (CDO), Community Trust Fund (CTF) and Citizen Committee for Forcibly Evicted Northern Muslims (CCFENM). These three organizations today work on resurrecting the peaceful relations that once existed between northern Tamils and Muslims before the war. Jensila has not only forged a unique inclusive approach to bring together two traditionally exclusive communities, but she also placed a singular emphasis on the utilization of women as a means to reach ethnic-harmony. Jensila’s initiatives, particularly her women empowerment programs, can easily be replicated to benefit countries coping with post-war conditions.
Unlike other civil wars ending in negotiated settlements, the Sri Lankan civil war ended with the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Consequently, relations between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils and Muslims remain strained, at best. To make matters worse, the government’s immediate post-war reconstruction failed to engage war-affected communities in reorganization of society, resources and post-war structures. After the war, for example, the government has emphasized settling the families of Sinhala soldiers in cantonments in a minority territory, a move that completely disregards native concerns. These post-war development activities are repossessing and converting minorities’ fertile paddy lands into industrial lands for foreign investment. Even after the war has long ended, high security zones still exist which, accompanied by the creation of new cultural and development zones, are only displacing and relocating Tamil and Muslim farmers – an unfortunate process that is uprooting their traditional livelihoods.
One of Sri Lanka’s most significant post-war challenges is the resettlement of its half-million internally displaced Tamils and Muslims. Apart from the Tamils, whose plight has received international attention, this number includes about 150,000 displaced Muslims that are rarely noticed. October 23rd marks the twentieth anniversary of the Northern Muslims’ tragic expulsion. In this one act of ethnic cleaning, the LTTE forcibly evicted the entire Muslim population from the Northern Province’s five districts, thus resulting in the mass displacement and dispossession of over 75,000 persons. The defeat of the Tigers has renewed their hopes to return home. However, due to the lack of government and international pressures, the Northern Muslims are unable to assert their collective right to return. Jensila, in short, works on behalf of the forgotten.
In the aftermath of the eviction, Jensila, then 19, was probably the first woman to step out of the camp and mobilize IDP women to stand up for their rights. Jensila first noticed that food rations for displaced communities were expired and rotten. She organized protests in which women dumped the inedible rice in front of the government-regulated ration distribution center. Jensila then joined the Rural Development Foundation in 1992. On the one hand, her work during that period was seen as highly radical. On the other, she faced a growing and combative Islamic fundamentalism within the Muslim IDPs.
Unlike many other women, Jensila refused to surrender to a new religious-based identity that government officials were forcing upon displaced Muslims in Puttalam. She wanted to preserve the secular living style that characterized northern Muslims. In 1996, Jensila and her close friends formed the Community Development Organization (CDO) to address the growing Islamic radicalization of northern Muslim IDPs. They worked in 10 camps in Puttalam. Through door-to-door campaigns, she and her colleagues abolished many restrictions placed upon women, such as early marriages and restrictions on women’s mobility. Their efforts reduced and essentially eliminated the female drop-out rate.
Jensila and other CDO staff members also helped IDPs lobby for separate schools in the vicinity of their camps since most of the Puttalam schools discriminated against displaced students. Jensila’s work, however, was not positively received by many of her community members, particularly the Puttalam Muslim men. A year later, the community banned her from entering camps and villages. Her village mosque even issued a “fatwa” against her. A testament to her courage and determination, Jensila and her female colleagues challenged the fatwa. Due to the community support she garnered, the mosque withdrew the charges.
In 1998, while working with CDO to assist IDP’s, Jensila and a few like-minded people realized that a separate organization was needed to facilitate the eventual return of northern Muslims. She therefore founded the Community Trust Fund (CDO works only in Puttalam). Within CTF, Jensila also formed an IDP lobby wing called CCFENM, which bore the sole purpose of undertaking policy-level lobbying and dialog with Sri Lankan political groups, the international community and LTTE. Due to CCFENM’s pressure, in 1998 the parliament held a special hearing was held and submitted cabinet papers to recognize northern Muslims’ eviction as a special case. This parliament discussion also led then President Chandrika Kumaranathunghe to issue a special order establishing a separate secretariat for northern Muslim’s affairs in the Puttalam district until their eventual return.
CCFENM, while holding the government responsible for their collective return, also entered into talks with the LTTE and other Tamil groups. However, their engagement with LTTE brought threats to its members and many of them were forced to work underground for years. But the end of war has once again given life to CCFENM. Under Jensila’s leadership, today they have taken up research and policy level advocacy on minority rights. For instance, the state has attempted several times to control the newly captured areas from the LTTE, some of which once belonged to Muslims, by declaring vast pieces of fertile agricultural land as preserved territory, national parks, cultural and sacred areas and high security and development zones. Jensila and her team are combating such attempts through legal battles, documentation and local and international campaigns. Most significantly, however, these campaigns bring northern Tamils and Muslims together.
In 2000 CTF rapidly expanded to become a regional leading defender of both Muslim and Tamil rights. Jensila effectively and systematically reached out to IDP women, using a variety of techniques: awareness raising, joint livelihood activities, youth mobilization and rights educational programs. Jensila’s efforts are unique, in that she employs an inclusive and exhaustive bottom-up approach that unites the two war affected communities and addresses their issues collectively. The peace village she and her colleagues are attentively establishing is based on the concept that any post war structures aiming to establish lasting peace should strengthen the affected communities’ collective voice and their rights.
Through the village, Jensila is resurrecting once present peace between these two communities by adopting carefully crafted strategies based on her past experiences with resettlement issues. She wants this model to be an example and a case study for anyone working on community and reconciliation issues. Jensila’s resettlement model will bring together a mixed group of Tamils and Muslims. CTF intends to establish 70 houses, giving preference to war widows and young female heads of households while giving resettled families a chance to access sustainable livelihood.
Jensila’s work reached its peak when a mass exodus (about 300,000 Tamil civilians) from Tamil Tiger controlled areas occurred in the beginning of 2009. Within 24 hours, CTF was able to mobilize local resources and began taking care of these new IDPs; the aid bureaucracy, on the other hand, was unable to form a response. CTF continued to feed about 60,000 of these IDPs for many months. In this regard, Jensila mobilized Muslim IDPs to care for Tamil IDPs. This gesture of shared humanity won her more credibility. Consequently, CTF was the first local NGO allowed to work in the new resettlement areas, which are now tightly controlled by the Sri Lankan military.
Women’s NGOs have taken active roles in human rights monitoring and in addressing the number of justice-related issues in Sri Lanka. Jensila, building on the success of CDO, CTF and CCFENM as well as her deep knowledge of minority issues, hopes to create a coalition of women organizations in the north that will strengthen minority women’s ability to maneuver post war mechanisms.
Jensila is from Mullaitheevu district which, until last year, was controlled by the LTTE. She comes from an indigent family – her father gathered and sold firewood for a living. Being the eldest in a family that had ten children, Jensila had to step forward to help her father at the age of 12. She painfully remembers going to school late and missing classes because of work. However, she excelled in her studies and got a scholarship to study for her university entrance exam in one of the north’s leading girls’ schools. The eviction, however, interrupted her plans. Jensila received excellent results on her final exam. Instead of going to college, though, she was forced to begin working after her father fell ill from harsh living condition and lack of medical attention in the refugee camp. After first working to educate her own siblings, Jensila volunteered for many months to reduce female dropout rates.
Jensila deeply fears the radicalism and extremity that some religious Muslims have chosen. In her effort to address the root causes of marginalization and discrimination of minority women, Jensila has challenged the assumptions of many donors, including the UN agencies (namely UNHCR) and the state. In the last two decades, her work has influenced many donor programs to focus on the IDPs’ right to return. Jensila’s work in exile received international attention in March 2010 when she became the first Sri Lankan woman to be honored by the US State Department’s Women of Courage Award. While she has been consulting the international community for many years, the award brought a new wave of recognition to the plight of Sri Lanka’s citizens.