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Expanding your interests: AKASA case study – Part 2

In this video, N.G. Kamalawathie and Dinesha Samararatne describe the ways in which human rights frameworks have been implemented in Sri Lanka.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. AKASA case study, part 2. N.G.
KAMALAWATHIE WITH INTERPRETER: There has been a positive influence of the international developments related to human rights and disability on the work done by AKASA. The main outcome has been that AKASA has been strengthened as an institution, and its recognition has increased, because at the international level, there has been the recognition for rights of persons with disability. Also, in developing our project proposals, we have been able to use human rights as a basis or as a justification for our work. This applies also in relation to the development of laws and policies for persons with disability. In the Sri Lankan context, there have been some instances where negative aspersions have been cast on the use of human rights for persons with disability.
But taken as a whole, I could say AKASA has been strengthened because of developments at the international level on human rights for persons with disability.
DINESHA SAMARARATNE: So the importance of international human rights at the local level actually can cut at least in two different ways. In some aspects, for instance, in relation to disability, it’s very positive because there is the international consensus that’s reflected in conventions and statements where you recognise that everyone is born in equality and in dignity. And then that brings some pressure to the domestic level, to the state, to recognise that. But international human rights, particularly in the South, can also have a negative impact in that human rights and international human rights law in particular is seen as a eurocentric discourse, which allows for Neocolonialist ideas and goals to be achieved in the South.
So sometimes using the international human rights law language in the Global South can be difficult and in some situations can also be disadvantageous. But if you are a human rights activist, if you’re convinced about people’s human rights, what you’ve got to do is to try to create the space within which you appropriate the language of human rights to your context and say, it’s not simply about the West. It’s not about the developed world. This is about our rights. So when we talk about the significance of human rights for rural women with disabilities and women who have been affected by the war, we are actually talking about paradigm shift, really.
Because when it comes to the general rural context in Sri Lanka, whether you are Sinhalese, Tamil, or Muslim, you experience a lot of hardships– economic hardships, the hardship of distance, lack of access to government, lack of access to resources, et cetera, et cetera. So disability becomes yet another hardship that you have to cope with. So in that sense what happens is there is a hierarchy of hardships.
And if you are, say, a child with a disability in a family of five, the parents will try to focus on the other four children who don’t have a disability, invest in their education because obviously, it’s easier to do, and then try to empower them so that they can eventually support the family financially. So if you have a child with a disability and it’s in any way difficult for you to access education, you are going to be left behind. Anyway, in the rural context, if you’re a woman, there are gender roles that you have to play. You are expected to look after the house.
You’re expected to get married one day, raise your children, look after your husband and your children. And if you have a disability, sometimes you are not seen as suitable for marriage. But let’s say in the exception you do get married you’re still expected to perform those roles. Now earlier we talked about quality of life. And if quality of life means that you flourish– it’s fairly obvious that could be many situations in which a woman with disability doesn’t even get the opportunity of considering what flourishing could mean for her.
So that is why then you need the state to put its weight behind the recognition of rights of all persons and say, if you’re a woman with disability in the rural context, you’ll fall into an extremely vulnerable group. And we are making certain policy interventions, certain programmatic interventions to create the opportunity in which you can seek flourishing. Same applies to war-affected women, and actually, all of the war-affected women– well, most of the war-affected women– are from the rural. So all of that applies to them as well. And on top of that you get the collective trauma of having grown up and having lived in a war-affected area. And some of them have acquired disabilities due to the war.
So they have to negotiate all these hardships. And if they’re to do it on their own, what we find is that they confine themselves to their home, providing for the people that they have to provide for in their gendered role. And that leaves them very little energy, hardly any opportunity in which they could think of flourishing. So you need both the international community and the state coming in and saying, we recognise that you have these needs, and we recognise that it’s our responsibility to help you, and to help the community to help you.

This video is Part 2 in our case study of AKASA, an organisation for women with disability in rural Sri Lanka, headed by N.G. Kamalawathie (Kamala).

As Dinesha explains, women with disabilities in rural Sri Lanka are a particularly vulnerable group who commonly experience barriers to realising their human rights and accessing a good life. She cautions that success in applying human rights frameworks in these contexts can depend on one’s ability to translate the Eurocentric rhetoric of human rights into terms that are locally meaningful. Despite these challenges, Kamala explains that as a whole, human rights frameworks have enabled her to justify the importance of her work, attract funding, and successfully advocate to the local government that people with disability in Sri Lanka be treated equally. In particular, she says that the local and international recognition of AKASA’s work has increased as a result of greater international awareness of disability and human rights.

Talking points

  • According to Dinesha, what are some of the reasons why women with disabilities in rural Sri Lanka are a particularly vulnerable group?
  • How do other aspects of human diversity — such as gender, religion and socioeconomic status — intersect with disability and human rights?
  • In what ways does Kamala’s story weave together the ideas we have been developing this week?
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