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Women taking human rights to the mainstream

Human rights have now become very much an integral part of public discussions in almost all public media. At one time, it remained an interest confined to a few groups and persons who were either advocates of human rights, or who attacked the very notion of human rights as part of the international conspiracy against Sri Lanka. 

However, it is a healthy sign to see that now human rights have become a part of the public debate, in which people participate neither as ardent advocates of human rights nor as people committed to attack the very notion in every possible way. Thus, human rights are no longer purely a discussion among the true believers in either camp. There are those who truly believe in the promotion of human rights, and those who truly believe that attacking human rights in every possible way is a necessary aspect of their fundamental faith of  nationalism. 

More sober reflections could be seen now, and the most healthy sign of this is seen by (among others) the participation of women, very openly, on the human rights problems affecting Sri Lanka. A recently held television programme on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s intervention on Sri Lanka was reflected well in the variety of views that are expressed by women on women. 

It was sobering to note that despite the variety of different slants and approaches, there was a very solid agreement that there are serious human rights problems in Sri Lanka and that the Governments, whether past or present, have not attempted to address any of these problems seriously. The female spokespersons saw this as threatening the stability of the country and also that the violations will affect future generations. Some of the themes that have been emerging in this discussion, as well as in other discussions in which women are publicly participating, could be summed up thus.

A few take the view that Bachelet giving a special place to the violations of human rights in Sri Lanka will damage the image of the country, and they felt that, particularly at a time when the country is beset with enormous amounts of problems and is in a deep economic crisis, the image of the country is important. However, when faced with the local human rights situation, the same spokespersons all agree that the situation is very bleak and that some serious efforts must be made in order to address these problems. 

There is also an underlying agreement that these violations are a product of much deeper problems than mere acts of individual officers; that the primary problems regarding human rights is the breakdown of the law and law enforcement capacity of the State is quite visibly reflected in the comments that are being repeatedly expressed through various means both though television channels as well as on social media and other forms. 

That there are livelihood problems affecting a large section of the population is also reflected in these discussions. For example, on the issue of the teachers’ strike, the general opinion is that their demands are just and that they deserve to be dealt with, not only for the benefit of the teachers, but also for the benefit of the students and the rest of the community in order to attract the best talents to the teaching profession. While some of the women who are also mothers express several limitations about the inconveniences and the difficulties that are a result of the discontinuity of online programmes conducted by the teachers and their principals, there is also agreement that the resolving of this problem is in the hands of the Government. 

The answer to the issue of the country’s image being blackened by human rights problems being spoken outside the country, expressed by those who are still supporting the Government, lies in where even they conceded that the primary duty to resolve these problems lies with the Government. At the same time, there is the agreement that the measures taken by the Government, such as the imposing of emergency regulations which seem to have been aimed mainly to suppress protestors, is not justified. 

Underlining that is the agreement that the present day protests are arising from very genuine reasons of people who are faced with serious problems in meeting their family budgets and conducting their normal affairs due to all kinds of economic problems that are arising. The increase of the prices of many essential goods naturally receive the condemnation of the women because they are often at the receiving end of the problems caused by such rises. For example, the rise in the prices of gas, milk powder, and other food items is a problem for the women, who often have to manage the family budgets. That there is something very seriously wrong in the country which needs addressing decisively and quickly seems to be the emerging opinion on all the issues relating to the human rights violations. 

The incidents which are reported to have taken place at the Anuradhapura Prison and the Welikada Prison where a State Minister who was in charge of the Prisons allegedly behaved in a threatening manner to the prisoners, is being seen as an extremely shocking expression of the state of affairs that is prevailing in the country. That some persons can get away with causing all kinds of serious crimes while the law is applied to others in exceptionally harsh ways, particularly if they have dissenting opinions, seems to be a matter on which there is a common expression of serious unease and unhappiness. 

One of the spokeswomen mentioned that this talk about image concerning the publishing of violations was similar to the formally held opinion that the women who are battered by their husbands should keep quiet for the protection of the family image and the family reputation. That is highly prejudicial, and today, the right of women is to express their protests against any such treatment, either at the family level, the working place, or even the transport systems which are being taken for granted. 

Given the fact that today nothing could be hidden in the world and that almost everything in the world is a globally spoken-of affair, the attempt to keep human rights violations from not being discussed in the world seems to be accepted as very much of an illusion.

In the process of solving other crises like the US dollar crisis and all other problems affecting the health services and the education services, the problem of solving human rights and also the development of a sustainable system of fair law enforcement are seen as essential to maintain the stability of the community and the sanity of the society. Thus, today, problems of human rights are not of those alien elements but an integral part of the very idea of the protecting of the nation and the communities. 

(The writer is the Asian Human Rights Commission’s Policy and Programmes Director)

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.