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 RH Reality Check. 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.
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.