Rise of the Palmyras
Sri Lanka unfolds as a captivating tapestry woven from the threads of its rich and intricate history, diverse ethnic mosaic, colonial imprints, ‘democratic’ governance, economic complexities, and environmental vulnerabilities. The upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are poised to be pivotal moments that will decisively impact the trajectory of the country’s future. Against this backdrop, our attention is drawn to the voices that often stand at the forefront of change — women, trans, and non-binary human rights defenders, activists, and their movements.
In 2023, Urgent Action Fund, Asia & Pacific (UAF A&P) travelled across Sri Lanka to meet and listen to women, trans, and non-binary activists and defenders part of grassroot feminist movements and organisations to better understand the country’s social-economic and political context, activists’ needs and challenges, and how to better support and resource their efforts. In this article, we share some of our learnings.
Risks, Threats, and Challenges Faced by Activists
State Violence and Human Rights Concerns
Grassroot human rights defenders in Sri Lanka operate in challenging environments marked by a variety of human rights concerns and violations. The persistent and arbitrary use of emergency laws and draconian legislation, particularly legislations like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), remains a major point of concern.
State surveillance, violence, and censorship continue unabated, as defenders from the Northern and Eastern Provinces navigate an environment where the space for dissent and action is consistently shrinking, and state surveillance, arbitrary arrests, strip searches and humiliation have become routine even while accessing basic services. Language barriers further compound these challenges, making it difficult to file police reports or access medical treatment.
Enforced disappearances remain a grave issue, as activists are at constant risk with local authorities frequenting their place of work, detaining and questioning staff members, and even going as far as targeting and harassing their families.
Land Rights Struggles Persist
Activists in the Northern and Eastern Provinces constantly struggle to address issues of dispossession, displacement, and inadequate compensation. The creation of illegal settlements, mass-scale displacement, and military occupation of citizens’ lands have left them in precariously vulnerable situations, limiting their ability to seek justice.
Rural women farming societies in Monaragala in the Uva Province have initiated feminist movements to counter the rise in rape, domestic violence, harassment, and other forms of gender-based violence in sugarcane factories, farms, cooperatives and communities.
Religious and Ethnic diversity: A Source of Cultural Richness and Historical Tension
The process of post-war reconciliation remains fragile, with unresolved issues related to accountability, justice and continued discrimination of minorities. The end of the civil war in 2009 did not automatically resolve ethnic and religious challenges with rising nationalism, land disputes, displacement, grave human rights violations, blatant discrimination, high militarisation of the North and East, and the slow pace of post-war reconstruction contributing to lingering tensions and persecution of grassroot women, trans, and non-binary activists.
Grappling with the Economic Crisis
Sri Lanka has been grappling with an economic crisis, exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and this economic downturn led to job losses, increased poverty rates, that resulted in mass protests that were met with harsh lockdown, curfews, and martial law.
The crisis worsened the plight of rural women with micro-creditors exploiting them with complex loans, high-interest rates, and short payback periods. To counter this, grassroot activists are creating alternate spaces and systems of financial management, with defenders in Kekirawa adopting a barter system and those in Jaffna opting for alternate financial systems.
Confronting Gender Discrimination, Misogynist Traditions, and Backlash
Sri Lankan activists face backlash, harassment, and violence as they challenge deeply ingrained gender norms, which underscores the urgent need to support these defenders who face multiple intersecting realities of discrimination and harassment.
Local Muslim defenders have been working on the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) for decades, which contains numerous provisions that violate the rights of Muslim women and girls, including recognising child marriage and eliminating the need for women to sign their marriage documents. These activists face constant harassment by authorities and isolation within their own communities.
Further, queer activists have been trying to repeal and reform laws that are used to target the queer community, especially the transgender community. Defenders from Jaffna bravely organised Jaffna Pride despite heavy policing and even went on to create intersectional feminist movements and pockets of safe spaces. Activists working with sex workers in Kalpitiya have created safe houses where STD test kits are available, along with daycare facilities, and awareness/training programmes.
Environmental Challenges and the Climate Crisis
Defenders face multifaceted environmental challenges exacerbated by rising temperatures, landslides, drought, escalating elephant-human conflict, extinction of endangered indigenous animals due to environmental degradation, and the larger climate crisis. Those advocating for vulnerable populations find themselves at the intersection of environmental and human rights crises, where the consequences of climate change are felt acutely by the marginalized.
How Can We Support Sri Lankan Activists and Defenders?
As Sri Lanka walks into another year of untethered impunity, corruption, and rising nationalism, the call for support is urgent. A wave of conscious support from international funders is crucial to support the resistance and resilience of women, trans, and non-binary activists at the frontlines of feminist movements.
1. Strengthen the capacities of grassroots movements and networks
Legal training, skill development initiatives, capacity-building and awareness workshops about digital security and other pertinent issues can help defenders advocate more effectively, safeguard themselves from risks, and hone a more nuanced understanding of human rights issues and feminist movement-building.
2. Encourage dedicated focus on sustainability and inclusion
Many of the pain points articulated by activists were related to the continuity of their movements and initiatives. By championing queer rights, creating space for people with disabilities to have a say in the policies that govern them, and resourcing solutions to sooth language barriers will help make feminist movements more inclusive across the country. Resourcing individual and collective care practices will also go a long way in ensuring activists feel protected, cared for, and able to show up as their best selves to defend human rights in Sri Lanka.
3. Embrace intersectionality and changing contexts
Most human rights defenders and activists are navigating polycrises. To support the resistance and resilience of women, trans, and non-binary people at the frontlines of human rights defense, funders need to be flexible with their grantmaking criteria, trust activists and their understanding of on-ground needs, and resource movements keeping long-term objectives in mind.
Write to us at email@example.com if you would like to read a more detailed report of our findings from Sri Lanka.