Shyamala Gomez

Shyamala Gomez is the Executive Director of Centre for Equality and Justice (CEJ). She is a lawyer with two decades of experience in gender and women’s rights. She has researched and published extensively on violence against women, masculinities, rights of migrant workers, land rights of women, women and politics, and women, peace and security. She was the Country Director of FOKUS WOMEN and her illustrious career spans across organisations such as United Nations, International Labour Organisation, and Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. Shyamala is a Fulbright scholar with a Master’s in Law from Georgetown University, Washington DC. She has an LLB (Honours) from the University of Colombo. She has over eight years of experience teaching law at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo. She was also the Gender Advisor to the UN Office of the Resident Coordinator in Colombo for over five years.

In this interview with Women Talk, Shyamala discusses her work in a gender space, her journey into women’s rights and law, the findings of CEJ’s study on sexual bribery, the disparities between laws and implementation, the significance of joint co-ownership of land for women, and bringing gender as a vital component into the pedagogy of law.


What drove you to take up an interest in women’s rights and law?

I was the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship in 1995 while I was teaching at the University of Colombo. I was hoping to study environmental law at Georgetown University, Washington DC. But, instead, I joined their program on women’s rights. I think who motivated me was Professor Savitri Goonesekere. She was my mentor and she introduced me to this field. When the University of Colombo closed for sometime due to the JVP insurrection, I got the opportunity to work at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) with Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy. That is my first foray into women’s rights, initially working on FGM and the Hudood Ordinances in Pakistan. This work fascinated me.

Women’s rights was a major component of the LLM program at Georgetown. There were wonderful professors teaching subjects on women’s rights. I studied women’s rights for my Master’s on International Human Rights and Law. After graduating, I came back to Sri Lanka and began teaching at the University of Colombo. I wanted to include a gender component into all of the subjects that I taught. That was the beginning of my passion for working on women’s issues.

About 85 percent of the Law Faculty at the University of Colombo includes female students, which is wonderful. I taught in the English medium there. They appreciated the fact that I was bringing a gender component into their studies, for example, labour law. That I think was my initial brainwashing of the law students.  I taught for eight years at the University.

While I was at the University, I also worked at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for about two years. What I did at ILO fed back into my teaching. I was able to cement my teachings on the theoretical aspect of labour law by drawing on my experiences of how it actually worked in practice. It is very useful for lecturers to have that exposure because it gives them something extra to give to the students, apart from what is in the law books. ILO was my first engagement with the UN and that gave me the opportunity to observe its functions.

What was it like, during that time, to work as a feminist and an activist in the field of women’s rights and gender?

Even now, I don’t think it has changed much. We are used to women’s issues being trivialised most of the time. During discussions on issues of national importance, such as rule of law and governance, the moment we bring women’s issues to the table there is an awkward pause. But that is what we have take on. At FOKUS WOMEN and now at CEJ, we try to be that missing link.

I was leading the women’s housing rights program at the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE). There is a hesitance among government officials and the community when we speak out on women’s right to land ownership. We have to learn how to manage that response.

It is about giving that feminist perspective, which is missing. People do not understand what feminism actually is. We need to understand that there is a whole spectrum of ideas and views. It is so vast. There is no one feminist. There are certainly different types of feminists.

To start with some of your more recent research at the Center for Equality and Justice, you condcuted three recent studies on sexual bribery. I was quite shocked to read that the findings of the reports said that sexual bribery is prevalent generally when women seek access to varied public services in Sri Lanka. In the light of the #MeToo movement, also, the discourse on these issues has been revived. According to the findings of these studies, where does Sri Lanka position within the context of sexual bribery and violence against women as a whole?

 Sexual bribery is not a well-known term. It is a very new area. It has not been attempted to look at sexual favours as a form of bribery. Our findings are based on our engagements with women at community and grassroots levels. The women themselves did not really understand or position it as a form of violence. They thought that this was normal behaviour. Again, we are quite used to that response, which is that ‘we didn’t know we were doing anything wrong’ or ‘we thought we are supposed to give this favour in order to get something from these men’. That is the kind of response that we got from a lot of women.

We started researching deeper and we realised that many women did not even want to talk about it because they felt that they had done something wrong, by giving a sexual favour in return for a service. They expected that kind of behaviour from a public official. When we talked to government officials, their concerns were about things like ‘the woman should not have been wearing this’. It should not matter what she was wearing; we do not expect a public official to ask for a sexual favour. You should not be blaming the woman. They ask why the women could not make a complaint to the police. It is not that easy because, at the police station, the woman will be ridiculed or the incident will be trivialised.

Very few people talk about sexual bribery within the framework of violence against women. Sexual harassment is the terminology that is used; especially with the #MeToo movement it had gained vast publicity. Accepting sexual bribery as a criminal offense and a form of corruption is what we have sought to do. We are discussing with the Bribery Commission about incorporating sexual bribery as a form of bribery.

What are some of the accounts that you have heard from the field while conducting this study?

We talked to women who have been affected by the conflict, in all three communities. We find that it is similar in all three communities; whether it is the military widows seeking the pension of their husbands or women approaching their Grama Niladhari. There was one situation where a Quazi had asked for a sexual bribe. It is so common. It has become normalised. Many of the women think it is their fault. They do not want to talk about it. Some of them are very fearful; in particular, when the perpetrator is a powerful individual, living within the community. Some women have become pregnant and had left the district because of the stigma within the community.

Situating sexual bribery within the framework of gender-based violence is a new phenomenon. It is vital to amend the law or the bribery act as well as have a policy to ensure that the term ‘sexual’ is incorporated into the definition of bribery. Currently, there is a decision on a court case that says sexual bribery is a form of bribery. But this terminology is not in the law. My argument is that it is essential to incorporate the terminology into the law and recognise sexual bribery as an offense within the law. This issue needs to be made visible and given prominence.

Because you conducted research in North and East, engaging with communities who were affected by the war, how much of an impact has the conflict had on producing a systemic culture of violence against women?

The work we did with FOKUS was the stepping stone to the work that we do now at CEJ. Our findings show that having an inclusive definition is necessary to understand what gender-based violence actually means. This definition should encompass the Sri Lankan context, which is very different. For example, if we look at child marriage, we are talking about child marriage in a context of conflict. There are reasons for that. Globally, it is recognised as a form of gender-based violence. In Sri Lanka, also, we consider child marriage in the post war districts to be a form of gender-based violence. Although no studies have drawn a direct link between gender-based violence and the war, I think the general culture of impunity and militarisation have pervaded conflict-affected districts.

It is incorrect to say that this only happens in the North and East. It is also happening in the North Western province and in Puttalam. The internally displaced people (IDPs) were told to leave the North because of the war and not for any other reason. Similarly, the Sinhala communities in the border villages have been impacted by the war.

When we worked with FOKUS, a Sinhala organisation working in the border villages found it hard to understand that they have been affected by the war. We had to have conversations with these women about the fact that they were in the FOKUS program was because they have been impacted by the war; not because they were working in Anuradhapura generally on women’s issues. They were telling us that they have been displaced and that their lands have been taken over by the civil defence forces. Why has it happened? It is because they have been impacted by the war. Communities were destroyed by the LTTE when they came into their villages and massacred them. That is because of the war. That understanding needs to be created among communities and translated to the UN and other INGOs.

We need to be aware that all three communities were affected in different ways. We need to acknowledge that it is the Tamil community in the North and East that was mainly affected. But it does not mean that there were other communities that were not affected. Maybe the gravity was different, but, for them, the gravity is the same, for example, the fact that they do not have psychosocial or counselling services. Military widows tell us that no one has ever talked to them, until we talked to them in this project.

We are nearing the first decade after the war, still going through a transitional justice phase as well. Where are we in terms of addressing some of these grave post war issues that affect women?

Going back to women and violence, there is no acknowledgement of the fact that women have been affected by violence during the conflict and post-conflict. We have been documenting some of these issues. It is visible, through the media, that the State has not acknowledged that certain atrocities have taken place.

Women will not come forward because of the fear that there will be reprisals. You have women’s organisations working with these women on the ground, providing support services and counselling. We have to make sure that women are safe in accessing support services, safe havens and psychosocial services. Mainly, it is the women in the families of the disappeared who are coming forward for their sons, fathers, and husbands. Female heads of households are a high number.

We have done the research and we know that the government does not even have a proper categorisation for who they call a female head of household. This is something we went to CEDAW with last year and said that we need to have a proper categorisation across the board among government entities.

If the government is actually going to work with women, consistency in planning is essential. If the Ministry of Resettlement says that women over 40 are female heads of households, and when we ask them why do you have the age 40, they do not have an answer to that. When you engage with women affected by violence, you need to get the basics right. If you do not get the basics right, there is no way that you can approach or deal with the issues that these women are experiencing. We need to look at these issues from a women’s perspective. It is the women that have been left behind.

With reference to your background in law, you have written extensively about the gaps between the theory and the practice of law, especially with the Domestic Violence Act coming into place 10 years ago. Looking back at where the Domestic Violence Act was and the whole process of getting it into place, where do we stand today, almost ten years on?

Domestic violence is something that I have been working on for many years and you realise the gaps in the law and in implementing the law, which is a problem. For me, again, it is about understanding the Sri Lankan context. Very few women would actually make a complaint and say that their husband is beating her up. Where does a woman go after that? It is easy enough for us to say it but it is not that easy to do. We can talk about rights and violations from a theoretical human rights approach. I maybe a very conservative feminist. But I really believe that it is easy to tell a woman ‘he has no right to hit you’, ‘go and complaint to a magistrate’ or ‘get a protection order’.

We need to couple that with the fact that she may possibly die, as result of the abuse she undergoes. For example, when the police tell a woman to reconcile with the husband, women stop going to the police because there is no point. At the same time, something may happen to them and they may not be able to come back. These are some of the issues in implementing the Domestic Violence Act.

The Act itself needs different parties to work efficiently for it to actually function, such as the police and hospitals. Where do the women go if they are beaten up? Are the hospitals sensitive? An OPD clinic sees about 4000 patients a day. A woman may have to be in the presence of six or ten people inside a room. This will prevent her from saying that ‘my husband beat me up and that is why I have a black eye’. The systems are not in place.

The police need to be involved and be sensitive to the issue. If you have a general perception that there are no consequences and any violation against women is trivialised, whether it be the domestic violence law or whether it be the implementation of a sexual and gender-based violence national action plan, you will get the same reaction from those who are there to implement these. The idea is that women’s rights are not of national importance. We have struggled within that overall perception to actually bring it to the fore. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs is, also, fighting a lone battle in a sense. For them, if they want to mainstream gender into other ministries, it is again a huge task. It is not an easy task.

We have so many laws and policies. The problem is implementation. If you look at Asia, we have a fairly good record in terms of passing laws. But that is where it ends. We pass laws but we do not implement them. That is the problem.

With reference to your work with the Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions, you discuss the significance of joint co-ownership of land in ensuring the protection of land rights for women. How can we situate joint co-ownership of land within today’s context in Sri Lanka in terms of resettlement, especially in the North and East?

It is absolutely relevant today and that is why the battle goes on. I started work at COHRE in 2005, following the tsunami in 2004. The Reconstruction and Development Authority (RADA) was set up after the tsunami to handle land and relocation. We started working with them, trying to push co-ownership of land, and it still continues. We had received a legal opinion from the Attorney General as well. We are still using that information to try and push this through even today. Some of the government agreements, for example, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) include the two main areas of land and transport. Under transport, they are working on sexual harassment, women and access to transport. But in the land component, again, I have brought in the issue of co-ownership of land. We need to ensure that women who wants to get ownership of state land are given that ownership. You cannot give it only in limited circumstances.

What are some of the issues that relate to co-ownership of land in the North and East, and even with evictions in urban areas for city beautification projects?

Leaving aside women’s issues, I think the point is the lack of transparency in any of these. Recently, I have been told that there are areas in Colombo where private companies are approaching people in underserved communities – the waththes – telling them that they will be given 10 million rupees to move out. There is complete lack of awareness of rights that people have. People are going to give their land over to private companies without seeing a single legal document. There is a whole lack of transparency. No one knows what is going on. People are so susceptible to big bucks.

In the North and East, it is the application of the Thesavalamai law. There is a grey area. In terms of application, that is an area that has not been much discussed. Thesavalamai will only come up if you contest it or when it goes to court. With the issue of ownership, we have approached the Ministry of Lands, asking them for a policy that could introduce co-ownership through an amendment to the Land Development Ordinance, State Lands Ordinance and any other land laws that are in existence. These are on going conversations and the point is that, as I said, you need to ensure that these are concerted efforts and not piecemeal. Tourism is taking over North and East. No one really knows what the processes are. Big private companies are now taking over land and building big hotels and tourist hotspots. It has to be looked into. We do not have the capacity to do all that so we will not go into that area. But basically there need to be organisations looking into these issues.

With reference to your experiences with teaching law, it is quite important that the pedagogy of law includes a gender aspect. What is it like to bring a gender component into a subject like law?

When I was at the Faculty it was a huge task to bring it in. My wonderful former students have continued to take on that cause. In fact, some of them work very closely with me even now. There is a continuation of that initial work. It is very heartening to know that I sowed the seeds at that time. At that point, it was very hard to do. For one thing, law is taught in all three languages. For example, for labour law, together with the Sinhala and Tamil medium lecturers, we introduced the ILO Conventions on maternity benefits, migrant workers etc. Back then it was an uphill task. Now it is not so hard. Now there are professors there who have taken on board to bring in a gender component to the teaching of the law. At that time, a requirement to revise the syllabus brought in an opportune moment to introduce gender to the curriculum. For my courses, I brought in the gender dimension partly also because I was passionate about it. I got my message across, which is that women’s issues need to be taken into consideration.

As you have discussed in one of your previous interviews, many years ago, there are a lot of micro studies done about women’s issues but there is an absence of national statistics when you try to form policies and laws. Is it still the case today?

Unfortunately, yes. I think that is still a major problem. Policymakers ask for national level data. We do not have the data. They should be doing it, not us. As of 2011, back then, the Land Department did not have gender-disaggregated data on land ownership. Again, it is going back to the whole notion of trivialising. When we went to CEDAW we raised this issue about the lack of gender-disaggregated data on land ownership. If you do not get those basics right, what is the point? They do not have the statistics in hand, which should be readily available – whether it is for policymaking, for academic purposes, or for a grassroots level activist who wants that information. It is a major problem and it continues. Even now, when we ask for data there is a certain reluctance. You realise the silos that people work in. That whole understanding of gender is so limited. They do not understand how it should or ought to permeate into different institutional mechanisms, policies or plans.

There is also much needed work that is done through CEJ and FOKUS WOMEN, in the past. What are some of the work that you have done through the years from these organisations with relevance to gender and women’s rights.

FOKUS actually gave us the opportunity at that time to work on issues that matter for women, peace and security (WPS) as well as on women and post conflict. That was the only program in Sri Lanka that partnered with about nine organisations. We channeled funds to these organisations and the whole program was implemented on a broader understanding of WPS. It was committed to issues like building women’s capacities, conceptual understandings on WPS, documenting human rights violations from sexual violence to other types of violence, examining socioeconomic rights, and what it means to be women affected by conflict. All of that understanding came from the partners with that we work.

The collaboration with small organisations from the ground enabled us to actually pick out the issues that needed more research and research that no one had done till then; for example, post war context and early marriage or child marriage. Generally, in the country, there is a perception that there are hardly any early marriages taking place other than in the Muslim community. But our findings show that during and after the war there is quite a high incidence of child marriage. It gave us an opportunity to do that research and fill that gap because no one knows about it. Similarly, we have done a lot of work on sexual violence and stigma, looking at how stigma is a critical component in terms of accessing basic services. Women, their families and children are unable to fight the stigma their whole life. As a result, such women are unable to access services.

FOKUS WOMEN gave us a stepping stone to work on areas, such as these, that have not been examined before. It also enabled us to connect grassroots level women with policymakers. In our research, we engaged with these women and they formed part of the enumerator teams. They are the ones who went out, built networks and did the research. It was about capacitating them.

The other part is about working on policy. We tried to influence policy by actually connecting with policymakers and other stakeholders, taking the issues to those that matter at policymaking levels. That has been the strength of CEJ and FOKUS WOMEN because we have been able to make those links using a top down and bottom up approach, ensuring that grassroots organisations are connected to policymakers.

If you could also elaborate on the work that CEJ does and the research that you have done so far?

The objective of the organisation is to work on women’s rights issues. The broader mission of CEJ is to create a society that is just and equal. This encompasses a broad range of human rights of women. We started in January, this year. We took on the task of continuing the work that we did with FOKUS WOMEN. Our niche is in a way working with women in post conflict but it does not mean that the mandate remains that. We are trying to expand that mandate by looking at issues of rule of law, governance, women and political participation, and labour. The mandate will broaden as time goes on.

What does it really mean for you to be an activist and a feminist, working in a gender space?

I think it means a lot to me. The passion grew with the work I did. I also truly believe that you need to be conceptually clear about your messages. If you have a broader understanding of concepts, that actually enriches your work. That is extremely important. It is sometimes a problem because there are those at work in this area with no conceptual clarity. That actually impacts some of the work. For me, the message we are taking out is very important.

The passion has grown for me and I would not be doing anything else, nor want to do anything else. This is a passion that has continued for about 20 odd years with work on different aspects of women’s rights. I have tried to better women’s lives. I think this passion will continue to be. Even with the teaching that I take on now, I am able to teach students and interns the reality. I tell them that you have learnt the theory, this is the practical part. You will not get this in your law books. I know it, I believe it, I teach it. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction. It is very fulfilling. It gives me something that makes me want to wake up the next day and go back to work.

Date of Interview: 23.10.2018

Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage


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