Keeping our ears close to the ground: listening to activists’ needs

People’s Voice for Peace Source: Creative Commons

Field notes from Sri Lanka

May 2019 marks a decade since the end of the Sri Lanka civil war, that as per UN official records, led to the deaths of over 40,000 Tamils in the final offensive of 2009 alone. As a niche fund working to support frontline women and non-binary human rights defenders across Asia and the Pacific, UAF A&P has been trying to improve our grantmaking by organising consultations with activists and grassroots organisations and networks. This blog shares our learnings from conversations we had with activists in Sri Lanka in December 2018. We hope to foster dialogues and reflections to catalyse access to more resources for activists and their movements, and for other donors and funds to understand their perspectives and needs.

We talked with women human rights activists working on a wide range of topics, including civil and political rights, land rights, Muslim women’s rights, rights of people with disabilities, rights of sexual minorities, violence against women, and those championing the causes of families of disappeared persons. We engaged with activists in Colombo, the capital, as well as those based in districts afar. Although unplanned, the consultations coincided with a constitutional crisis that emerged from sacking of the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe by the President, Maitripala Sirisena and an attempt to appoint a new prime minister without Parliament support. The political uncertainty in the country then was reflected across our conversations too.

Needs identified

Increasing security risks for women and non-binary defenders

Despite the end of the civil war in 2009, and a new government that promised reform, little progress was made to ensure wartime perpetrators were brought to justice. Activists, especially those seeking justice for their disappeared family members, have been unable to obtain full remedy and redress for their missing family members. Sri Lanka’s refusal to engage meaningfully with accountability of past human rights abuses has left a palpable fear among many of its citizens, including rights’ advocates, about the possibility of return of war-time perpetrators in position of power. This adversely threatens the safety of those, who have spoken out against or advocated for justice of past human rights violations. With the political shift unfolding at the national level, activists at the consultation reported already experiencing increased surveillance of their activities, and their families by state mechanisms such as Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). Particularly affected are those working with and raising issues of families of the disappeared, land rights, and those who were the visible faces at courtrooms, or fighting gender-based violence.

Relocation is not sustainable’

How do we continue our activism?” was one of the oft-repeated themes, especially against the backdrop of security threats faced by activists from both state and non-state actors. They were vocal that relocation is not a sustainable solution, although it can be a short-term security measure. Sri Lankan activists are looking for a holistic mechanism that factors in other aspects of their lives too, aside from physical security. As one participant from the districts stressed “Security only is not enough. Livelihood and sustainability of that livelihood is important”.

Committed to contribute ‘free labour’

Lack of financial resources during moments of crisis, and limited funds available for human rights activism forced women defenders to provide unpaid labour or free labour to continue their human rights activism. Activists in the districts recounted how they utilise personal resources to support communities in crisis, and to connect and strengthen their networks. Some spoke about how they were engaged by organisations without pay or at minimal wages, inviting taunts from family and communities of being no salary officers”. This dissuades several activists from continuing in the grassroots movements affecting the development of “second-level leadership” of activists, they said.

Women were not afraid to look within the community, within themselves and acknowledge that vulnerabilities come from within their activists’ communities as well. They acknowledge the need to foster internal accountability among themselves and within their movements.

Our learnings

A network of peer donors is essential

There is a huge need for the type of grants UAF A&P provide, but there are several needs that are out of our mandate as a rapid response grant-maker. Liaising and creating a system of network with peer donors and other human rights organisations is essential to ensure that women and non-binary defenders have access to available resources.

Need more diversified funding for different needs

Activists in Sri Lanka, like in any other country in the region, face issues perpetrated by not just state actors, but also by their family and related social structures. Creating collaborative efforts with other networks and peer donors can help provide them with holistic support and protection.

Several activists raised the issue of dearth in funding to carry forward their work: for example, they do not have enough resources to implement programmes for their constituents; or they only receive project funds that do not cover their operational costs, such as wages.

The conversations reminded us that despite work around activists’ sustainability, talking about self and collective care was rarely done. It was humbling to hear an activist say that our conversation with her was “the first time that someone asked about our personal needs as activists”. UAF A&P was keen to listen to her as our security and well-being grants, and those for resourcing resilience can help respond to these needs, on an immediate basis and also for a longer term.

It is regrettable that the funding landscape has changed little over the years. Since it continues to be project-driven, there is little leeway for organisations and activists to invest in strengthening and sustaining activists and their movements. Activism continues to be driven by passionate defenders who are often lowly paid and overworked, or are offering their services and expertise “voluntarily”. We hope more donors will contribute to meeting their many unmet need — both personal and programmatic.

Jebli Shrestha is a grants facilitator at the Urgent Action Fund Asia and Pacific

A regional women’s human rights and feminist fund that protects, strengthens and sustains women and non-binary human rights defenders in Asia and the Pacific