Emerging from a decade-long brutal civil war, the human rights record in Sri Lanka has been under the spotlight over the last few months. Women human rights activists in Sri Lanka have played an important role in lobbying, both for women’s rights as well as for a more robust rights culture where all people are respected – regardless of ethnicity, gender or caste.
We’re highlighting here three inspiring Sri Lankan women who have, in their different ways, been fighting for human rights.
Challenging traditional roles and values in the wake of conflict
Shereen Xavier is the Executive Director of Home for Human Rights. She comes from Jaffna, Sri Lanka`s most conservative city, and returned there in 2007 two years before the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Her father was a civil rights lawyer and she continues his work at Home for Human Rights where she campaigns for Tamil rights and provides free legal advice.
While conflict between the Sri Lankan state and the Tamil Tigers cost thousands of lives, as is often the case during war, it also opened up a space for women to challenge strict cultural roles that had been imposed on them.
According to Sherine Xavier, women often had to take a lead role as many men were killed, imprisoned, or forced into fighting. Women therefore took on double burden: running a family and taking decisions. Most women had to adjust the second role. But, in part because of women’s rights activists, the rest of society began to give women more space: in many homes women now make decisions including about health and education of family members which used to be the role of men.
In addition to changes for women, the conflict also challenged the caste structure. Many of the Tamil rebels came from lower castes so high-caste Tamils were forced to rethink caste divisions as part of the broader struggle.
Rethinking women’s rights from the developing country perspective
Kumari Jayawardena is a leading feminist figure and academic inSri Lanka.
Jayawardena is the author of several books, including Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, a book that is widely used in Women’s Studies courses around the world.
In the book she describes women’s rights movements in Asia and the Middle East from the 19th century to the 1980s, focusing on Egypt, Turkey, Iran, India, Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Koreaand the Philippines. She argues that it is not a foreign ideology that is imposed on developing countries but that each has its own distinct character in Asia and the Middle East that links women’s struggle for equal rights with broader movements for political and civil rights.
She currently teaches in the Masters Programme in Women’s Studies at the Colombo University and is a Senior Fellow of the university’s Graduate Studies Institute.
Jayawardena’s books and articles have been translated into Sinhala and Tamil. She plays an active role in women’s research organizations and civil rights movements inSri Lanka, and is presently the Secretary of the Social Scientists’ Association, a group of concerned scholars working on ethnic, gender, caste and other issues
Campaigning for civil rights
Another rights activist inSri Lanka is Suriya Wickramasinghe, Secretary of the Civil Rights Movement. Among other campaigns she played an active role in advocating for the abolition of the death penalty.
The Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka was among the first organizations to suggest that agreement on human rights protection and monitoring should be an essential component of peace settlements and should pave the way for agreement on other issues:
“It has always been the firm conviction of the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) that the proper securing of human rights throughoutSri Lanka, both in law and as a practical reality, must be an integral part of any political settlement of the conflict.”