Sri Lanka: Visaka Dharmadasa

Visakha Dharamadasa has brought together mothers from the divided Tamil-dominated north and the Sinhala-dominated south to ask the combatants just one question: where are our children?

— Visaka Dharmadasa

Visakha Dharamadasa (born 1960) is the driving force behind the Association of Parents of Soldiers Missing in Action, and the Association of War-Affected Women. A woman who has radically transformed herself in response to personal suffering, she has accomplished the unique and path-breaking feat of bringing together mothers from the Tamil-dominated north and the Sinhala-dominated south of the country to ask one question: where are our children?

When Visakha Dharamadasa's 23-year-old second son was classified "missing in action" by the army in 1997, her life changed overnight. She met many people seeking information about their own missing children. In 1998, she became a founder-member of the Association of Parents of Soldiers Missing in Action. This gave Visakha a platform for initiating negotiations with both the military and the Libaration Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE). Over the years, Visakha, who lives in Kandy in central Sri Lanka, has been an indefatigable organizer of meetings and demonstrations to draw attention to the "disappeared". She has also worked closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and international human rights and humanitarian agencies to ensure the protection of prisoners of war. One of the achievements of her organization has been ensuring compulsory identity tags on soldiers. Married to an Indian, Visakha has two other sons apart from the one missing in action, one of whom still serves with the army. One of Visakha's unique contributions is bringing together women from both sides of the conflict. In the process, she has undergone a remarkable personal transformation. When she began her work, she inevitably perceived the LTTE as "the enemy". But understanding the conflict's root causes brought a radical societal understanding. She also became aware that negotiation and alliance-building was critical to end the war. Thanks to her work, the Sri Lankan military has changed some of its attitudes. It has included humanitarian law and human rights teaching in its military academy curriculum. Visakha has also helped to change LTTE's attitude-it is today ready to meet and discuss matters with representatives of civil society organizations from the "hated" south.

Association of Parents of Soldiers Missing in Action (APSMA) Association of War-Affected Women (AWAW)