By Anushka Kahandagama –
The word ‘defender’ connotes agency and strength while the word ‘victim’ connotes passivity and susceptibility to harm and violations in the physical as well as mental sphere. However, there is a subtle or no difference between these two categories when it comes to the real world. The roles can change, as a victim can become a defender in any moment and a defender can become a victim. The many human rights violations perpetrated against and suffered by women during the war, which was side-tracked due to the sole focus on celebrating a masculine victory of the war under the previous regime, has to be addressed immediately. On the other hand, focus of human rights in the post war context under the new regime has masked other forms of human rights violations occurring in a day to day context against women. As women comprise of the larger part of the picture of Human Rights Defenders, the constant and additional challenges they encounter due to their gender, needs to be addressed. While both men and women are victims of patriarchal structures, this piece focuses on the challenges faced by women as human rights defenders.
In a militarized and patriarchal society, as the space of violence is possessed by men, women are left with the struggle for human rights, as advocates of non-violence and justice. Where men were killed and abducted, in place, women were left with ‘human rights’ to shield themselves in the brutal aftermath and seek justice for the loved ones they lost. In Sri Lanka, while men were killed and abducted in the context of war, their female relatives took on the role of human rights defenders. They faced and continue to face constant struggles in order to seek justice for their loved ones. The struggles of these women extend its horizons beyond boundaries of ethnicity, religion, class and other socially imposed categories upon them. Against this background, women took the frontlines as human rights defenders who fought their struggles most often in isolation and sometimes as groups, to reach the goal of justice.
Women Human Rights Defenders/ Photo via Facebook IMADR
When the husband, father or brother either goes missing, is abducted or killed, women have no option but to interact with the authorities which are highly masculine as well as patriarchal for recourse. In Sri Lanka, these women have to interact with military, police and with local authorities to make complaints, obtain compensation, relevant documentation, as well as their bare necessities. The lack of gender sensitivity in the institutional structures could be seen as a discouraging factor for women to stand as human rights defenders and will serve to exacerbate specific forms of violence against them.
The other challenge faced by women human rights defenders, especially under the period of transitional justice is, the massive attention drawn to the human rights discourse built around the war and aftermath of the war. The visibility or the lack of it of ‘other’ women human right defenders has become a challenge which needs quick attention. As the attention is focused on the human rights violations which took place during and after the war this has served to deepen the fraction between political and socio-economic rights. In this light, women human rights defenders who are in constant struggle to achieve social and economic rights are in need of ‘visibility’. For example, female sex workers are invisible in the arenas of human rights as they are labeled as ‘prostitutes’ and ‘illegal workers’. Although they are effortlessly speaking up for their rights, already constructed prejudice about them obstructs them from being active as human rights defenders. These communities need ‘visibility’ as ‘humans’ first and foremost to enjoy and then in order to defend their rights.
The vacuum of violence created in post war Sri Lankan society, has found another “other” as target, ie the Muslim community towards the fulfillment of this void created. As a result, the Muslims are being attacked by certain elements which are politically driven but labeled themselves as ‘Sinhala Buddhists’. These constant attacks be it physical, psychological or verbal targeting the Muslims has resulted in the community isolating themselves from the rest of the communities in order to create their safe zone and as a result of the fear of being culturally wiped by and assimilated to the Sinhala majority. However, this has significant implications on the struggle by Muslim women against unfair marriage laws. This struggle has succumbed to divisive politics of ‘Muslims’ and ‘Sinhala Buddhists’. While some of the Muslims women are fighting against these unfair marriage laws practiced by the community, some of the Muslim women are caught in between divisive politics of ‘Sinhala-Buddhists’ and ‘Muslims’ and are marching for the unfair marriage laws. Politics of ethno-religious divisions and structures of patriarchy has set one part of the women who are themselves victims of the unfair law, against the women who are fighting against the unfair laws of marriage.
The patriarchal structure where, women are seen as ‘ornaments’ belonging to the private sphere is obstructing women from being human rights defenders. According to a conversation with one of the women Activists in Puttalam, Ms. Indrani Kusumalatha
‘I work as a woman activist. At first I had pressure from my family. They didn’t like me being an activist. But gradually it changed. It was a struggle to convince them’.
It is challenging to question and function amidst the patriarchal, militarized, and Victorian patterns of thinking where women are located in mere passivity. These structures embedded in the patriarchal mind sets (of both men and women) see active women with agency as a challenge and are in constant effort of silencing them.
Against this background, being a Women Human Rights Defender is a unique challenge as their activism is questioned by not only the State and non-State actors, but also their families and loved ones who generally work as the safety net of a person. Further, the massive fund allocations and concentration for human rights violations centered round the war and aftermath of war, distracts the visibility of ‘other’ women human rights defenders in Sri Lanka.
*Inspired by: Seventh Asian Human Rights Defenders Forum, 14th – 17th November 2016, Colombo, Sri Lanka – Co-hosted by Inform Human Rights Documentation Centre (INFORM), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Law and Society Trust (LST)