Virginia Woolf said “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
The whole world was Sunila Abeysekera’s country as she never focused only on one country and her participation in protests did not happen only in one country, she talked and lobbied issues of human rights violations not only in Sri Lanka, but in the universal globe. In our lifetime how many of us grew up hearing “mind your own business,” but how could someone mind her/his own business when business of state and non-state actors were taking other people’s business and lives away through extortion and extra-judicial killings. Mind your own business was never Sunila Abeysekera’s way. She was involved in state affairs, political affairs and global affairs when she saw human rights being violated. She never beat around the bush, went ahead and spoke the truth at all times directly and fearlessly.
Sunila as a young woman in her early twenties visited political prisoners with food, clothing and letters from families. She came to their legal defense and kept on documenting and reporting human rights violations. She reminds us not to mind our own businesses and be complacent, but to see whether others in our community are staying well and safe. She was an all-rounder, a scholar, critic, activist, singer, writer, and actress. She could have selected an easy life with her social background. Instead, she gave up an effervescent artistic career in film and music and engaged in human rights activism. Her life is a lesson for many young women and girls today to dedicate a part of their lives to social justice issues.
Artistic career to human rights activist career
Unlike all other jobs, a job description of a human rights activist is not a written signed form of a contract given by an employer. No assigned place, no specified time to work, and no expiry date of the job description. The duties of a human rights activist is to monitor human rights violations, observe on-site human rights abuses, draft reports, complaints, and petitions, take part in protests, demonstrations, defend in courts, and the bonuses offered in the job package are tear- gas, beating, death threats, undue accusations and sometimes bullets. Many might know that she made notable performances on stage in her early twenties. Her evocative voice and breathtaking performances in stage dramas such as “Angara Ganga Gala Basee” (Angara River Flows Down), “Diriya Mawa ha Age Daruwo”, “Makara”, “Janelaya”, “Modara Mola”, “Pansa Tune Kathawa” enthralled audiences.
With her radiant smile, wise reflections, and great capacity for humanity, she also emerged as a singer for film music and her mesmerising voice will never be forgotten. Sunila, having a mesmerising voice, and a clear artistic career path, became a megastar in performing music for liberation and freedom and used her voice against social oppression. She sang songs on stage at the JVP musical event called “Vimukthi Gee” (Freedom Songs) in the 1970s, she sang for ordinary folk in villages and suburbs. She will be always remembered at future struggles, protests, hunger strikes, trade union movements, left politics and global human rights activism, because these are the places where Sunila spent most of her time.
A bridge to connect divided and the excluded
Some people who personally never encountered her initially, mistakenly identified Sunila as a privileged, English-oriented, Colombo centred woman who did not know rural issues. The truth is that she was a bridge to connect women from rural areas and Colombo with her enormous appetite for networking. She practically lived and travelled into deep rural villages in the North and South, and spent endless hours of talking to them, sitting with them on mats, eating and drinking plain tea. Basically she knew everything about women - how many kids they had, their interests and wanted to know all important details of the person she associated with. She also resided in Anuradhapura for a considerable period of time and involved in social justice issues.
The other truth was she eloquently spoke both languages; she never mixed languages, if it is in Sinhala, she spoke beautiful pure Sinhala. If it was in English, she was a relentless orator and the word of power was at her fingertips. She was born to a well-to-do family; father, a renowned and highly respected government servant from the Sri Lanka Administrative Service who was also a pillar of human rights and social justice work. Her bohemian style, elegant presence, eloquent speeches, artistic character, butterfly nature and her very presence was a style and an attraction for many young women from both third and fourth generations to become activists. She was also involved in areas where many others would be reluctant to talk at the time, such as abortions, right of women to decide on spacing and number of children, sex workers rights and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
Work on freedom of expression to right to information
When I was practising as a lawyer in my early twenties, the first time I saw Sunila was in the Supreme Court. I still remember, she came to the Supreme Court in her usual bohemian style for the hearing of the human rights case she filed on violation of her rights to receive information against Ariya Rubasinghe, the Competent Authority (Sunila Abeysekera Vs Ariya Rubasinghe, Competent Authority and Others) in 2000.
There are many stories I could share with regard to the many encounters I had with Sunila in my personal life and professional life. Sunila spoke on “women’s rights are human rights” eloquently.
Queen of humanity of our times
She fought against racial discrimination and extremism. She treated equal for all with no difference to race. She socially adopted four children and gave birth to two childrenThere are many who called Sunila ‘Amma’ (mother) and for a period of time she raised kids belonging to her Tamil friends who had to flee from their home country in 1983, and later. Two of the children she raised biologically belonged to a women’s political activist, Leena Irene Haputhantri, who faced a tragic death. People talk about celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Susmitha Sen who adopted children. Sunila was a queen of humanity who did the same. She was well known for her simplicity and humanity. She was a woman who never went after a politician for favours. Whatever she has achieved is on her own. Initially, her first born boy child was sent to a rural school in Homagama though she lived in Green Path at that time. Though she knew famous politicians including the Minister of Education, she said that “I cannot go after politicians to get my child into a Colombo school”. Her second theory was that she believed her child would travel back and forth quickly without being stuck in traffic.
Sunila never even insulted an enemy. Those are qualities that made Sunila’s life beautiful.
An inspiration to uncountable feminists
Sunila Abeysekera’s work on human rights and women’s rights has been recognised all over the world, and she was the first Sri Lankan to have been awarded the prestigious UN award for Human Rights in 1999. She received an M.A in Women and Development from the International Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands and was also given the Human Rights Defender Award from Human Rights Watch. She was awarded the Nirmala Deshpande South Asian Peace and Justice Award in 2013. Her wonderful life has been an inspiration to uncountable feminists and human rights activists across the globe.