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Sri Lanka

7 October 2005
(Nalini Kasynathans acceptance speech on receiving Ronald Wilson Human Rights Award).
I must admit to having been a bit surprised when I was told of my nomination for a human rights award. For, I have never been known or thought of myself as a human rights or political activist. I have imagined myself always only as a development worker. My work has mainly been in not very well known, remote parts of Sri Lanka. I have worked in these areas in one capacity or another for over thirty years among marginal farmers, poor fishermen and landless villagers. Except after the recent tsunami, the available budgets have been small most of the time, and I have never been able to deliver spectacular benefits. The reach of my work too – a little over 15,000 families over these years, has never been of a scale large enough to impress anyone in these times of big and conglomerated enterprises.
Given these facts about myself and my work, in recent times I have on occasion been beset by doubts about the worth of the kind of modest scale micro work in which I have engaged for so long. Not a very good state to be in as one approaches the end of one’s paid working life. The award from ACFID therefore has given me great encouragement and satisfaction for I see it as an affirmation of the worth of the kind of small scale, intensive, un-glamorous work some of us consider useful and necessary.
I also wish to share with you my conviction that I accept this award also as a recognition of the commitment, passion and the hard work that has been contributed by the staff of Oxfam Australia’s field office in Sri Lanka and the leaders of the community groups especially the women who worked with us. The latter specially, have shown not only enormous energy and dedication but also tremendous courage in defying endemic threats of violence from diverse sources. I dedicate this award to all and every one of them, for without them, there is little that I could have achieved.
Let me now, in the time available to me, explore a little the appropriateness of giving a human rights award to a development worker.
In working with the poorest of the poor, as Oxfam Australia has done in Sri Lanka, with the aim of helping them to achieve sustainable improvements in their lives, one is confronted very soon by various obstructions – obstructions that render futile even their best efforts to help themselves. Built into the lives of the poor are several deprivations of rights.. Development workers soon realise that they have to deal with these barriers if they wish to be effective in effecting sustainable development interventions and in improving the quality of life of the poor.
Within the household itself there are barriers to the development of the child and to the life conditions of women. And when the poor step out of their house or hut, they encounter a series of difficulties. Even by the mere act of walking on the road, a low caste person risks provoking a higher caste person, if she or he does not adopt a sufficiently reverential manner and expression. They must certainly not draw water from the same well as the high caste man or woman, even if that is the only well in the vicinity and the only one with drinkable water within reasonable distance. Parents may have difficulty in sending their child to school because they have not been successful in the negotiations required to obtain a birth certificate for their child or because their customary marriage was not registered. They may be arrested at the whim and fancy of an army officer, policeman or armed group but cannot find out for months and years where their husband, son or daughter is detained because they dare not ask. For the woman of course it starts from the minute she wakes up or is woken up.
In its work in Sri Lanka, Oxfam Australia has worked to enable the poor to see their rights and to demand those rights not because we set out to adopt a rights approach, but because it became a prerequisite for our work. We had to organise long-term programs to give poor communities an understanding of the structures and processes that constitute their environment. We discussed with them the concepts of equality, discrimination and natural justice in the context of their own environment. We sought through this education to give them the confidence to challenge what were previously accepted as natural and unchanging conditions. For example it was a slow process to convince marginalised communities that the caste system was unjust, that the government officer had duties towards them, that he was not doing them favours in providing services and that he was obliged to treat the rich and poor alike. Women had to be taught that being beaten by their husbands was not a necessary part of the marital relationship and it was not the husband’s right to control their bodies, earnings and property.
The way we at Oxfam Australia found most suitable to impart this education was to get the poor to form community based groups or organizations. Such organisations became a microcosm of their world and therefore very apt learning places. They were organised to run on democratic principles and soon very challenging differences and difficulties emerged. Some of the poor were more assertive than others. Encouraging the others to open their mouths was a task of great difficulty but rewarded by miraculous transformations. The courage to challenge peers does in time translate into questioning the aid worker himself and then the visiting bureaucrat.
Over the years these groups learnt to negotiate with armed militants as well as with the armed forces of the state. They have acquired the courage to report violations of the armed forces, rape and disappearances. They have resisted the militants through protests, and exposed corrupt government officials. They have taken leadership roles in local civil society structures.
To give one concrete example: In the early 1990’s when the country was under the emergency regulation, men and women were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and were kept in custody without any inquiry and without the family being informed about their whereabouts. The Affected Women’s Forum, one of the CBO’s in the area, set up a Human Rights desk, educated and promoted the communities to report the details of missing family members and got in touch with national level human rights organisations and with the Commissioner for Human Rights. The community was trained to demand from the armed forces a certificate of arrest with details of the person taken into custody and the place where he was kept. With this information, and support from Oxfam they were able to appoint lawyers and over time the number of disappearances were reduced and many were released.
These communities were also linked with regional and national networks to achieve their rights. They also worked on their economic rights. For example, they question the ADB’s role in major projects and resisted the acquisition of their lands for the construction of super highways and are resisting water privatisation and payment of water tax.
Oxfam’s experience after the recent tsunami highlighted very impressively the fruits of the rights awareness work undertaken in our development work. Many of the communities with which we had worked were affected by the tsunami and lost every thing. The houses, the wells and the community centres and all the physical infrastructure that had been given to them by all the donors including AusAID disappeared. All the micro credit based income generation activities were gone. But in all these communities the human strength that was developed, their awareness of their rights, responsibilities their entitlements and the capacity to form and function as groups acquired over the years, remained. This enabled them to negotiate with and guide the aid and reconstruction process: they identified their needs, prioritised the very poor, single women and children, and challenged all those who sought to control the delivery of aid. The relief and recovery process in these empowered communities was remarkably different from others where such transformative work had not been attempted.
In conclusion I must thank Oxfam Australia, with whom I have had the fortune to work for nearly two decades. Oxfam’s vision and ideological clarity, serious commitment to working with the poor and the voiceless, and their deep respect for fair and empowering processes have provided for me and my fellow workers the space and the will to continue to work - combining welfare and rights in the way we have done in Sri Lanka.
by Oxfam Australia

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