Addressing Barriers to Family Violence Protections for LBT People In Sri Lanka

Subha Wijesiriwardena from Women and Media Collective joined OutRight staff, Rashima Kwatra, M.J. Moneymaker, and Grace Poore for an interview about our recent partnership project that focused on tackling barriers to family violence and domestic violence protections for LGBTI communities. Special thanks to Mikelle Benfield, an intern at OutRight, for transcribing the interview.

OutRight:  Can you talk about the context and situation facing primarily lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women in Sri Lanka?

Subha:  People of diverse sexual orientation and gender identities are effectively criminalized under the old 1883 British Penal Code clause 365A that remains unchanged and effectively criminalizes same-sex relations. The law kind of shapes how Sri Lankan people see things, for instance, stigmas and attitudes around same-sex relations or about people with diverse non-normative gender expressions. Sri Lanka is not a hugely repressive place especially sitting in the region that we’re sitting in. I’m very aware of the fact that many of our sisters in other parts of the region are living possibly much more difficult lives but [with the presence of the law], there is a layer of fear, anxiety that you negotiate in your day-to-day life. It makes accessing justice systems incredibly difficult because you’re worried about being detained. It makes accessing health care difficult. As long as same-sex relations are criminalized, then it makes it impossible for you to have a full realization of any of your other rights

OutRight:  Is the law enforced or is it an overbearing presence that infiltrates how LGBT people feel?

Subha:  Law enforcement uses it against people even though the courts may not have charged anyone with it for decades. It gives law enforcement entitlement to use this Penal Code clause against LGBTIQ people, hold it over someone’s head and use it to blackmail, threaten, intimidate. Certainly I think the tangible thing is that this law seeps into everyday negotiation that LGBT people have to make with society.

OutRight:  You work for an organization, Women and Media Collective. Can you talk about what your organization does and the partnership with OutRight to tackle issues in Sri Lanka?

Subha:  Women and Media Collective is a feminist organization, it’s one of Sri Lanka’s really early, more established feminist organizations. It was started in 1984 by three feminists and it led to the seeding of many other feminist organizations around the country. As a feminist organization, we have been engaging in sexuality as a core feminist issue for many years. But I think the work with OutRight was really important because it gave us an opportunity to really focus our work on sexuality in the current context. Over the last few years, [the work on sexual rights] became tied to SRHR, sexual and reproductive health and rights, particularly advocacy around reforming the abortion law because abortion is also criminalized in Sri Lanka. So we were getting stuck in a very health, medical approach, and also a very heteronormative approach to SRHR, which is what advocacy around abortion law does. It kind of automatically locks you into talking about straight women’s health basically. So I think that the work on this project with OutRight really gave us an interesting opportunity to re-energize our own politics and our own work around sexual orientation, women and gender non-conforming people, around queer feminism, which is good.

OutRight:  Did you ever get any kind of push back working on these issues in Sri Lanka? Did you ever have any kind of difficulties maneuvering these issues within the larger feminist movement?

Subha:  Oh absolutely, I would actually hesitate to even call it a larger feminist movement. I think the larger women’s movement is not always necessarily feminist. And I think those two things can be sometimes in the same basket but sometimes also visibly not in the same basket. And I think, feminist movements should always have LBT rights at the center of our agendas. I think it’s when we lose the feminism in our women’s movements that we also tend to sideline [non-conforming] sexual orientation and identities. We [Women and Media Collective] want to really work with Sri Lankan women’s movements, to realign their politics to say sexuality and gender is a key feminist issue, it needs to be at the center of our agendas and cannot be an afterthought, cannot be at the margins.

We’ve [Women and Media Collective] done advocacy related to key national processes that have been happening in Sri Lanka over the last couple of years. One was a push to remake our constitution and the other was a larger process to take us towards reconciliation because we are also, you know, a post-war country. So looking at transitional justice and what that means, how that intersects not only with women’s rights but also the rights of LBT people. We’ve also tried to constantly push for SOGIE [sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression] to be included in the Equality Clause of the Constitution, for SOGIE to be fundamentally protected as rights. We foreground these issues in mainstream national processes, which I think has given it [SOGIE issues] some visibility at least in civil society, which is good. Civil society wasn’t talking about SOGIE in Sri Lanka a few years ago and now we kind of are, which, I think that’s good.  

OutRight:  When you talk to women’s groups and try to explain to them that sexuality is a feminist issue, how do you explain it to them?

Subha:  One of the tools that we [Women and Media Collective] use is actually an essay that my mother, Sunila Abeysekera wrote in the early 1990s but is still so advanced, still so forward thinking. She wrote “Sexuality, a Feminist Issue?” question mark. She talked about needing to understand that the control of women’s sexuality is the most historic patriarchal tool, and if you’re talking about women’s rights, therefore you’re talking about women’s autonomy, and you cannot deny that sexuality is at the center of [this discussion] because it is about controlling women’s bodies, sexual choices and freedoms. So we approach the women’s movements and women’s groups to say, that’s why sexuality is a key feminist issue, because the attempt to control sexuality is at the root of patriarchy.  I think the women’s movement is open to it but I think there are deeply entrenched prejudices that you come across when you start chipping away at the block.

OutRight: How do you convince heterosexual women’s groups to extend their recognition of sexuality as a feminist issue to lesbianism and non-heteronormative gender? For instance, when they say that culturally, religiously, this is against our culture?

Subha: I think as feminists, if we start critiquing the heteronormative family structure, for example, it’s easy to show that actually queer women are fundamentally challenging patriarchy just in being themselves because their sexual choice is an assault on the patriarchal heteronormative family structure. We don’t choose men as partners, we don’t choose men as lovers, we don’t choose men as companions. So women’s movements need to protect them [lesbians] and we need to stand by and support them because they are challenging structures that we [feminist women’s movements] are trying to challenge all the time. [Another] of the ways in which we approach it with women’s groups or women’s movements is to also talk about desire and pleasure, and when you start talking about this, you need to keep saying LBT, you really can’t negate that then.

OutRight:  On this project you mentioned that this was an opportunity to focus more on LBT. What were some of the things that you did within this project?

Subha:  In 2014, a local queer women’s organization, which unfortunately does not exist any more, worked on a study that was looking at violence faced by LBT people in Sri Lanka and what were the different levels of violence. The report revealed that [while] there is state violence and structural violence, family violence is a very common experience for LBT people, and it’s something that’s almost harder to negotiate than state or structural violence because of the cultural trappings around how family violence takes place. So this finding was very important and the OutRight project was an opportunity for us [Women and Media Collective] to follow through on the finding.

One part of the work on the project was working to strengthen mental health services for LBT people, to give them the support to deal better with family violence, domestic violence, and intimate partner violence. This work required us to develop a manual for counselors and train counselors to be able to respond better to LBT clients coming from situations of family violence. The other part was working with grassroots level women’s groups who are also first responders. They are the first sort of place that a queer woman might go to. So we wanted to sensitize them and give them the tools to also be able to respond better to LBT people who might come to them with issues of family violence or intimate partner violence.

The third part of the work was really trying to intervene with the Sri Lankan state [during the constitution remaking process]. Internationally, we also made recommendations at CEDAW. For the first time we authored an LBT specific shadow report that we wrote in collaboration with many other queer women from the community. So, we were pleased to highlight LBT issues in its own report.

OutRight:  Is there a reason that Women and Media Collective decided to focus on lesbians, bisexual women, and trans and not gay men also? Because gay men also experience family violence and partner violence.

Subha:  Instead of seeing it as an exclusion of the ‘G’, I think we have to see that we are talking specifically talking about family and domestic violence in the larger context of structural violence against women. Domestic and family violence are such culturally steeped things and we know that women experience them uniquely. We wanted to be able to dedicate an analysis to this. We’re not saying that gay men don’t experience family violence, of course they do, but I think the way violence affects women is still unique because of larger violence against women as a way of life, and lesbians, bisexual women and gender non-conforming people experience violence uniquely and in specific ways because of misogyny embedded so deeply in our structures and society.

OutRight: You initiated a social media strategy. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Subha:  It was quite clear that there were so many things that one had to consider. Like, I didn’t want to just go in there with a big public campaign to raise lots of hoo-ha about what we were doing because it could potentially end up being harmful or counterproductive to the work that we were doing and the people that we were trying to positively impact. Since the project was LBT-focused and because we were talking about family violence, it was a doubly sensitive area.

What we did was take a two-pronged approach. One approach was to do social media work to address the fact that LBT people were facing violence, encouraging them not to accept the violence, and saying they don’t have to be alone, encouraging them to ask for help, and giving phone numbers that they could call for mental health services. With family violence, often the problem is that a lot of people are uncomfortable identifying it as violence because it’s coming from your father, mother, or brother, or someone you love, It’s complicated. We produced social media material and disseminated it to clearly identifiable sites where I knew LBT people are going to be. I knew the target audience is there, closed groups, pages, online chat groups. It was easy to be sure that the right people were seeing the material. Also a lot of queer women in Colombo, at least in the city are really good with chat groups like WhatsApp groups, Viber groups where they discuss lots of women stuff, so we were able to disseminate the information through those networks as well.

The next part of the campaign was more to the public, where we were no longer speaking specifically to LBT people but to their friends, families.  We were trying to do myth busting, like queering the discourse around domestic violence, trying to disrupt how we understand family, that family doesn’t always mean father, mother, children. In Sri Lanka, the domestic violence discourse is quite heteronormative, women are victims of their husbands. But we also wanted to say that, hey, women in same-sex relationships can be experiencing intimate partner violence or they could be experiencing family violence at hands of people they love or their relatives.

OutRight: The online sometimes influences the offline, the offline influences the online. How did you see what you were doing on social media roll out to some of the trainings you were doing on the ground?

Subha: We knew for sure, that LBT people accessed these spaces all the time. For us it was absolutely essential that we had visibility for this information in those spaces. Because that is where LBT communities organize, how they discuss things, how they network. Whether that [social media] actually translates into LBT people accessing mental health services, I think it’s a little bit too early to tell, because this was literally rolled out a few months ago.

OutRight:  Going forward, how do you think Women and Media Collective might build upon what has been done so far in the project?

Subha:  I think we would definitely be really keen to see how the counselor’s manual has an impact over time, because I think it’s a landmark resource. When we started writing it we were really in the dark, like there’s nothing like it at all in Sri Lanka at the moment. We’d be really keen to see how counselors use it and how they do trainings for other counselors across their networks. The other key piece of work that we really want to continue is with the women’s groups. Women and Media is an activist organization. We see ourselves as part of the women’s movement, we see ourselves as having core responsibility for the larger women’s movements and struggles in Sri Lanka. That’s where our strengths are, that’s also where our relationships are, to really work with women’s groups and to really refocus sexuality as a key feminist issue and to really queer that discourse for women’s groups.

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