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Remembering Sunila, honouring women’s human rights defenders

Charlotte Bunch pays tribute to Sunila Abeysekera (1952-2013), a courageous feminist and human rights advocate within Sri Lanka, and a leader in South Asia and globally.

Sunila at the World Social Forum, Porto Alegre 2005. Credit: Susanna George

The world lost an extraordinary, brave and articulate voice for human rights when Sunila Abeysekera (1952-2013) lost her battle with cancer on September 9th in Colombo. For many of us, we lost one of our most trusted and beloved friends and feminist thinkers who was a beacon of insight and commitment always prodding us to examine a different angle on an issue, learn from another movement or book, devise a new strategy, and never give up.  She also had a playful relish for life - its joys as well as its contradictions - with a love for the arts and popular culture, for pistachio ice cream and string hoppers as well as for politics and gossip.  Even amid the difficulties of a defender’s life, she snatched time to watch the latest movies and read voraciously – discarding used pot-boilers in airports and pondering post-modern feminist theory to discuss in our “free time”. She gave birth to two children on different continents, and adopted several more as the need arose,  incorporating them seamlessly into what her daughter Subha hailed at her funeral as her “unconventional” life of activism and love.

A courageous feminist and human rights advocate within Sri Lanka, Sunila was also a leader in South Asia and globally. She was at the forefront on many issues, fighting relentlessly for justice and human rights on behalf of all who experienced discrimination and persecution, whether on the basis of their politics, race-ethnicity, nationality or culture, class, gender or sexual orientation.  Sunila embodied both an intersectional analysis and the connection between the local and the global. Deeply grounded in her national context, she also participated in international movements, and walked the halls of the UN in Geneva and New York on behalf of all her causes.

A singer and actress by training, Sunila began her work as a Human Rights Defender in the mid 1970’s in a nonpartisan interethnic organization protecting leaders in her country’s youth movement. She become a key figure in numerous Sri Lankan civil society groups over the ensuing decades - as a founder of the Women and Media Collective, as an advocate for women workers in the free-Trade Zones and the tea plantations, and then in support of the Mothers Front and Women for Peace that stood up against state repression in her country’s long and deadly ethnic conflict.  

In 1990, as violent repression and terrorism in Sri Lanka increased, she assumed  leadership of INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre. Over the next two decades, she worked across deep ethnic divides in seeking accountability for human rights violations by all sides in the war and demanding a negotiated political solution.  Like her father, Charles Abeysekera who died in 1998, she became a leading voice for human rights in her country and in her work at the UN.

While her island was always home, Sunila had an abiding curiosity about the world and  traveled widely. She spent a high school year in California as an exchange student where she developed a vast knowledge of US popular culture and folk music, which she often sang. She studied “women and development” at the Institute for Social Studies in The Hague in 1977, where she moved into an apartment with a Jamaican and a Peruvian instead of sticking with her national group. In 1994, she worked in Peru with Centro de la Mujer Peruana Flora Tristan as part of a feminist South-South exchange program. She lived several times in The Hague and in Kuala Lumpur when she needed to escape her homeland. She traveled endlessly for events everywhere, including the World Social Forums where she helped organize Feminist Dialogues.

Sunila and Lala Huarou, China 1995. Credit: Fatima Jaffer

I met Sunila when we were both exploring feminist connections globally at the 1985 NGO Forum held with the UN World Conference on Women in Nairobi. The following year, I traveled to India and Sri Lanka with Roxanna Carrillo – her Peruvian roommate and now my life partner - as part of a cross-cultural feminist team that experienced the intensity of her work and the dynamism of South Asian feminism first hand. 

Our long friendship was forged during the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights in the 1990’s that sought recognition of women’s rights as human rights at the UN World Conferences in Vienna, Cairo, and Beijing and advocated for gender analysis at the World Conference on Racism in Durban in 2001.  With her knowledge of the UN Human Rights system and her experience in mainstream human rights movements, Sunila taught  us much about this work in her gentle and uncomplicated way. Her presence has been crucial to bringing feminist analysis to human rights work in many areas such as peace and security, refugees, and sexual rights to name only a few.    

Sunila also knew the movement had to be multi-generational and sought to keep up with new ideas and younger women. She was a resource person in leadership institutes at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers, as well in our joint institutes with the network of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) in Istanbul and Lagos.  She was a frequent presence at many leadership workshops and activities held in the Asian region; her generosity with her time and knowledge is noted by many groups throughout the world who have held tributes to her.  

One of Sunila’s major contributions over the last decade was building awareness of and support for women’s human rights defenders. As a defender and feminist who lived with threats to her life and in exile, she led with great authenticity and could bring feminist and human rights organizations together.  She spearheaded the first International Consultation held on this subject in Colombo in 2005, and guided the work of the Women’s Human Rights Defenders International Coalition, an advocacy network that formed out of that meeting.  She also served as chair of the Board of the Urgent Action Fund that supports women activists in crisis. 

Sunila at an Urgent Action Board meeting in 2007

November 29th was declared International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders at the end of the 2005 Consultation on that date.  This is part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence Campaign (Nov. 25-Dec 10), and in 2013, we will honour Sunila and other defenders who have died this past year.  

In this 20th anniversary year since the Vienna Human Rights Conference in 1993, the loss of Sunila is particularly poignant. We miss her profoundly, but the impact of her work and vision lives on in the many women and men who she touched and her spirit will accompany us forever.

Read Sunila writing on openDemocracy 50.50A brutal manifestation of patriarchy and Challengung ourselves at Beijing+15

To read a collection of memories of Sunila go to www.Sunilaabeysekera.com  and further tributes at AWID:  Remembering Sunila: A tribute to the life and work of Sunila Abeysekera

About the author

Charlotte Bunch, Founding Director and Senior Scholar, at the Center for Women's Global Leadership, Rutgers University, has been an activist, author and organizer in the women's, civil, and human rights movements for four decades. She is also a distinguised professor in the department of Women's and Gender Studies, Rutgers. She is the author of numerous essays and has edited nine anthologies including the Center's reports on the UN Beijing Plus 5 Review and the World Conference Against Racism. Her books include two classics: Passionate Politics: Feminist Theory in Action and Demanding Accountability: The Global Campaign and Vienna Tribunal for Women's Human Rights


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