Today, Homosexuality is still a criminal offense in Sri Lanka
Good afternoon to you all. I am happy to be here today speaking on behalf of ILGA.
I would like to talk with you today about multiple discrimination in a developing country
and ways in which awareness around the multiple discrimination of sexual orientations and gender identities can increase, find a platform for recourse in these countries and by calling on the United Nations to take a positive step in recognizing the rights of minorities, especially those whose sexual orientation and gender identity make them vulnerable to attack - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually - every day of their lives.
After giving you a brief introduction to ILGA – the International Lesbian and Gay Association - I will share with you some of experiences from my own country of Sri Lanka.
Giving examples of what it is like to be a woman, an ethnic minority, and a lesbian.
I will also share a little bit about what organizations in Sri Lanka are doing to help - emphasizing why a UN Resolution is important.
Firstly, about ILGA:
• ILGA is the only Global Federation of member organizations and individuals dedicated to the emancipation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trangenders all over the world.
• It currently has over 400 members in over 90 different countries and on every single continent.
• Throughout its 27-year history, ILGA has consistently maintained gender equality and places women’s issues at the forefront.
• As was mentioned, I am the current female co-secretary general of ILGA
• My counterpart is a male Co-Secretary General; similarly, there are also dual gender board representatives from each of ILGA’s 6 regions.
• ILGA has also grown through input from its members and responded several years ago to the call to include Transgender issues and rights in its platform for action.
There are three member organizations of ILGA in Sri Lanka and an increase in membership from the Asian region. Although I will be giving you examples of what it is like in Sri Lanka, there are distinct similarities between Sri Lanka and some of the other countries in the Asian region.
A multiethnic country of 20 million people, Sri Lanka has only recently, started addressing Human Rights and the need for laws and regulations to safeguard these rights.
Although Sri Lanka can boast of having had the first Woman Prime Minister and now has a woman President, it has not succeeded as yet in establishing stronger gender policies.
While some strides have been made, the struggle to attain more recognition and protection for women continues. Currently, there are less than 4% of women represented in parliament and there continues to be a patriarchal structure that systematically excludes women and discourages their participation in several key areas of the Government and Public sectors.
Women are not the only minority group seeking further protection. The Human Rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trangender community have consistently been rejected or ignored.
Today, Homosexuality is still a criminal offense in Sri Lanka, as it is in many of the states in the Region. Sri Lanka is unique however, as criminalization also applies to Lesbians.
An example of how efforts to gain rights for women intersected with sexual orientation back-fired. Ironically, an attempt was made in 1995 to decriminalize homosexuality.
In the process, the Ministry of Justice found Penal Code 365A to be ‘gender biased’ – and added Lesbians to it as well. I say it is ironic because in most instances the government fails to be gender sensitive yet they chose this particular issue to be seen as ‘doing the right thing!’
Declaring ‘Singhalese’ language and people as the main citizens of Sri Lanka helped fuel what turned out to be a 20-year civil war.
As in most countries, the multiple-facets of discrimination that we strive to reconcile and overcome today have a history that has become interwoven with Sri Lankan culture and the country’s development.
Let me relate what it is like to be a woman and a Lesbian
in a male dominated country like Sri Lanka.
Firstly as a woman:
• She does not have control over her reproductive rights.
• She does not have a say in family inheritance.
• She usually cannot choose her own partner.
• In some cases she does not have the ability to be educated.
• She is forced to give way to the males of her family as well as outsiders.
• A woman has limited movement – most often being chaperoned by a male member of the family.
• She is forced to accept jobs that are for ‘women only’ and unable to fulfill her dream to be a mechanic, a bus driver or an airline pilot.
• She is at risk when she travels in public transport and she is prone to sexual harassment at her job.
Too many women are silent victims of sexual abuse or gender-based violence of some form – mental, emotional, physical, spiritual.
Depending on her ethnicity, she is forced to behave and act in a way that is ‘fitting’ a woman of her culture – which may include accepting domestic violence as a norm to save the reputation of her family.
In most cases, married women who seek to divorce, lose custody of their children as courts generally grant custody to the male.
Women, in general, do not have the space in Sri Lankan society to talk about sex, reproductive rights, or their sexuality. Sex is a taboo subject in any case.
Sri Lanka is multicultural and multi ethnic. Women from the Tamil, Muslim, Burgher and other minorities face enormous hardships just because they are minorities.
The Tamil estate workers for example are paid poorly and work in the plantations under harsh conditions. In wind and rain, in extremely hot and humid conditions, they toil for less than minimum wage.
They live in line rooms often sleeping 10 to 12 in a small room barely enough to hold 2 people. They have little access to health care and live on a meager existence.
In the 20 year civil war women bore the brunt of the conflict, forced into refugee camps, and facing mental and physical trauma every day of their lives.
Unfortunately, it is the very same community that has been hit even harder by the forces of nature in the recent Tsunami.
During the conflict era, Tamil women walking on the streets in Colombo and elsewhere were picked up at random and detained by police and Special Forces and in most instances, raped and beaten.
Therefore, being a Lesbian is even more challenging to a Sri Lankan woman.
• She is most often forced to dress and act in a hetero-normative way.
• She is most often forced into heterosexual marriage – which is often arranged.
• She is expected to uphold the family reputation - forced to hide her sexuality to avoid bringing shame.
• She faces discrimination from every section – family, friends, peers, colleagues etc.
• She is forced to live in secrecy - most cases not fulfilling her desire for another woman. If ‘out’ a lesbian is often denied employment because she is too different.
• She is not considered for employed in establishments that work with youth and children.
• She lives with the constant threat of rape and sexual abuse by those who feel they can ‘cure’ her and show her how to be heterosexual.
• Whether she is from a prominent sector of society or from a less privileged background, she is constantly forced to hide her feelings and her sexuality.
• Because she is forced to suppress her sexuality and to live a lie – she has added stress that sometimes leads to self-harm and/or suicide.
In trying to combat these many discriminations, organizations such as Equal Ground and the Women’s Support Group lend support to Lesbians, Bisexual and Transgender persons in Sri Lanka. They are both ILGA members.
They offer peer support, education and awareness, legal assistance and counseling.
Reaching out to an ‘invisible’ community is a constant challenge. The need to protect themselves and their constituents is always kept in mind. The organizations themselves are discriminated against, as they are unable to register as an NGO because of the Penal Code 365A.
The Women’s Support Group has the added challenge that none of their current staff members and most of their memberships are not ‘out’ – often limiting what they are able to do. The simplicity of adding a street address to a website or letterhead for example, is not a possibility in Sri Lanka as the risks are too great. Risks include physical attacks, harassment from government agencies and others, invasion of privacy, and closure.
The organizations addressing the issues of sexually marginalized persons provide a very essential service to these people. Yet they are constantly under threat and face enormous hardships trying to reach out especially at grassroots level.
Further, because of the Government’s stubbornness and lack of resolve to recognize sexual orientations and gender identities, there is no government funding for these organizations.
All of them seek and rely on international funding to enable them to continue with their much needed work. ILGA’s interest in a Resolution at UN level
to recognize and safeguard the rights of sexual minorities is articulated by the hundreds of LGBT organizations and persons around the globe who face multiple forms of discrimination – such as the intersection of ethnicity, gender, culture and sexual orientation I’ve shared from my experience in Sri Lanka.
The Human Rights of those whose sexual orientations and gender identity differ from the hetero normative, must be safeguarded.
It is the responsibility of Institutions like the United Nations and ultimately the Governments of every country to make sure that Human Rights are not just for a select few, but are for every human being regardless of class, caste, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
I would like to conclude now by thanking the Permanent Mission of Finland and the Finnish Advisory Board on International Human Rights Affairs for inviting me to speak here. And thank you all, for being here today.12th April 2005, UNCHR Panel on “Human rights for All: Taking action against Multiple Discrimination” organized by the Permanent Mission of Finland with the Finnish Advisory Board on International Human rights Affairs