The Power of Peace

A version of this article originally appeared in the spring 2024 issue of STILLPOINT magazine.

For more than 2,500 days, thousands of Tamil mothers in northern Sri Lanka have continuously protested, demanding to know where their children are—the ones who were forcibly disappeared during the country’s nearly three-decade civil war, which ended 15 years ago. 

Despite a population size similar to Florida, Sri Lanka has seen the second largest total number of enforced disappearances in the world. The families’ tenacious pursuit of truth and justice for their missing loved ones is among the longest protests the island nation has ever seen. 

This is just one of the many significant challenges that women in the post-war north are facing. “The women, especially in the north where the physical armed conflict took place, are some of the greatest victims,” explains Shruthi De Visser ’16, research consultant and activist for peacebuilding, gender and transitional justice, “but they’re also the most active agents of change. 


What does change require in a country coming out of conflict? It’s a question De Visser has been exploring for 13 years, and she is now investigating it anew alongside two other women—one from Myanmar and one from Afghanistan—as the 2023 Asia Foundation William P. Fuller Fellows in Peacebuilding. This highly competitive fellowship for emerging peacebuilding leaders includes a study tour and exchange in the San Francisco Bay area, New York and Washington D.C., as well as a grant. 

“Often when we think of reconciliation, we think between ethnicities or between religious groups,” says De Visser. “But how people relate to one another within their own communities also informs reconciliation.” 

Reconciliation is not a one-size-fits-all approach; it means different things to different people groups at different points in time. De Visser and other researchers are working to evaluate the evolving meaning of reconciliation, and to measure progress in reconciliation within local Sri Lankan communities.” Their research then informs projects designed by organizations like USAID. 

Reconciliation, De Visser explains, can begin with small steps like having a doctor who speaks your language at the local hospital or not having to bribe the principal to send your son to school because he’s of a minority ethnicity or lower socioeconomic class. For the mothers of the missing, it could mean finally finding the truth about their children. 

Ultimately for women in Sri Lanka, De Visser hopes it means a seat at the table. “Women are some of the key proponents of justice,” she says. “They are on the front lines, but then they don’t have the seat at the table in places where the important decisions have been made.” 


The Tamil women, specifically, are under layers of oppression. De Visser believes that to peel back those layers, to advance their rights, their stories must be told. Her forthcoming publication, Unveiled, aims to do just that. “They’re more than victims or war-affected women,” she explains. “In small and big ways they’re really making an impact in their communities. One day I want them to be seen as agents of capacity, whose empowerment and strength is celebrated.” 

De Visser’s vision for a Sri Lanka where women are empowered and valued begins with youth. With her William P. Fuller Fellows in Peacebuilding grant, she will create an initiative to mentor young women, ages 16–18, who hope to enter the peacebuilding field. When she was their age, De Visser, like many youth, planned to leave Sri Lanka. But befriending peers from the war-ravaged northeastern territory changed her mind. These were people who looked like her but had bomb fragments in their bodies, had lost their parents, had lived in tents for years. 

“One boy’s family was trying to go from one village to another,” remembers De Visser. “If the extremist groups saw him, they would recruit him. So his mom packed him up in a suitcase for many hours, with him stuck in that suitcase.” Another boy was shot in the leg three times and taken into the extremist group before he was able to escape. 

“This is the life they’ve lived by no choice of their own, but just by the circumstance of where they were born,” De Visser says. “Their life stories have left a mark. I have felt a deep responsibility toward these people.” Today she serves them alongside her husband, Prashan ’08, founder and president of Sri Lanka Unites and Global Unites. 

For the De Vissers peacemaking is rooted in faith but available to all, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, religion or social standing. “Jesus is called the Prince of Peace, and when he said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God,’ that really drives what we do as a family,” De Visser says. “In the very dire, difficult circumstances that we work in, when there’s often no hope, we know that hope for us comes from God.”