Remembering our founder Sunila Abeysekara, one year on

Sunila Abeysekara, a much respected human rights defender, an inspiring feminist and mentor to women in Sri Lanka and around the world, was remembered on the 5th of September 2014 at the Women and Media Collective in Colombo, a year after her passing. Words cannot describe the affection and respect that was shared by all those who came together on this day.

For nearly three decades Sunila brought a focus on the rights of women, on feminism and on upholding the principles of human rights violations when Sri Lanka went through a dark period of violence and war. Her tremendous efforts in seeking justice for groups otherwise ignored were recollected by prominent members of civil society who worked closely with her.

“Sunila to us was a woman who enhanced our political knowledge by introducing the principles of feminism to us. When we started Women and Media Collective in 1984 we were the first group of women that gathered to talk about feminism. It has been 30 years since that moment and when we look back we can see that her vision inspired so many women from all parts of the island to get involved in feminist debates in understanding social, economic and political issues. We have come a long way. Earlier politics was not seen as an issue women took up for discussion. It was only the men who discussed it. Sunila introduced a political vision for women, she taught us how to create a discussion within a political framework and how feminism is relevant in the political arena. Feminism and politics are not separate entities they go hand in hand for society to progress. Today we invited you to not only celebrate Sunila’s birthday but to also remember her in ways that will strengthen our way forward. By combining both Sunila’s ideas and ours we are able to pave the way for our future.” said Dr. Sepali Kottegoda, Executive Director of WMC in her welcome note.

Sunila’s perseverance and her charisma in bringing women together led to the formation of the Women and Media Collective. She went on to encourage and support many others to also set women’s organisations around the country. Her deep commitment towards the protection of human rights was recognised by the United Nations when she was awarded the UN human rights prize by Secretary General, Kofi Annan in 1998. This very prize was also presented to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1968 and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1978 to name a few.

We hope to continue in fulfilling Sunila’s vision for all women in Sri Lanka.

“I think from the very first day to the day she died there was one thing that Sunila wanted to do. That was how to meet as a collective, maintain it and how to create a discourse within it. We need to focus on how we can take this back to our homes and respective organisations. Today we establish this once again to identify how we can take this forward. Because there is another challenge that we face which we did not raise today, and that is the upcoming election. Everything that was discussed today comes down to democracy, human rights and the executive power of the government. We need to carefully think about and identify how we are going to represent ourselves at the next election. Like Nimalka said politics is a very personal thing and this is a discourse that we need to constantly touch on in future. Thank you all for being part of this day for Sunila.” Kumudini Samuel, research associate of WMC said in her concluding remarks.