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Sri Lanka: Sunila Abeysekera’s courageous advocacy for human rights and gender equality

by Pamela Philipose, 15 September 2013

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Women’s Feature Service

Colombo (Women’s Feature Service) – In early 2012, noted Sri Lankan activist Sunila Abeysekera, 60, was the focus of a hate campaign for having engaged with the UN Human Rights Council and supported the recent adoption of the Council resolution on “promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka”. She was attacked for having betrayed Sri Lanka at that juncture but for Abeysekera, such attacks were nothing new and had never stopped her indefatigable advocacy of human rights and gender equality for over 25 years." In 1998, she was presented with the United Nations Human Rights Award for the Asia Pacific Region. Pamela Philipose interviewed her earlier this year.

Q: Part scholar, part activist, how would you define yourself?
A: Primarily, I see myself as a human rights activist. In 1990, I was with a group of people who set up something called ‘Inform’, which is a human rights documentation centre. We monitor ongoing human rights situations and create a database of human rights abuses. We have also, over the years, built a network of human rights defenders at the local and community level. Within these groups we human rights training and support them in engaging with all kinds of advocacy at the local level. At the third level, we work at the local, national and international arena with women. We have worked with sex workers, lesbians, transgenders, women living with HIV, we have worked on the issue of land rights with peasant communities and with fishing communities. We also work with disadvantaged school students in different areas.

Q: Sri Lanka seems to have witnessed a steady erosion of democratic
rights in recent years.
A: There has indeed been a climate of impunity in the country. Many human rights violations, abductions and assassinations have taken place and none of them have ever been investigated or prosecuted. Our Constitution guarantees equality for women and minorities, including the Tamil people, but none of that gets translated into practice and nobody can challenge the fact that it is not in practice because of the undemocratic structures that have been put in place.

Q: What have been the specific experiences of women against this backdrop?
A: There are two things one should say about how women experience the consequences of conflict in Sri Lanka. One relates to women all over the country, and that is the rise of violence against them. Just in the recent past we have been recording cases in which women and members of women’s families, have been murdered over personal conflicts by partners, fiancées, husbands. The murderers are invariably those who have either been in the army or who have deserted the army.

Here, and elsewhere, there is a clear relationship between the rise of such incidents and militarisation, the availability of guns, violence as a way of resolving feuds within communities and the general culture of impunity. These men who have been in the army and security forces have got used to the fact that they can do pretty much anything and not be held accountable. Interestingly, most of the women who have been murdered this way are Sinhalese women from the south because the soldiers are from the south.

The situation for women in terms of women’s rights in the north and east is different. Being Tamils and Muslims largely, they are surviving in a situation where conflict has seriously destroyed infrastructure and institutions, including hospitals. Whatever hospitals that have come up after 2009 at the end of the conflict, are poorly staffed and equipped. There is no civilian administration as such in these areas, because they are completely overseen by the military. So for women who have experienced many years of insecurity because of militarisation have no option but to go to these facilities supervised by men in uniforms, and that’s not easy for them. That’s why we are demanding the return of civilian administration in these areas.

Sri Lanka, because of the conflict, has a large number of female-headed households, especially in the north, I believe. In the Jafna district alone, according to some estimates, there are over 20,000 women-headed households. At the moment we don’t have any comprehensive data. In 2009, you remember, 300,000 people were estimated to be living in camps. The government had denied that there were so many displaced people and then all of a sudden they were there in a situation where the government had not made adequate preparations to accommodate them. Then, because of the international scandal about these camps, which were referred to as “internment camps” by some, the government dispersed everybody by 2010. But the problem was that these people were returned and resettled without adequate provisions. So even today, many of the people who have been “resettled” continue to live in small little hovels that they have put up with no money to restart their livelihoods. For women who head families, not having even one room that has a door that one can shut, is in itself a huge problem. Anybody can enter. There have been some reports of sexual violence in the Vani, which some groups working there have documented.

The problems are at two levels: One, the women here don’t have enough resources and not enough resources are not being allocated to them. For example, the Indian government committed to building 50,000 houses in 2009 but in 2012 this intervention is still a contentious matter.
No houses have been built so far largely because of bureaucratic obstacles put by the Sri Lankan government. Two, the patriarchal system operates against these women. So when they have to go to the provincial office in order to get the money that has been allocated, they are subjected to sexual and physical harassment. They sometimes have to sell sexual favours in order to get an official to sign a document for example. They have to sell their sexual favours in order to get the men to plough their land.

Q: Do you agree that women bring something different to conflict
resolution, although they have always been kept out of it?
A: Sri Lankan women have always since the 1980s, especially after the terrible anti-Tamil riots of 1983, tried to create spaces and organisations that supported the interaction and engagement between Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil women. For me, this is one of the most significant aspects about Sri Lanka, that we don’t see in other countries. Through the years of the conflict women’s groups maintained a very consistent relationship with each other across the conflict. Because of that, I think there is a very deep sense of solidarity, sisterhood and friendship among women that enables a continuing dialogue.

Women have a different idea about who the enemy is and how to deal with the enemy. When we talk to them about reconciliation – which is not a conversation that the government is having with anybody at the moment – women always tell me that if the material conditions of their lives can be addressed it would make a big difference. Inherent in such statements is the feeling that it is time that we moved on.
But the tragedy is that, while it would be so easy for the government to improve the conditions of life for the Tamil people, it has not done so. It continues to treat the Tamil people, especially in the north in the Vani, as hostile, as enemies. It continues to arrest them and detain them, subject them to torture. They continue to be abducted and disappear. The LTTE may not exist as it used to, but that doesn’t mean the war has ended. For many, many people the war has in fact not ended.


The above article by Pamela Philipose has been reproduced here with permission from Women’s Feature Service and is for non commercial and educational use.