Take Five: “Beijing+30 shouldn’t be a token exercise to celebrate but an occasion to recognize successes and failures of the past”


Professor Savitri Goonasekere in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photo: UN Women Sri Lanka

Professor of Law Savitri Goonesekere was the first female Vice Chancellor and first woman Professor of Law at the University of Colombo. Known for her excellence in research and advocacy, particularly in women's and children's rights, she has published extensively, with notable works including ‘The Sri Lanka Law of Parent and Child’ (2002) and ‘Violence, Law and Women’s Rights in South Asia’ (2004). Prof. Goonesekere is a former member of the United Nations (UN)  Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Expert Committee Member (1999-2002) and has made significant contributions to law reform, policy development, and human rights advocacy, collaborating with various UN agencies and serving on numerous prestigious committees and boards. In recognition of her achievements, she received the Fukuoka Asian Academic Prize in 2008. Prof. Goonesekere has published widely in the areas of women’s rights, children’s rights, human rights, development and governance. Her book -Children Law and Justice: A South Asian Perspective (1998)- received international recognition and was also acknowledged by the publishers, Sage Publications, as one of their best and most notable publications. In 1995 she attended the Fourth World Conference on Women where the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted.  

In 2030, we will celebrate 30 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration. Why was such an agenda needed?

By the time the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted, it was clear that women’s voices were essential due to the growing recognition that half the world's population did not have equal life chances. There was substantial evidence, but little government response. Women’s movements linked issues like women and work and women and violence to the broader development discourse. CEDAW lacked focus on violence against women until women's groups' research influenced Recommendation 19. This was a pathbreaking initiative, recognising a reality that impacted all aspects of women’s lives, including peace and security.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action highlighted the need for an Optional Protocol to CEDAW[1]. We sat in the official delegation at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, bringing forward all the issues of discrimination in family law, peace and security, and violence against women.

How was your experience as a CEDAW Committee member?

It was one of the richest experiences of my life. In 1999, post-Beijing, there was a push to have a representative from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), bringing a non-statist perspective. CEDAW focused on policies, laws, leadership, and activism for implementation. The ratification of the optional protocol was a significant achievement, setting parameters for giving women maximum life chances to realize their potential, linking a women´s rights perspective into development. If you cannot contribute to a transformation of society and prevent the reality of gender-based discrimination that impacts women´s lives, you have achieved very little. And to do that you need the push of the state with policies, laws, leadership and activism for implementation.  

What has changed in terms of gender equality and women’s rights in the last 30 years?

Nationally, inequality and discrimination were reduced due to Sri Lanka's policies on health and education. However, changes in the late 1950s transformed the political landscape. Sri Lankan women benefited from health and education, but inherent discrimination was overlooked. The focus on addressing discrimination grew in the 70s and 80s, influenced by international and regional agendas. Post-conflict, there has been a decline in state commitment, policy, and law reform. The Domestic Violence Act, for instance, was a significant achievement, but post-conflict, there has been regression and a lack of implementation. There is now a lack of gender architecture and connectivity between women's groups and the state. Many young gender activists working in programmes demonstrate deep commitment to addressing gender inequality. However, I see a lack of awareness and understanding of both past successes and failures. This can prevent a realistic effort to transform ground realities and initiate relevant change. Fostering intergenerational connectivity can help them build on the achievements of the past.

As a women’s rights activist, what message would you give to the new generations?

Recognize the importance of securing your own space to address key issues but avoid exceptionalism. Understand that women’s lives are connected in many ways. And therefore, try to forge connections with others, even with differing agendas, to articulate a common voice. Understand your own importance and contribute while acknowledging those who came before. I don’t believe you can chart a path for the future or the present without understanding the past. History shows us that. So, I’d like a historical approach to women’s activism. That’s what I would like to say to the younger generation.

What three main issues in gender equality would you highlight to national authorities ahead of the Beijing+30 review?

CEDAW’s nuanced interpretation of equality, shifting to substantive equality, is crucial for non-discrimination. This concept helps create an understanding that formal equality in law does not mean that actual barriers in key areas like employment and culture are addressed and eliminated. Legal reform must also address realities of discrimination in women’s lives and address them. State policies must be linked to obligations of the State according to CEDAW, linking policy with the treaty. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not international law but should be reflected in laws and policies. For the SDGs to materialize, especially on gender equality - there must be a national planning committee with secretaries of ministries to say how each ministry will take it on.

The Beijing+30 review is being held in a context where there should be recognition of what has gone wrong. Nationally, there’s no point saying we did this, we did that etc. What did the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action say? Where are we now? What happened? The Beijing+30 review shouldn’t be a token exercise to celebrate, but an occasion to recognize successes and failures of the past and chart a new path that will impact the lives of women across the globe. Sri Lanka, in particular, must address the dysfunctionality of public institutions, the weakened gender architecture, and the importance of strengthening women’s commitment and honest activism for change.

[1] The Optional Protocol of CEDAW was adopted by the General Assembly in 1999 and obliges signatory States to recognize the competence of the CEDAW Committee to receive and consider complaints expressed by individuals or organized groups of civil society, this constitutes a powerful accountability mechanism concerning acts of discrimination against women, providing a complaints mechanism, highlighting the importance of addressing gender-based violence.