Women and Media Collective mourns the demise of prominent human rights activist and Chief Executive Officer of Viluthu, Shanthi Sachithanandam as it is an irreplaceable loss not just for the women’s movement of Sri Lanka but to the nation as a whole.
Shanthi was an admirable activist and inspirational woman to us all. Her relationship with WMC, which lasted for over a decade, continues to be significant in our endeavours and will be carried forward for many more years to come. You were a shining light and WMC will miss you dearly Shanthi.
Shanthi died on August 27th 2015 at her home in Colombo. Our heartfelt condolences go out to Shanthi’s family and loved ones.
Kumudini Samuel’s funeral speech in memory of Shanthi
Shanthi was a beloved friend I have known for over 20 years and worked closely with in the last 10. I am really touched that Aaranya, Mythie and Aksharan asked that I speak on behalf of friends today. I am not sure I can do justice to all friends of Shanthi in relation to what all of us want to say about her or indeed the vast spectrum of things she was interested in, did and achieved in her lifetime so tragically cut short by cancer, a battle she fought with such courage and resilience and the hope and will to live and carry on the work she was passionately engaged in. I’ll speak today about some aspects of her political journey, part of which I shared with her.
Shanthi always dared to be different. She was the girl at school – St Bridget’s, my contemporary, who had discussions on socialism, poverty and the working class. She laughed in later years saying no one obviously knew what she was on about!
This consciousness came from daily dinner table conversations initiated by her father about socialism and revolution and contemporary politics and voracious reading. This no doubt influenced her foray into liberation politics as a young adult which all went awry with Tamil nationalist politics taking centre stage in her life with Mano. A life she recounted poignantly in a tribute to Mano looking back 25 years.
In daring to be different she was the Tamil student, at the Architecture faculty in Moratuwa, who discussed politics with Sinhala JVP students courting the displeasure of Tamil students who were then well into Tamil nationalist politics. She recalled being a complete misfit and being alienated from both groups. She was also the student who went pellmell into speaking against ragging on campus in her very first year earning the displeasure of senior students while at the same time she was also the student who called President Jayawardene to criticise the use of police force to intimidate students suspended for ragging.
Coming from a background of socialist persuasion she laughed about a year end assignment for the architecture faculty in which she designed a kitchen for low income shanty dwellers basing her work on visits to poor households in the vicinity of the Wellawatte canal and having to compete with the swish designs of pantry cupboard kitchens as she called them put up by other students.
More than anything else what compelled my attention all the time in talking with Shanthi was the sheer range of things she was interested in, engaged in, tried to find solutions to and how she faced challenge after challenge and moved on with such positive spirit. She was also fundamentally self-reflective about her life and work at least in the last few years post her cancer diagnosis.
She spoke poignantly of the 1983 riots, of losing everything including her wedding sari and wedding albums and all her books but also a beloved dinner service which she looked forward to using to entertain guests. She laughed in recollection however that wherever she lived her home was like an open house and the family had to constantly feed and shelter a range of people from the displaced to party comrades to work colleagues and a myriad of friends and she managed even without the prized dinner service.
Her most cherished work was in the Batticaloa district where she began working in 1990. There are many women here today from the numerous organisations she helped create from Vaharai to Sittandi to Batticaloa and Kalmunai; and later on in Trinco.
In the last five years Shanthi fervently involved herself in representative politics. She began mobilising, particularly among women and she said many times she so enjoyed it she should have got into politics much earlier. It was a tragedy of our times and for all of us that no Tamil political party had the courage to give her a ticket to contest. They could not deal with her free spirit.
She was the one person I know who kept alive the old left mobilising strategy of study circles which she passionately nurtured in the belief that constant learning, sharing of lived experiences and dialogue had to be the way forward into social mobilising and change.
She had a clear sense that this knowledge needed to be disseminated and she did so through radio, television, film, street theatre and above all story telling. Shanthi was a great story teller and a fabulous communicator. Through this process she began to build networks. The Sooriyan women’s network in Puttalam is a great example of this and her work with the Muslim community.
In the last few years she was adamant about the need to work with the Sinhala community, with its women, particularly Party women. She would drag me to meetings in Grandpas and elsewhere saying you speak Sinhala let’s talk to people about the national question, lets get them on board for a political solution, let’s talk feminist politics and then she would charm them with her Sinhala and enchant then with her stories. A few months ago when she got wind of the draft 20th amendment Shanthi was adamant we discovered what was in it and begin to influence the process. She was then a little weak and was not going to every meeting but kept track and was vehement about getting much more lee-way for women. Facing the reality of party intransigence she again pushed for the forming of a women’s political party. At our last meeting she fondly pointed to the statuette of a Deer that held centre place in her living room the symbol of her political party which she said we must spring forward to form, a dream and a vison she could not realise. Another piece of her work was inter faith dialogue which she engaged in through the national peace council.
In the post war period another project dear to her heart was the mobilising among widows. I was at many meetings with her where she insisted the stigma of widowhood must be looked straight in the eye and vanquished. Together with a large group of women she created a Widow’s Charter which she hoped to take to the UN.
Above all she was fun and had a fabulous sense of humour, was resilient and light hearted in the midst of all adversary and never, never gave up on anything. Her vison was unlimited as was her hope and positive thinking. There were many times she would relax and could be coaxed into singing, whether at Manatree in Jaffna or at home in Colombo in her fabulous voice, well into the night, despite looming busy schedules the following day.
Despite her busy, busy life one of the most touching things about bothShanthi and Mano was that they were so completely engaged and caring in shaping and guiding the lives of the kids, allowing them the autonomy and freedom to grow-up as free spirits – supporting their education and their wild and various ventures with much pride. Her happiness in being able to organise Maythie’s wedding was palpable although she did guiltily sneak in work in the course of wedding planning, much to the consternation of the girls.
I will miss you so very much, all of us present here today will miss you in many, many ways. May your beloved and free spirit be among us always and may your soul rest in peace.