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Avon Global Center for Women and Justice at Cornell Law School
Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane A Compelling Voice for Gender Justice

Sri Lankan Supreme Court Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane is a remarkable role model and an important advocate of using the law to advance global equality and human rights.

Justice Tilakawardane's legal career has focused on the issues of equality, gender education, child rights and environmental law. Notably, Justice Tilakawardane was the first woman in Sri Lanka appointed to serve as a State Counsel, High Court Judge and Court of Appeal judge. She also served as an admiralty court judge.

Justice Tilakawardane is an accomplished teacher of equality and gender justice. She has been active in Sakshi of India's gender workshops for judges, as well as the Asia Pacific Forum for Gender Education for Judges working on gender issues in India, Pakistan, Nepal , Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. From 2001 to 2003, she was one of ten Brandeis International Fellows who participated in a series of three one-week institutes over an 18-month period, exploring topics such as human rights, intervention and international law.

In the below discussion with the Avon Global Center, Justice Tilakawardane reflects upon her personal struggles with gender discrimination and her determination to achieve human rights and dignity for all women in Sri Lanka and South Asia. She also provides practical insights into successful methods for gender sensitization training within the justice system.

Q: What major causes prompted your concern for women's rights?

A: My first experience witnessing an act of violence against a woman on the street shocked me. I saw a man battering an older woman, and the sound of flesh on flesh and passersby ignoring the attack confused and angered me. I also encountered exclusion and discrimination when beginning my career as a young lawyer when few women held posts in public life. When I began working as the first woman State Counsel in the Attorney General’s Office, I experienced gender discrimination, sexual harassment and eve-teasing. In those days, when the human rights language had not been crystallized, I did not dare talk about it. If I spoke out, I was chastised for not learning to navigate a “man’s world.”

Q: In your opinion, what are the greatest obstacles for securing justice for women-survivors of gender-based violence?

A: Gender–based violence is a serious part of the reality of women in South Asia and the world. Statistics reveal that it uniformly affects about 1 in 3 women across the globe, regardless of poverty or underdevelopment. In my opinion, the difference is the reluctance to break the silence due to societal norms and the lack of support from the state. For these reasons, women face greater barriers to escape violence and access justice.

In post-conflict Sri Lanka, one of the root problems I see which limits women from reaching the full potential of the freedoms guaranteed to them is the stereotypical role of women that is expected based on the male-dominant cultural and traditional norms of the civic society, especially in the rural areas. The family unit, for example, does not permit women who fall outside this pattern to exercise their rights or access there rights equally.

In the context of conflict, many households are run by single mothers. These women are marginalized. Indeed, some in society even blame their bad luck as contributing to their husbands’ deaths or disabilities.

Additionally, the norm is to view men as the head of the family even when women are the breadwinners. Even after the tsunami, when property deeds were reinstated, they were often allocated to men, even when titles belonged to women prior to the disaster. After their husbands’ death, women often had to rely on a male family member, often a father, uncle or brother. These male family members did not always make decisions in the best interests of women.

Q: What do you consider to be the most important legal and/or social changes that would positively affect the lives, liberty and safety of women in Sri Lanka or other post-conflict areas?

A: The government must ensure awareness, education, sensitization and participation of women in decision making bodies at all levels. Inclusive procedures at every level are also important so that all women have a strong voice. The role of women in an organization and in society must become more prominent. Women cannot be left behind in crucial policy-setting discussions. They must be represented in equal proportions even at Policy levels.

Awareness and sensitization are an important aspect of identifying and defying the suppression and marginalization of women’s human rights, especially the right to live a life free from violence. A sensitized judiciary is where substantive equality exists in the law and would ensure to all women and men equal respect and dignity, and would help to preclude discrimination and societal marginalization through an abuse of power by individuals or the state. Having the statutory provisions in the law does not suffice, as it is as important to guarantee the effective implementation of these laws that assure equality, and preclude gender discrimination, through gender friendly procedures, where access to the law is easy and available to all. The result is clear: a society where men and women can equally access their rights without any impairment to the full enjoyment of their dignity. Not to afford women equality under the law is an injustice and will in the end further perpetrate discrimination against women. Unless attitudes are changed, the root causes of gender-based violence will continue in society and perpetrators will continue to live with impunity going unpunished for their crimes.

Q: Given your extensive work on gender issues, what in your view are some of the aspects that work and do not work in gender sensitization trainings – of judges and/or lawyers? What should be the goal/focus of such trainings, and how can programs best to meet these goals – in terms of planning program design, participants, faculty, etc.?

A: One of the fundamentals in gender training, especially with judges, is what I call the “protocol factor.” The process is as important as the substance of the program. Judges must at all times be respected and involved in the program The program must be judge-driven, and senior judges must be involved in program development and implementation, as in my experience judges prefer to be taught by other judges. Partnership with University professors works if judge protocol is observed at all times. Especially during discussions, which must be an integral part of the program, judges open up and freely discuss troubling issues only if they are confident that only other judges are present in the room.

Additionally, interactive programs have been more successful; judges are more attentive and obtain a better understanding of the subject. Formal trainings combined with informal trainings are particularly successful. Offering skills training and teaching tools is also critical. Indeed, judges take away lessons learned with greater clarity if they are given the skills and tools to implement what they have learned.

Most importantly, programs should always address issues concerning attitudes, and how to change gender stereotypes, which create assumptions in law. The best way to change attitudes is to identify myths and stereotypes in the law and use international law to interpret and broaden national laws to overcome cultural biases and traditional barriers and stigmas or the notions of the superiority or inferiority of either sex.

I would refer anyone who is working on gender trainings to these broad outlines and perhaps advise them to deliver such programs under the auspices of the judicial training colleges in partnership with judges, the Ministry of Justice, and NGO’s.