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At CEDAW, Lankan women activists call for equality and end to discrimination

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  • Activists from Sri Lanka call for reform of oppressive Muslim 
  • marriage laws 
  • CEDAW lobbied for support to decriminalise same-sex relationships 
  • Demand women’s rights be included in FR chapter of new constitution
  • Call for independent national commission on women

 By Dharisha Bastians reporting from Geneva 

Lankan activists gathered in the Swiss canton of Geneva this week to lobby the United Nations women’s rights watchdog – CEDAW – pressing the UN committee to urge the Sri Lankan Government to meet its obligations to protect women in the country from discriminatory practices, including oppressive marriage laws, a ban on same-sex unions and ongoing sexual exploitation of women and girls, especially in former war zones.

A 16-member Sri Lankan delegation representing civil society and including several young women activists addressed the 66th Session of the Geneva-based Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) at an informal discussion at the Palais des Nations on Monday (20). 

The activists mounted impassioned appeals on the urgency of reforming Muslim marriage laws that oppress and discriminate Muslim women and girls and permit child marriage, and demanded that women’s rights be enshrined in the fundamental rights chapter of the new constitution. 

Hyshyama Hamin, one of Sri Lanka’s young women activists advocating sweeping reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, told the UN Committee on Monday afternoon that Sri Lankan Muslim women continue to be rendered “second class citizens” under Muslim personal law. 

“The state has abdicated its responsibility to reform Muslim person law, on grounds that it is a matter for the Muslim Community,” Hamin told CEDAW experts. “The State must muster its political will to ensure and insist that Muslim women are treated as equals under the law,” Hamin appealed. She added that there had been a recent backlash from conservative Muslim groups, against women activists and advocates pushing for reform of the Muslim marriage laws. 

Hamin, who represents the Muslim Personal Law Reforms Action Group told Daily FT after the meeting that they would like both a strong recommendation from the committee and commitment from the Government to address issues affecting Sri Lankan Muslim women and girls regardless of whether any of the Government appointed reforms committees complete their work.

Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, Executive Director of Equal Ground, a NGO advocating for political and social rights for the LGBT community in Sri Lanka, also told the UN Committee on Women that same-sex unions continue to be criminalised in Sri Lanka. Flamer-Caldera said that while there had been no prosecutions under the offending sections of the Penal Code, misapplication of these laws by state officials had been widely documented. “Criminalisation also prevents lesbian and trans persons from accessing protection and justice for violence and discrimination perpetrated by private and public actors,” the LGBT rights activist told CEDAW. 

Lawyer and activist Shyamala Gomez, head of FOKUS Women who also spoke before the UN Committee, said there were 90,000 women headed households in the war-affected North and East.  Dr. Gomez told CEDAW that the Government had no official designation for this category, which results in these women’s exclusion from welfare, resettlement and other state programs. 

Anushani Alagarajah, who was representing the Women’s Action Network at Monday’s informal CEDAW discussion, said that women in the former conflict zones continue to be subject to sexual exploitation and sexual bribery by government officials when accessing services. Alagarajah said these were “invisible cases” that were not investigated or prosecuted. 

“Evidence indicates that the armed forces, police and other armed actors perpetrate sexual violence against women, the young activist told CEDAW. 

Kumuduni Samuel, a longtime campaigner for women’s rights in Sri Lanka, representing Women and Media Collective at the CEDAW discussion on Monday, told the Committee that it was vital that Sri Lanka sets up an independent national commission on women. Samuel also pressed for comprehensive sexual education policies to prevent pregnancies and the decriminalisation of abortion. 

Frances Harrison, representing the International Truth and Justice Project headed by Yasmin Sooka, told CEDAW that abductions, torture and sexual violence were ongoing in Sri Lanka under the Sirisena Government. The ITJP had recorded 41 such cases including one in the past two months, she added. 

“Evidence indicates that the Joseph Camp continues to be used as a torture site, as it has been under every Government with total impunity,” Harrison told the Committee. 

However, following a visit to Sri Lanka in April-May 2016, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez told a press briefing in Colombo that he had been granted access to the controversial ‘Camp Joseph’ in Vavuniya, and had found no evidence of torture cells on the premises. 

CEDAW’s 23 independent experts heard from Sri Lankan women’s rights activists just ahead of the Government’s eighth periodic review before the UN Committee on women’s rights, which will take place at the Palais des Nations today. 

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