s this fresh new year begins, many of us will take a moment to reflect on the one just passed, and the many events it brought with it, all of which have inevitably shaped us. As Sri Lankans, we have had a momentous year. Let’s say that 2018 will live on in our memories, and in the history books, for some time to come.
Sadly, many of the memorable moments have been unwelcome. The political turmoil and shameful show in parliament unsettled us all. The last quarter of 2018 was a period of confusion and embarrassment. The political uncertainty rumbles on, and yet there are still reasons to be hopeful.
As a response to another low point in 2018 when President Sirisena targeted Sri Lanka’s LGBT community with hateful language, we organised ‘Butterflies for Democracy’. In this important time for activism in Sri Lanka, individuals and organisations came together in solidarity with those who valued human rights to peacefully protest against the blatant disregard for democracy prevailing in our country. More than 200 people signed an open letter supporting the principles behind Butterflies for Democracy and condemning the abuse of LGBT people simply to curry political favour. In the wake of this issue, our 135 Campaign petition leapt to over 7700 signatures – a rise of over 1000 signatures in the months of November and December 2018 alone - urging the government of Sri Lanka to decriminalise consenting same sex relationships. This petition will be handed over to the President and the Prime Minister this week.
It is relevant to note that this movement came together during 2018’s 16 days of action against gender-based violence, which always follow the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25).
It should not be news to anyone that violence against women is at epidemic proportions the world over, and 2018 was no exception. From sexual assault to domestic violence, in countries across the global north and south, those at war and peace, in democracies, dictatorships and kingdoms alike; one thing we can rely on is that women in any society will experience violence related to their gender.
Every year, the 16 days of activism end on December 10, which is International Human Rights Day. It is completely appropriate that women’s rights are intertwined with International human rights in this symbolic way. That is really all we are talking about: basic human rights, which women are denied for as long as they cannot live free from violence.
Research that surfaced in 2018 reminded us that sexual violence is a threat that women in Sri Lanka must face every single day. An enormous 90% of Sri Lankan women reported being sexually harassed on public transport, according to research released by the UN.
Such a massive percentage should be shocking. However, many women readers will recognise the feeling of low-level anxiety that comes from being vulnerable to aggression or abuse at any time. Taking public transport is a common - and necessary - occurrence for many Sri Lankans, yet as women we must constantly take measures to protect ourselves from the very real threat of abuse.
"It should not be news to anyone that violence against women is at epidemic proportions the world over, and 2018 was no exception"
There is an overlap between having an LGBT identity and being a woman that serves to exacerbate such discrimination. It is an intersection I understand only too well. For lesbian women, vulnerability is heightened. For example, I have to anticipate angry reactions to unremarkable things, such as the way I dress or the fact that I wear my hair short.
It is interesting that 2018’s theme for the 16 days of activism was ‘End Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work.’ To me, this shows an understanding that gender-based violence infiltrates all facets of women’s lives, and must be viewed on a spectrum, where social control and oppressive behaviour end in murder and rape. We see a similar pattern of oppression against the LGBT community in Sri Lanka and beyond.
But with great adversity comes great opportunity. 2018 was also the year that our esteemed neighbour - and the world’s largest democracy - chose to shake off the remnant shackles of colonial rule and scrap its laws against same-sex intimacy. It is no longer a crime to live an ordinary life as an LGBT person in India and, just like that, millions of people are no longer criminalised for their identity.
The same cannot be said for Sri Lankan LGBT citizens who, far from seeing tangible progress, were burnt by the reckless words of an influential politician. And, of course, we still preserve Sections 365 and 365A on our statute books. These old laws which, much like the now-defunct 377 of the Indian Penal Code, were gifted to us by the British Empire, make targets of the LGBT people among us.
"Research that surfaced in 2018 reminded us that sexual violence is a threat that women in Sri Lanka must face every single day. An enormous 90% of Sri Lankan women reported being sexually harassed on public transport, according to research released by the UN"
If there is one thing 2018 has taught us, it is that human rights cannot be taken for granted, and must be demanded. In 2019, I challenge all Sri Lankan citizens to make the promotion and preservation of human rights central to all that they do. I am so proud of the Butterflies for Democracy movement for capitalising on what could easily have been a wholly negative situation.
It is high time we break the cycle of oppression of women and LGBT people. Activism is central in moving towards this social change. While I would dearly like to see us follow India’s example and scrap our archaic anti-LGBT laws, to achieve lasting progress we will have to change more than laws; we will need to change hearts and minds as well.
Nevertheless, as the new year begins, I remain suitably hopeful. As celebrated American anthropologist Margaret Mead so eloquently put it: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”