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Sri Lankan Women Human Rights Defenders: Linking Past and Present Challenges


Subha Wijesiriwardena
 As another year begins to draw to a close on post-war Sri Lanka, we can take stock of which changes, or the lack of change, we see around us. The full scope of human rights is still not available to civilians living in formerly-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) controlled areas, now tightly controlled by the Sri Lankan armed forces, with strong restrictions prevailing on their right to move freely and their right to assemble, amongst other fundamental rights.

Pressing issues such as hundreds of unsolved cases of disappearances, and the rights of detainees and ex-detainees – particularly those of former LTTE cadres -remain unresolved since 2009, which marked ‘the end’ of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

The cost of living has nearly crippled much of the population, and yet, highways, new roads, and bridges are blossoming all over the island with unprecedented speed and efficiency.

Sri Lanka remains teetering on the edge of change and transition – and yet it does not seem to be going over the edge in a hurry.

Instead, a slow transformation that is difficult to identify, understand and categorise, seems to be taking place before our eyes. It is in this context that the International Day on Women Human Rights Defenders dawns on Sri Lanka, and the world, on the 29th of November 2011.

Challenges faced by Women Human Rights Defenders

Within almost any socio-political context, Women Human Rights Defenders (Women HRDs) face challenges that are unique to them by default – simply by virtue of being women. Society and social structures, particularly law enforcement, continue to be patriarchal leaving women vulnerable to discrimination and violence on a daily basis.

Not only do these structures actively violate the human rights of women, it leaves women powerless in the aftermath; it leaves them with little power to legally reclaim or fight for their rights.

It is in this context that Women HRDs face a set of tough and distinct challenges – they operate to protect human rights and fight against the violation of human rights in a world, where they themselves face discrimination and are often not seen as voices significant enough to be contended with.

An international conference for Women Human Rights Defenders held in Colombo in 2005 identified four major sources of abuse that Women HRDs face around the world: State-based violence and issues of accountability and justice, the growing rise in fundamentalist movements seeking and gaining political power, the use of sexuality-based attacks to intimidate women and harm their bodies and reputations; and the need to address abuse perpetrated by communities and families.

Additionally, women who work as human rights campaigners or activists have the inherent dilemma of balance. Particularly in cultures and societies like that of Sri Lanka, there are social obligations and roles that women are expected to fill as mothers, as wives and as daughters. Women who choose to work in the field of human rights are not always understood by their families and loved ones; their profession is not always accepted. Many Women HRDs find themselves facing the tough challenge of balancing their homes and personal relationships with their work.

Women HRDs almost anywhere will doubtlessly admit to the pressure and guilt at seeming unable to give priority to their homes, children, and personal lives in the face of the nature of human rights work. As Aida Edemariam asks in an interview with Gillian Slovo, the daughter of Ruth First and Joe Slovo – both leading figures in the anti-apartheid struggle – ‘What is the cost of trying to change the world, and who exactly pays it?’

Whilst Women HRDs face these issues almost everywhere in the world, they occupy a very special and useful position, as women, and play an important role in the larger picture of defending human rights. As women, they are primarily important in standing up for the rights of women in a context where women are still particularly vulnerable to the effects of war, political persecution, and the ongoing issues of gender-based violence and discrimination.

A brief history of Women Human Rights Defenders and their movement in Sri Lanka

Historically, the movement of women HRDs in Sri Lanka has always been closely linked with three key avenues: Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zone and related issues, the war and the impact it has had on women, and an ongoing campaign to end violence against women.

Several historic protests and strikes demanding the rights of workers in factories of Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zone have been crucial to the development of the human rights movement in Sri Lanka. Through much of it, women have been at the forefront of these strikes. The Polytech Factory Strike of 1983, during which several women (acting both as key organisers and protestors) were arrested in an attempt to quell the protest, is even today seen as a landmark moment in the history of this movement. More recently, 21- year- old Roshen Shanaka was killed due to injuries sustained during a protest in the Free Trade Zone, inflicted on him by police. Several large scale protests took place – with Women HRDs once again at the forefront – to demand justice in the face of this atrocity.

Through the late 80s and early 90s, a movement to end violence against women and to promote awareness of women’s rights gathered momentum and began to assert itself with a sense of urgency. These campaigns, spearheaded by women across political and social groups, began to shape the larger movement to protect women’s rights, and to promote the notion that ‘women’s rights are human rights’.

In 1994, Radhika Coomaraswamy – a Sri Lankan lawyer, academic and activist – was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women for the United Nations. This was seen as a turning point for the women’s rights movement and the movement of Women HRDs in Sri Lanka, which gained confidence in continuing to strengthen their campaigns.

The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, saw the active participation of many Sri Lankan women from several human rights and women’s rights organisations representing diverse issues and communities.

Subsequently, this newly invigorated campaign to end violence against women followed an interesting trajectory in the years to come, and culminated in the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act in 2005.

However, in the 90s, the key issue that overcame the movement of Women HRDs was the issue of war and women affected by war. Naturally, the tense political climate that prevailed at that time as a result of the conflict ensured that the work of Human Rights Defenders became much more dangerous.

Rajini Thiranagama, a young Tamil Woman HRD, lecturer at the University of Jaffna, and activist and writer, was shot dead outside her home in Jaffna. Her family and those close to her suspect the LTTE, whose brutal strategies she had openly criticized and worked against, primarily through the actions of University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) of which she was a founder member. This brutal killing was met with outrage by human rights defenders everywhere – particularly women HRDs in Sri Lanka.

The fact that women are particularly vulnerable to a host of atrocities in times of war is undeniable. Women, particularly Tamil civilians in the North, are increasingly vulnerable to sexual violence, sometimes perpetrated by State actors including the military, and State supported paramilitary groups, leaving women powerless to complain.

Women become vulnerable as mothers and wives, as their sons or husbands are abducted, disappeared or killed as a result of the ongoing conflict. In the South, a Marxist uprising spearheaded by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was brutally crushed by the government – and the cruel phenomenon of abductions and disappearances became the infamous trait that characterized this struggle.

The mothers and wives of the disappeared from both the North and South emerged as a huge factor influencing the movement of Women HRDs as they stepped forth to demand justice.

The year after Thiranagama’s death, Richard de Zoysa, a Colombo-based journalist, activist and writer, was abducted from his home and killed. There are clear indications that his abduction and murder was State-sanctioned. His mother, the late Dr. Manorani Saravanamuttu is the founder of The Mother’s Front, one of three organisations founded at this time by women, which even today continue to landmark the story of the movement of Women HRDs. The other organizations are The Organisation of Parents and Family Members of The Disappeared, in which several mothers and wives of the disappeared were involved at a high level and the Association of War-Affected Women, founded by Visaka Dharmadasa – whose son was declared Missing in Action as a soldier of the Sri Lankan Army.

At present, Sri Lanka seems to have come full-circle – as today, in post-war Sri Lanka, the families of the disappeared, particularly women, are becoming an increasingly strong voice in the campaign for justice and rights.

What are the challenges that Women Human Rights Defenders face in post-war Sri Lanka?

Sandhya Eknaligoda, the wife of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda who disappeared in January 2010, personifies the struggle of Woman HRDs in Sri Lanka today.

Whilst she is at the forefront of an ongoing public campaign that demands justice in Prageeth’s case, she is also the mother of two teenage boys. She juggles her personal life and her fight for justice, along with the pressures of being a public figure in a now public and therefore risky campaign.

Similarly, hundreds of women in the North and North East – particularly from Mullaitivu, Jaffna and Mannar districts, are stepping forward to demand justice for the disappearances and killings they have witnessed in the North.

Sri Lankan Women HRDs today are forced to work in a political climate in which democracy and law and order are quickly deteriorating, in an atmosphere of impunity and a culture that continues to regard women as inferior and inconsequential. With little power to shield themselves against sexual harassment, domestic violence and gender-based discrimination, women continue to fight an age-old battle. Furthermore, a culture of moralistic repression continues to blossom and flourish in Sri Lanka.

In 2005, Colombo played host to a historic gathering of Women HRDs from across the world – organised by the International Coordinating Committee of “Defending Women Defending Rights: the International Campaign on Women Human Rights Defenders” (ICWHRD). At a closing public session of the conference, Irene Khan, Secretary General of Amnesty International said, “All of us – women and men – must demand the protection of those who defend women’s rights and women who defend all human rights, insist on justice when they’re attacked, and fight for them to be given the recognition they are due.”

Today, in 2011, it is interesting to note that a country that had the privilege of hosting more than a hundred of the world’s leading women activists and HRDs continues to be a battleground for its own Women Human Rights Defenders.
( The writer, Consultant, Human Rights in Conflict Programme,Law and Society Trust )

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