Photo courtesy of Asia News

Excerpts from the Sunila Abeysekera Commemoration Lecture

I thought I would talk about Sunila’s involvement in the seminal moments of the international violence against women movement. Given the violence that has engulfed the world today, this may be a good time to refresh our thoughts and approaches.

Today practically every donor and every important NGO has a project on violence against women, either in terms of service delivery, advocacy or research. And yet until the 1990s, violence against women was a taboo subject, never really broached at the local level and considered an issue of national jurisdiction with no interest at the international level. CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, when it was initially drafted, had no section on important violence against women concerns like domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment or female genital mutilation. It was only in the 1990s, that the CEDAW Committee drafted a special recommendation to cover these issues in the monitoring and reporting of states.

It took an international movement and a campaign, emanating from the grassroots and leading to Vienna, New York and Geneva, to change these perceptions. Sunila Abeysekera was a key actor and a crucial figure in this movement. Along with Charlotte Bunch, Roxanna Carrillo and her extraordinary network of women activists they created worldwide momentum and made it happen.

I will now go on to give a chronology of events that led to the international embrace of violence against women as an important subject area and then discuss some of the substantive issues.

Since the 1970s, there were various activities especially in different parts of the world on issues relating to violence against women. In 1985 at the World Conference in Nairobi, where there was large scale NGO participation, a paragraph was introduced into the final document. But the real mobilization came in the 1990s.

The 1990s were an extraordinary time for progressive thinking and human rights generally. The World Conference on Human Rights held in 1993 in Vienna brought diverse groups from all over the world and the number of the special procedures of the Human Rights Council also multiplied. But for women it was an extraordinary decade. There was General Recommendation 19 of the CEDAW Committee, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Declaration of the Population Conference in Cairo, the creation of the post of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, the Palermo Trafficking Protocol, and the creation of the International Criminal Court with its comprehensive provisions on sexual violence against women.

From the 1970s there were existing networks in all parts of the world that dealt with specific issues of violence. For example there was the movement in Latin America against domestic violence and honour killings, there were African women doctors like Nawal El Sadaawi who were campaigning against female genital mutilation, there were many groups in South East Asia combatting the trafficking of women, others in East Asia fully involved with the problem of comfort women during world war two, and many in Europe and North America striving for better laws and responses with regard to rape. There were also many groups working in armed conflict areas that were struggling with issues like sexual violence and the problem of refugee and the internally displaced women. The wars in Rwanda Bosnia and Herzrgovina would heighten momentum on these issues. All these groups until the 1990s worked in isolation.

It was Charlotte Bunch working with Sunila Abeysekera and Latin American feminists like Alda Facio, feminist thinkers like Rebecca Cook and women’s groups like Gabriella in the Philippines thought of the umbrella concept of violence against women to include all these diverse movements and to frame them in terms of human rights. If one frames something as a human right, the wording of the UN Charter immediately makes it an international issue and human rights is the only concept in the UN Charter that derogates from the doctrine of sovereignty. The actions of the national state then come under international scrutiny. Since practically all the member states of the United Nations did little to prevent or hold accountable those who committed violence against women, it was felt that an international framework was necessary. Using this framework makes all members of the United Nations then acquire a legal obligation.

It was Charlotte and Sunila’s strategy among others to bring these ideas about violence against women and human rights to the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993 and have states adopt this analysis and framework in their Declaration and Programme of Action. Charlotte, in her iconic persuasive piece, spelt out how violence against women affects the full spectrum of human rights, the trigger word that would give the cause international attention.

Sunila, along with Latin American feminists, had another concern. Sunila was always afraid that the human rights framework may lead to a focus on individuals. Her political leanings were such that she felt that social structures, ideologies and attitudes must also be tackled and the differential impact on class and race recognised. For this, in all her writings on violence against women, she spoke about the causes and consequence. That was her mantra – violence against women, including its causes and consequences.

The institution that steered this campaign on violence against women and women’s rights as human rights was the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. Kathryn Sikkink in her book Activists Across Borders describes this process in detail. In May 1990 the Centre had its first planning meeting on the theme of violence against women and women’s rights as human rights and 21 women from all the regions of the world attended, including Sunila. One of the initiatives they came up with in the following year was the idea of 16 days of activism on violence against women to follow November 25, which Latin American feminists called the day to commemorate violence against women. The following November there were campaigns in all the 21 countries. After that and to this day, sixteen days of activism still continues in many countries, especially in Latin America.

In February 1993, the Institute called a strategic meeting with women from all over the world to plan for the Vienna Conference on Human Rights that they felt would be a decisive UN event. Before the days of the internet these global conferences were often the only spaces where global civil society could meet and discuss common issues. The Institute began an international petition for the Vienna conference to recognise women’s rights as human rights and to take action against violence against women. By the time of the Conference, in days without social media, they collected over 600,000 signatures from 123 countries.

The planners also decided to have a Women’s Tribunal, where victim survivors from all over the world would come and give their testimony of their experiences of violence. This was extremely unusual for a UN community that earlier focused on the issues of equality and discrimination in a more technical sense. Perhaps one of the most riveting moments of the Tribunal was listening to the comfort women from Japanese occupation who were now in their 80s describe their experiences of sexual slavery. Today victim survivors giving public testimony is not an unusual thing but in the 1990s in that climate of shame and unease, it was still very unusual and much of the audience was hearing this kind of testimony for the first time at an official United Nations conference.

The activism at the world conference was very successful and the Declaration and the Platform of the Conference called on the United Nations General Assembly to adopt a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and called on the United Nations Human Rights Commission at that time to create the post of Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and of course including its causes and consequences. By December that year, the General Assembly  passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and in April the next year the Human Rights Council passed the resolution to create the position of Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, including its causes and consequences Bothe were greeted with wild applause as women’s organisations filled the gallery. The culmination of this international momentum was the Beijing World Conference in 1995 when violence against women, after years of not being recognized, became the centrepiece of the global agenda.

The mobilisation around this issue became, as Kathryn Sikkink, suggests a model for international action around important concerns, whether it be children, the environment or anything else. Dispersed networks on a particular theme begin at the national or regional level as an immediate response to inequality or injustice. Over time they connect internationally and become united by civil society actors asking for multilateral action.  An international campaign  is mounted to persuade member states and UN officials. This leads to heightened awareness and lobbying resulting  in a world conference of some kind, international legal instruments and the creation of special procedures. The issue is thereby mainstreamed and integrated. International standards are created and monitoring and reporting systems set up. This is the bottoms up process in the international system. Beginning at the local level, momentum builds for international action. The modern parallel to this is the contemporary environment and climate change movement.

A discerning person would ask so where did the money come from for mobilising all this international action? We must admit that similar funding does not exist for women’s labour rights for example. The 1990s was also the time when progressive women began to engage with existing institutions and were beginning to find employment with the United Nations and leading liberal foundations. We had Noeline Heyzer, Joanne Sandler and Roxanna Carrillo at UNIFEM and Roxanna actually helped set up a Trust fund for violence against women  We had Marg Schuler at AED, we had Carmen Barrosa at the McCarthur Foundation and also very progressive people at the Ford Foundation. They helped fund the Global Fund for women and all these events described above. The character of these institutions has changed over time but in the 1990s they were very rights and social justice oriented. The difference between then and now is then the donors listened to us, we created the frameworks, but now in some contexts, donors have frameworks and templates that they impose, especially in the area of violence against women.

The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women passed in 1993 captures the substantive programme of that whole generation of feminists and it would be interesting to revisit its approach. It set the standards of that era.  Rebecca Cook of Toronto University led the effort of drafting but Sunila Abeysekera was also very involved in the discussion. Picking up on the theme of women’s rights are human rights, the Declaration places violence against women squarely within the human rights tradition and framework. But it is perhaps best known for this paragraph in the preamble which adopts the approach on the violence against women framework put forward by Katherine McKinnon who lead the domestic agitation on violence against women in the United States, actually inventing the legal concept of sexual harassment that we now all take for granted.

It reads, “ Recognising that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women”. This recognition that violence against women is related to structures of power is quite unusual for a United Nations document. Today in a world where even human rights has to be mentioned cautiously one wonders if similar wording would pass.

The Declaration separates violence into different categories – violence in the family, violence in the community and violence perpetrated or condoned by the state. It is also culture blind with Article 4 stating that States should not invoke any custom, tradition or religious consideration with respect to eliminating violence against women. The Declaration recognizes violence as physical, sexual and psychological and then goes onto provide clear guidelines to states and international organisations.

The Declaration for the first time in a UN document includes the prohibition of what it terms “female genital mutilation”. Earlier the phrasing was “traditional practices harmful to the health of women”, or female circumcision. This radical conceptualization emphasizing the brutal nature of the practice was very much a product of the 1990s. Today academia, especially anthropologists have reacted against this formulation. There have been powerful articles written by anthropologists from Sierra Leone and other countries condemning the conceptualization of this cultural practice as mutilation. However, they may have to be reminded that the campaign against this practice was actually begun by African woman doctors.

The Declaration also introduced the concept of “forced prostitution” implying prostitution that is not forced is permissible. One wonders if this formulations would survive the General Assembly in these culturally conservative times. The recent CEDAW Committee recommendation on trafficking implies not. With the recent policy adopted in many countries of criminalizing clients, there is little recognition in most societies of sex work based on consent.

For the lawyers out there, once violence against women was seen as a human rights issue, the question arose as to which legal doctrine within the human rights tradition would capture its concerns especially when it came to domestic violence. This is because criminal acts like domestic violence are supposed to be the jurisdiction and the responsibility of national states. The late Rhonda Copeland wrote extensively that torture should be the framework for analysis – the notion of individual criminal responsibility at the international level for intentionally inflicting pain and suffering. Others argued that equality should be the frame. Focusing on the notion of state responsibility they argued we should compare how violence against women was treated by states in comparison with other crimes. How many people are arrested, how may are prosecuted? How many are convicted? This would show the blatant discrimination that women have to suffer with regard to the criminal justice system.

In the end it was the due diligence doctrine, the doctrine around the concept of impunity initially articulated in the Inter American case Velasquez Rodrigo vs. Honduras that emerged as the doctrine adopted in the Declaration. States have a due diligence duty to prevent, prosecute and punish those who have committed violence against women. As Special Rapporteur, in one of my reports, I spelt out the standards on how this due diligence can be measured and I think it is still used today. The State’s duty toward victims and tackling the impunity of private actors by measuring due diligence became the preferred human rights legal standard.

Traditional human rights lawyers were not happy with these developments in the 1990s though they take it for granted today. Due diligence standards imply that women’s groups would sometimes have to partner with the criminal justice system to put people into jail. As protectors of the rights of criminal defenders, especially political prisoners, traditional human rights activists were worried about this emerging partnership. There concerns did turn out to be valid in certain instances as women continues to grapple with the increasing criminalisation of the agenda.

Having outlined the developments in the 1990s, it is important to see their implications today for what is happening in the area of violence against women. The one thing Sunila shared with all of us was a faith in internationalism and the constructive engagement with international civil society and international organisations. For her it was always an endeavour to create universal, international standards and set up international systems of monitoring and reporting. One forgets but the Left in Sri Lanka was once very internationalist, it was part of their its core identity. Sunila carried that international spirit wherever she went with friends and networks all over the world.

Since then, there has been increasing disenchantment,  cynicism and a push particularly from the academy for a return to localism. The international level, universal standards were frowned upon and deconstructed. This is apparent in all the countries of the global south as well as in the north. The return of populist governments has also emphasized this trend at the social level. This has taken its toll on certain types of activism with regard to women at multilateral levels.

Another reaction was resistance in the southern countries to what I would call “the arrogant gaze” of the north toward women’s issues in the south. As violence against women agitation grew in momentum the spotlight shifted to southern religious and cultural practices that had to be eliminated. But the tone and the nature of the campaign was such that many progressive men and women reacted by naming it colonialism of a new sort. They rejected the universal framework altogether, calling again for more localism and indigenous activism that would fully understood the nature of women’s experiences. Southern feminists openly clashed with northern feminists and accused them of not understanding the nuances and contexts of women’s reality in the south. Some of the analysis coming from the academy, for example Gayatri Spivak on the practice of Sati, called into question the erasure of the southern woman’s voice and her agency in certain cultural contexts. I wonder what would be the present day response to the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against passed with such gusto by feminists of a different era that clearly states that local culture must bow down to international norms.

Secondly, the human rights framework that launched violence against women at the multilateral level is slowly giving way to a punitive criminal justice framework. This has resulted in the distancing of traditional human rights groups who focus on due process from some of the punitive demands of what is now called carceral feminism. In India the calls for castration and the denial of due process rights to those accused of rape was an example where human rights activists moved away from some of the women’s organisations. In the area of trafficking as we all know there is a strong division between aggressively punitive feminists and those who speak about sexual agency especially among sex workers. Sunila was very active in the late stages of her life in trying to structure and resolve this debate.

Thirdly, all the developments in the 1990s were to fight for the rights of “women” or violence against women. Judith Butler and other theorists both in the north and south have upended this comfort by challenging the category of woman, asking that it be replaced by gender. The LGBTIQ movement that engages in international advocacy is asking for a major change in law and interpretation. They are also focused on developing international standards on sexual and reproductive rights. Sunila when she was alive was also part of this agitation. At the moment member states as a whole are  do not seem ready for these developments and led by the Vatican they lobby against any resolution or action that may hint at recognizing gender rights. Some women’s groups are also resisting this transformation, insisting that the word woman with all its biological connotations should continue to be used. This is leading to disunity and disruption in international mobilization and action. As someone said to me recently, this is when you miss someone like Sunila.

Fourthly, Sunila’s deep concerns that the human rights framework may become individual focused and lose sight of economic and social power structures that result in violence is also coming true. For the most part the economic and social rights of women in terms of labour or class have been erased from the international women’s rights agenda. There have been recent attempts to reintroduce the concept of intersectionality to ensure that we analyse and act based on the different realities of class, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. The Black lives matter movement and similar actions around the world may bring these issues back into focus in the future. But for the moment, universal norms, that focus on the individual and are race and class blind remain the main analytic framework.

Finally human rights methodology that was once so liberating is beginning to pose a new set of problems. The Women’s Tribunal at Beijing focused on the need to collect women’s testimonies. Today, with media and celebrity power, survivor testimonies are beginning to lose their authenticity. When we took testimony in the 1990s, you would be alone with the victim survivor in a room with the translator and perhaps a trauma counsellor and you would give her one hour of your time so that she could develop her thoughts and speak freely. Today these testimonies are given as a media event and one worries for the individual concerned. The ethics of testimony taking is a serious issue that must be addressed by international organizations and civil society alike.

The other side of this critique is that Professor David Kennedy accuses the human rights movement of becoming too technical and professional, losing touch with empathy and the grassroots. This is a criticism that is also worth noting. The violence against women movement was successful because its members had close and direct connections to grassroot women. Without that connection authenticity and genuineness is lost that has its effect on both advocacy and research.

The global violence against women movement in the 1990s was an exciting chapter in women’s history. Sunila played a seminal role with others in formulating the concepts, engaging the local with those ideas and campaigning tirelessly at both the national and international level. I should know. When I was Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women she regarded me as her mechanism and she kept driving and pushing me forward. Sunila played seminal roles in many movements at the national, regional and international level.