Title: Women's Experiences of Local Justice: community mediation in Sri Lanka
Authors: Ramani Jayasundere (The Asia Foundation) and Craig Valters (JSRP)
Date: January 2014
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This paper is part of the Theories in Practice series arising from the collaboration between JSRP and The Asia Foundation. This is the second paper on Sri Lanka's mediation boards and builds on the conclusion of the previous paper that 'further research on how different forms of social injustice affect mediation boards would be an important conceptual and practical step'. There is a clear need to assess the effect of different forms of social injustice on the process of mediation. This is necessary because the mediation boards are rooted in the social, ethnic, gender and class structures of their environment. The current research focuses on one particular form of injustice: discrimination against women.
The paper presents a study of the nature of justice experienced by women at mediation boards given the character, context and function of this dispute resolution system in Sri Lanka. The mediation boards hold many similarities with alternative dispute resolution systems all over the world (often labelled 'hybrid' or 'informal' systems). This paper has sought to provide some nuance to a common generalisation: that such a system necessarily discriminates against women. In our research locations we observed a range of mediator attitudes and behaviour that did not promote women's equality. Yet we also often saw a genuine desire to facilitate outcomes that were perceived as beneficial for women in difficult situations. This seemed to be driven, in part, by the nature of the system itself. For example, the promotion (however unattainable) of neutrality and impartiality, linked to a basic understanding of gender equality.
However, our research also demonstrates the considerable social barriers for many women in bringing disputes to mediation, particularly where the dispute relates to sensitive issues of violence. Furthermore, power asymmetries between male and female disputants linked to broader social attitudes and gender insensitive structures inevitably influence women's treatment in mediation, as does their own perception of what is a fair outcome. The mediator has en essential role in how these power asymmetries are negotiated but the mediators' desire to 'settle' cases means that they may impose their own interpretations of gender equaliity and the position of women in society. Some of these interpretations have practical benefits to some womenbut may also discriminate against others.
This paper concludes that technical reforms (such as training, quotas and gender sensitisation) can have positive effects, but given that Mediation Boards are embedded in local norms and practices, these effects are likely to be modest. Therefore, any reforms that are made should address wider issues that encourage structural changes that foster and further women's equality.