Some might have viewed my desired visit to Sri Lanka as an effort to criticise but that was certainly not my intention, US Ambassador-at-large for Women’s Issues Catherine Russell said during a video conference session with local women rights and civil society organizations today.
Speaking to the gathering at the American Centre via video, she said the US remained deeply committed to assisting Sri Lanka.
“Since 2009 the US has provided humanitarian assistance, legal services and has worked together with local institutions on preventing gender based violence and trafficking. During the last five years alone, funds worth 40 million USD has been given to Sri Lanka to complete successful programs for the welfare of women,” she said while quoting some of the most recent successfully completed projects including the establishment of crisis intervention services and awareness raising campaigns on domestic violence – both carried out with the partnership of local Women’s Rights Group, Women in Need (WIN).
She said the message she wished to convey through her visit was one that has been promoted by the Obama administration throughout the world; peace, prosperity and economic growth can only be achieved with the full participation of women.
However, she also highlighted the comments made by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal during her visit to Sri Lanka last week concerning the rise in corruption and impunity pointing out that such developments would result in a grave impact on women as they are often at the receiving end of it.
Ambassador Russell also raised concerns over the erosion of the rule of law, the lack of prosecutions of sexual assault cases, prolonged delay of court proceedings on sexual assaults and rape cases and stressed on the need for implementation of a strong witness protection programme in the country. “We are also extremely concerned over the rise in rape and sexual assault causes in Sri Lanka. Although these increases might reflect the increase of reporting it is also necessary to raise concern over the real increase of the violence directed at women.”
Meanwhile, the representatives of the civil society originations and the women’s rights groups from Colombo and Jaffna which included WIN, Viludu – Center for Human Resource Development etc. also received a chance to voice their concerns to Ambassador Russell concerning the issues affecting women, particularly in the post conflict context.
Among the issues highlighted was the reduction of militarization in the North, providing effective livelihood schemes for war widows and the working towards protecting women from the increased domestic violence cases in the conflict effected zones. Concerns were also raised regarding the resurgence of nationalism and its impact on policies affecting women.
Meanwhile, the women rights groups from Jaffna who spoke at the conference also raised their disconcert over having to obtain approval from the Presidential Task Force to implement development projects while stressing on the importance of proper planning and execution of NGO funded development assistance programs in order for them to be more meaningful.
Ms. Russell was due to visit Sri Lanka as part of her visit to South Asia. However, on February 3 the US embassy publicly expressed regret concerning the Lankan government’s refusal to authorise her visit. However, the External Affairs Ministry responded to the US Embassy statement denying claims of visa rejection while adding they only requested for a rescheduling of the visit, which the US embassy rejected.
Ambassador Russell was once the Chief of Staff to Jill Biden - wife of US Vice President Joe Biden. Having held several important portfolios, she has also served as the Staff Director to the Senate Judiciary Committee under Senator Biden. Having visited India and Nepal, she is due to arrive in Pakistan today. (Kelum Bandara and Lakna Paranamanna)