In the words of Anushani Alagarajah: "As a human rights defender, you're almost expected to be superhuman”


Anushani Alagarajah, human rights defender and executive director at the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research. Illustration: UN Women Sri Lanka/Dinuk Senapatiratne

Anushani Alagarajah is a human rights defender who has worked closely with conflict-affected communities in the North and East of Sri Lanka. She is the Executive Director at the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research, a non-profit research think-tank that works on public policy issues in Sri Lanka. On the occasion of the International Day for Women Human Rights Defenders, Ms. Alagarajah spoke about her work in post-conflict Sri Lanka.

I don't know if I ever consciously decided to become a human rights defender. But when I was seven, there was a gang rape of a girl from our school. Her classmates held a sit-in protest. I didn't know what rape meant, but children living with conflict grow up fast. I wanted to protest too. If I see injustice, I want to speak up.

As a child, it was horrible to live in bunkers [during the conflict], to come out and see ashes. I've been in survival mode my entire life. Seeing what's happening in other countries, I worry that children will spend their entire lives trying to make sense of it, trying to be okay.

Grief is not only for people, it's also for a place you called home, that belonged to you. For me, it was always about the childhood I didn't have. I will probably be grieving that for the rest of my life.

I left Sri Lanka in 2009 to study in Bangladesh. I never wanted to come back. But from the time I left, I knew I had to return. I came home every summer, to conduct workshops with orphanages and conflict-affected communities.

I couldn’t run away. Afterall, I am from this community.

I was displaced thrice. I couldn’t sleep peacefully knowing I could have done something, and I didn't do it. I thought, “I can try to make things better.” So, I returned after finishing my studies in 2014. Since then, I have been living my purpose in the community.

Whether it is the economic crisis or a lack of opportunities, a lasting political solution requires the political will for change.

It's difficult when you come from a history of violence, conflict and trauma. During the conflict, a range of violent acts were committed against women.

Women bear the brunt of any damage, and are also expected to be the ones to rebuild, protecting the family unit, community and culture. Yet, particularly in the global South, women are not afforded resources.

Patriarchy is the norm.

Men can take a job in different places, access resources, work with men, divorce, remarry. Women cannot. They must provide out of nothing. Even though they suffered tragic, unspeakable experiences, they are still shackled by stereotypical expectations.

My own work is considered unfitting. I’m expected to be a good woman and get married. We are very far from being inclusive.

In the early days, I would try to talk to older activists about mental health, saying “I'm not doing okay”. But as a human rights defender, you're almost expected to be superhuman. I think being sensitive helps me do my job better because I look out for others.

For the last four years, when my office researches something difficult, we check in with everyone about how they feel. Whenever one of us needs support, the community will hold them, providing a safe space to be vulnerable or angry. It took a long time for me to find this community.

You cannot heal on your own.

With my colleagues, I run practical workshops to create the next generation of activists, training people in small communities and villages to advocate for their rights. We have participants pick an issue, ideate a solution and work with relevant stakeholders. For example, we have young participants who want to reclaim an occupied land in their village. They met the parliamentarian and the Divisional Secretary's Office and are now drafting a lease. If they have the courage and knowledge to do that at 20 years old, there is so much we can do. I'm always looking for a few people to take our struggle forward.

Sometimes, it only takes one person.

A wise woman once told me: “You will not see the changes you work for in your lifetime.” This helps put things in perspective. We can only chip at the corners so that one day, hopefully, things will be different. Giving up is not an option. We can’t stop now.”

“In Sri Lanka, women human rights defenders have a strong legacy of shaping governance and peace, and advocating for the rights of the most marginalized. In February 2023, Sri Lanka adopted its first National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security with support from the Government of Japan and UN Women. Through our work in advancing the women, peace and security agenda in Sri Lanka, UN Women calls for greater participation and representation of women in peace and security efforts”.