Commentary Human Rights

In Memory of Sunila Abeysekera: A Fearless Feminist Activist for Sri Lanka

Lauren Rankin

A fiercely committed activist for Sri Lankan human rights and women’s human rights globally, Abeysekera is one of the most important feminist activists whose name you might not know.

Sunila Abeysekera, celebrated Sri Lankan human rights activist and women’s human rights advocate, died of cancer in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on September 9. She was 61.

Unless you’re a global human rights organizer or have extensively studied global feminist activism, you likely haven’t heard of Sunila Abeysekera. A fiercely committed activist for Sri Lankan human rights and women’s human rights globally, Abeysekera is one of the most important feminist activists whose name you might not know—a reality she didn’t mind one bit.

“The reason many people don’t know about her is because it didn’t matter to her if she got the credit,” Charlotte Bunch, women’s human rights advocate and founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University (CWGL), told Rewire. Bunch and Abeysekera fostered a deep, 30-year friendship through their shared women’s human rights activism, dating back to the United Nations’ Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi in 1985.

During her more than 40 years of activist work, Abeysekera embodied the intersections of feminism and human rights, of global and local, of tenacious activism and a genuine joy for living.

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Her activist career began in the 1970s, with Sri Lanka’s first autonomous human rights organization, the Civil Rights Movement (CRM), and for the next four decades, she expanded her activist reach to a global scale, but never lost touch with the Sri Lankan people and the country’s local concerns. She refused to take sides during Sri Lanka’s brutal 26-year civil war, speaking out against abuses on both sides, and remained steadfastly committed to human rights for everyone, regardless of which side they occupied.

In 1984, Abeysekera helped found the Colombo-based Women and Media Collective, which advocates for women’s and gender issues in Sri Lanka and has served as a site of coalition-building with local and global feminist activists. The combination of human rights advocacy and feminist activism that was the foundation of her involvement in the Women and Media Collective paved the way for her future endeavors.

Abeysekera played an instrumental role during the United Nations’ World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, one of the most important moments in modern memory for the human rights of women. She worked closely with the Center for Women’s Global Leadership to help organize the global feminist campaign that led to a landmark statement by the United Nations that women’s rights are human rights, a phrase that may seem somewhat obvious today, but at the time was revolutionary. This framework helped provide legitimacy to feminist activism, by grounding women’s rights within a larger understanding of human rights. From there, she played a pivotal role at other UN World Conferences in the 1990s. She worked to implement the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which dealt with women’s participation in peace negotiations, and she engaged in debates to ensure the critical point of gender inclusion in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Bunch says that moment represented the integration of the two parts of Abeysekera’s activist identity: her feminist ideals and her human rights framework. “She was both a feminist and a person deeply immersed in traditional human rights movements,” Bunch said, adding that Abeysekera helped link the more bureaucratic UN human rights infrastructure with a less institutionalized grassroots, localized feminist activism. She served as a bridge between two worlds that often seemed impossible to unite.

Abeysekera’s activist work extended to nearly every corner of the globe, but she never lost her deep connection to and passion for her home of Sri Lanka. In recognition of her work with INFORM, a group she led in the early ’90s that documented the egregious human rights abuses taking place in Sri Lanka at the time, she received the 1998 UN Human Rights Prize for Asia and the Pacific.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Abeysekera was crucial in organizing the Women’s Human Rights Defenders International Coalition in 2005, a global advocacy network dedicated to the recognition and protection of women’s and LGBTQ activists as human rights defenders. Members include Amnesty International, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, among many others. She also served as a board member of the Urgent Action Fund, a global women’s fund started in 1997 that helps fund and advocates on behalf of women’s human rights activists worldwide.

Eschewing a narrow, single-issue framework in favor of a broad commitment to human rights principles, Abeysekera advocated for reproductive and sexual rights with as much conviction and fervor as she advocated against torture and in favor of other basic human rights. “All human beings are inherently entitled to all human rights” was her personal motto, and she continually advocated for the human rights of the most marginalized, including members of the LGBTQ community, sex workers, and people living with HIV and AIDS.

She embodied the breadth of what a human rights framework could be, and spent much of her life advocating for the inclusion of women and women’s specific concerns within that framework. Feminism and human rights were never mutually exclusive for Abeysekera; they blended with and informed each other. It is because of her deep commitment to feminist ideals and her extensive human rights record that women’s human rights have achieved a certain level of legitimacy within the United Nations and beyond.

Her commitment to feminism didn’t end with her activist work, but extended into her personal life, as well. She was a single mother, and she believed deeply in the feminist tenet of sexual freedom. In the last decades of her life, she became lesbian-identified, “but not in a narrow way; in a way that incorporated other people,” noted Charlotte Bunch.

Her commitment to human rights and feminism were an extension of who she was and what she valued in life. Women’s rights are human rights, and they are now seen as such, in large part, because of the tireless activism and sheer tenacity of Sunila Abeysekera.

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.

Commentary Violence

When It Comes to Threats, Online or on the Campaign Trail, It’s Not Up to Women to ‘Suck It Up’

Lauren Rankin

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Bizarre and inflammatory rhetoric is nothing new for this election. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate has made an entire campaign out of it. But during a rally last Tuesday, Donald Trump sunk to a new level. He lamented that if Hillary Clinton is elected president in November, there will be no way to stop her from making judicial nominations.

He said, “By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

For a candidate marred by offensive comment after offensive comment, this language represents a new low, because, as many immediately explained, Trump appears to be making a veiled threat against Clinton, whether he had intended to or not.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) called it a “death threat” and Dan Rather, former CBS Evening News host, called it a “direct threat of violence against a political rival.” Former President Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis said it was “horrifying,” and even the author of an NRA-linked blog initially tweeted, “That was a threat of violence. As a real supporter of the #2A it’s appalling to me,” before deleting the tweet as the NRA expressed support for Trump.

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This kind of language is violent in nature on its face, but it is also gendered, following in a long line of misogynistic rhetoric this election season. Chants of “kill the bitch” and “hang the bitch” have become common at Trump rallies. These aren’t solely examples of bitter political sniping; these are overt calls for violence.

When women speak out or assert ourselves, we are challenging long-held cultural norms about women’s place and role in society. Offensively gendered language represents an attempt to maintain the status quo. We’ve seen this violent rhetoric online as well. That isn’t an accident. When individuals throw pejorative terms at those of who refuse to be silenced, they are attempting to render public spaces, online or on the campaign trail, unsafe for us.

There is no shortage of examples demonstrating how individuals who feel threatened by subtle power shifts happening in our society have pushed back against those changes. The interactions happening online, on various social media platforms, offer the most vivid examples of the ways in which people are doing their best to try to make public spaces as uncomfortable as possible for marginalized populations.

Social media offers the opportunity for those whose voices are routinely ignored to hold power in a new way. It is a slow but real shift from old, more traditional structures of privileging certain voices to a more egalitarian megaphone, of sorts.

For marginalized populations, particularly women of color and transgender women, social media can provide an opportunity to be seen and heard in ways that didn’t exist before. But it also means coming up against a wall of opposition, often represented in a mundane but omnipresent flow of hatred, abuse, and violent threats from misogynist trolls.

The internet has proven to be a hostile place for women. According to a report from the United Nations, almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyber violence. As someone who has received threats of violence myself, I know what it feels like to have sharing your voice met with rage. There are women who experience this kind of violent rhetoric to an even greater degree than I could ever dream.

The list of women who have been inundated with threats of violence could go on for days. Women like Zerlina Maxwell, who was showered with rape threats after saying that we should teach men not to rape; Lindy West received hundreds upon hundreds of violent and threatening messages after she said that she didn’t think rape jokes were funny; Leslie Jones, star of Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live, was driven off of Twitter after a coordinated attack of racist, sexist, and violent language against her.

And yet, rarely are such threats taken seriously by the broader community, including by those able to do something about it.

Many people remain woefully unaware of how cruel and outright scary it can be for women online, particularly women with prolific digital profiles. Some simply refuse to see it as a real issue, declaring that “It’s just the internet!” and therefore not indicative of potential physical violence. Law enforcement doesn’t even have a solution, often unwilling to take these threats seriously, as Amanda Hess found out.

This kind of response is reflected in those who are trying to defend Donald Trump after the seemingly indefensible. Despite the overwhelming criticism from many, including some renowned Republicans, we have also seen some Trump supporters try to diminish or outright erase the violent aspect of this clearly threatening rhetoric. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani have both said that they assumed Trump meant get rid of her “by voting.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that it “sounds like just a joke gone bad.”

The violent nature of Donald Trump’s comments seem apparent to almost everyone who heard him. To try to dismiss it as a “joke” or insist that it is those who are offended that are wrong is itself harmful. This is textbook gaslighting, a form of psychological abuse in which a victim’s reality is eroded by telling them that what they experienced isn’t true.

But gaslighting has played a major role in Donald Trump’s campaign, with some of his supporters insisting that it is his critics who are overreacting—that it is a culture of political correctness, rather than his inflammatory and oppressive rhetoric, that is the real problem.

This is exactly what women experience online nearly every day, and we are essentially told to just suck it up, that it’s just the internet, that it’s not real. But tell that to Jessica Valenti, who received a death and rape threat against her 5-year-old daughter. Tell that to Anita Sarkeesian, who had to cancel a speech at Utah State after receiving a death threat against her and the entire school. Tell that to Brianna Wu, a game developer who had to flee her home after death threats. Tell that to Hillary Clinton, who is trying to make history as the first woman president, only to have her life threatened by citizens, campaign advisers, and now through a dog whistle spoken by the Republican presidential candidate himself.

Threats of violence toward women are commonplace on the internet for the same reason that they are increasingly common at Donald Trump’s rallies: They are effective at perpetuating violence against women as the norm.

Language matters. When that language is cruel, aggressive, or outright violent, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn’t come without consequences. There is a reason that it is culturally unacceptable to say certain words like “cunt” and other derogatory terms; they have a history of harm and oppression, and they are often directly tied to acts of violence. When someone tweets a woman “I hope your boyfriend beats you,” it isn’t just a trolling comment; it reflects the fact that in the United States, more women are killed by intimate partners than by any other perpetrator, that three or more women die every day from intimate partner violence. When Donald Trump not only refuses to decry calls of violence and hate speech at his rallies but in fact comes across as threatening his female opponent, it isn’t just an inflammatory gaffe; it reflects the fact that one in three women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Threats of violence have no place in presidential campaigns, but they also have no place online, either. Until we commit ourselves to rooting out violent language against women and to making public spaces safer and more accommodating for women and all marginalized people, Trump’s comments are just par for the course.

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