Inspiration and New Perspectives: Reflections on My Interviews with Sri Lankan Women Activists

Taryn WilkieBy Taryn Wilkie

My internship with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies is now coming to an end, although I still have some work I need to complete for the project I have been working on this summer. My project involved interviewing women activists in Sri Lanka about their work and their experiences, and I need to finish transcribing and editing a few of the interviews before they can be posted, as they took place towards the end of my internship.

The interviews I conducted went well, despite occasionally encountering some technological challenges, and often interviewing at night so that the time was more convenient for those in Sri Lanka. Neither of these problems greatly interfered with the interviews, as most could be solved relatively easily. Increased internet usage due to people working from home when Sri Lanka went back into lockdown in mid-August did cause some difficulties when using Zoom, but this could often be solved by turning the camera off or scheduling interviews at non-peak times. The most important thing I learned from these difficulties was to be flexible and accept that technological issues happen to everyone.

Despite the inherent difficulties in remote interviews, I have currently conducted six and have a seventh scheduled for this week. While I would have liked to interview more individuals, not being present in Sri Lanka limited my ability to continually reach out to people to set up meetings. As well, only being able to contact people using email reduced my ability to establish a more significant connection which I believe would likely have led to more people agreeing to speak with me. However, since this internship was remote, I view my project as a success, and I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish while working for an organization on the other side of the world and in the middle of a pandemic.

I also found speaking with the women was very interesting, and I learned so much about Sri Lanka, activism, and the impact human rights work can have. Indeed, I was surprised by all that these women were willing to share with me, as I was somewhat of an outsider, being a Canadian law student. The women I interviewed worked in areas such as LGBTIQ rights, women’s issues, disability rights, peacebuilding, and the rights of minority communities. Their activism was expressed in a variety of ways, including demonstrations, writing, art, education, and training. All had been involved nearly their whole adult lives, and many had lived or worked in multiple locations within Sri Lanka and/or around the world. Their accomplishments inspire me, and I am now even more resolved to pursue a career in which I can help individuals, as the lives of these women demonstrated how the work of one person can make a difference in someone else’s life and how rewarding it can be. While they may have faced difficulties because of their gender, ethnicity, the war, or the political situation in Sri Lanka, none had ever let this get in their way, and I left each interview feeling motivated to work towards change.

Additionally, the women often raised ideas I had not previously considered, allowing me to gain a new perspective on different aspects of activism and human rights work. One woman discussed the changes in women’s activism over the course of her career. Shortly after she first became involved, women began to break away from other organizations and form their own because they did not feel respected or that women’s issues were taken seriously by the men. However, the younger generation, perhaps learning from what did and did not work in the past, has stopped creating women’s organizations, instead working with men on specific issues. I believe there is a tendency to view activism as historically significant moments which appear somewhat spontaneously and then disappear over time, yet this woman suggested there was greater continuity and connections between activists of different generations. Instead of isolated moments of activism, groups continually share ideas and strategies and learn from one another. I had not previously considered how interconnected different eras of activism can be, and how although issues may ebb and flow in salience, activism tends to be constant, and so I greatly appreciated hearing this woman’s perspective.

As well, another woman told me she no longer likes to be involved in organizations because she believes their hierarchal structure makes them a reflection of our patriarchal society. She explained that because she was working to achieve equality, she felt having power over others in the organization was a contradiction, and organizations only looked as they did because of the influence of men and the patriarchy. While she did not aim to change any organization’s structure, she preferred to consult, as this was a more equal role which better aligned with her values. This was another idea I had not previously considered, yet I understood why she felt the way she did. If someone is trying to change an aspect of society, perhaps it would be better if they rejected all or many of the structures and norms that aspect is responsible for creating.

Finally, I found asking certain questions could be particularly valuable and interesting and reveal more of that woman’s personality. Often I would ask the women I interviewed to tell me about a particularly memorable experience, and what they chose was usually a personal anecdote that gave me some insight into what they valued. I also found these stories to be some of the most meaningful and inspirational answers, as they typically demonstrated how small actions could make a big difference. Whether they were stories of many people coming together despite adversity to raise awareness of an important issue, or someone finding a way for a disabled child to have an education, I was in awe of these women’s perseverance and what they accomplished. I am also incredibly honoured and grateful that they chose to speak with me and share their experiences.

Overall, I really enjoyed my internship with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies and having the opportunity to meet (virtually) so many remarkable individuals. While I would have preferred to travel to Sri Lanka, the work I did still allowed me to develop some personal connections. I now have greater knowledge of what it means to be an activist, and I am certain this experience will affect my future work and worldview.

How should an activist be?

By Jihyun Rosel Kim 

Before I began my internship, I was told it would involve mostly research. That statement is technically true – the majority of my time here was spent wrestling with Quicklaw, writing memos, or making information charts. However, one thing I’ve learned about the Legal Network is that it is truly committed to the issues identified in its mission statement, and will speak out in various ways.

1. Quiet action at the Court of Appeal

On June 15, staff of the Legal Network and other members of the community (including members of the Ontario Working Group on Criminal Law and HIV Exposure) participated in a “quiet action” campaign at the Ontario Court of Appeal. The Court was scheduled to hear an appeal on a case involving HIV status non-disclosure (R. v. M.), where both the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario (HALCO) were intervenors.

The "HIV Positive" action at the ON Court of Appeal

At trial, the judge ignored case law by not applying the significant risk test (i.e. a person living with HIV must disclose his/her status to the partner when the sexual activity poses a “significant risk of bodily harm”) set out in R. v. Cuerrier. Instead, he charged the defendant with aggravated sexual assault simply on the ground that the defendant did not disclose his status. Although the defendant stated he used a condom (which further diminishes the already-low risk of HIV transmission), the trial judge said it did not matter whether the sex was protected or not.

To demonstrate to the Court that people living with HIV and their allies were concerned about such overbroad use of criminal law, the Legal Network organized a t-shirt campaign—members showed up to the courtroom all wearing the same t-shirt with the logo “HIV Positive” at the front. There were about 18 people at court, and since the assigned courtroom for the hearing happened to be a smaller one, we effectively filled the gallery.

Unfortunately, the Court decided to stay the appeal, to wait for the Supreme Court decision on HIV non-disclosure (R. v. D.C.; R. v. Mabior) later this year. Even though it was a bit anti-climactic, one of the justices did take notice of the audience uniformly dressed in “HIV Positive” shirts to address us directly, and say that he realizes these issues are important and that he will make sure to rule on the issues carefully once the Supreme Court decision came down.

2. Action around cuts to refugee health care

At the end of April, Citizenship and Immigration Canada announced changes to the Interim Federal Health Program, which would effectively cut most supplemental health care benefits for refugee claimants, and all access to government-funded health care services for failed refugee claimants (who may reapply to stay in Canada under humanitarian and compassionate grounds). The only exception would be when the claimant’s health condition presented a “public health risk”—such as HIV. As of now, the public outcry seems to have made Kenney’s office backtrack a little bit from their initial cuts these days, but most of the cuts still remain.

On June 18—the national day of action to protect refugee health care—the Executive Director emailed everyone about the protest in Toronto, and encouraged everyone to attend the protest with him. So later on that day, I went to the Citizenship and Immigration Canada office on St. Clair Avenuewith a team of policy analysts and the ED of the Legal Network, and joined a few hundred people who were chanting “health care for refugees!”

Through participating in these actions, I’ve learned about the joys of being out on the streets with other people who believe in the same things as I do, which offers tremendous comfort in times where laws and policies seem to be going to a dark place. These experiences won’t appear on my CV as things I accomplished, but they nevertheless had a big impact on my outlook on activism and effective advocacy.

And for that intangible feeling of joy that came from connecting with other like-minded people who are committed to making things better, I am very grateful to the Legal Network.

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