As feminists, we would like to remember and celebrate the spirit of Kamalini Wijayatilake, who passed away five years ago. My own friendship with Kamalini was not born from childhood association; or from being accidentally assigned the same beginners’ class or even the same school. In fact, there was an age gap of 12 years between Kamalini and me; yet our friendship was a tribute to her innate capacity to strike up deep and meaningful relationships with anyone - irrespective of differences.
This was evidenced by her ever-increasing circle of friends - irrespective of differences in age, class, ethnicity, religion, sex, geography and nationality. Differences, whether biological, socio-cultural, political or economic, in fact, differences of any kind were not issues for Kamalini.
She embraced them all - unlike in today’s Sri Lanka (only five years later after her death) when people’s political, racial and religious differences are being vilified, reviled and targeted - for state sponsored-victimization and violence.
There is no doubt that it would have enraged and disgusted Kamalini to see this state of affairs in our country – as she was an exceptional woman who stood steadfast for core moral and political values of decency, a common Sri Lankan identity based on equality and respect, gender equity, and democratic human rights / freedoms.
Like many women, Kamalini chose to wear many hats. To us, she was an intimate friend and colleague, an intellectual ‘sounding board’ and a sister feminist. She was a fellow student of the MA degree in Women’s Studies at Colombo, a colleague with whom many of us collaborated on feminist research projects, a phone-in counselor for battered women, an ‘advisor’ on gender and women’s issues (whom we had only to call to be given contacts and resources), and on many occasions, an initiator of feminist action against current events that discriminated against women. She was in her element drafting protest statements, networking and critiquing legislation with regard to women.
As her friends, we know only some facets of her life and work. There are those who knew her from her times at Visakha Vidyalaya and the Sri Lanka Law College. Others who knew her through her links to various women’s groups and community-based organizations, displaced people, and battered women - especially vis-à-vis her work in the rural areas of Moneragala, Hambantota, Kandy, Balangoda, Kurunegalle, Anamaduwa - to mention a few. We have known her over a span of 10-20 years – essentially as a feminist researcher and an activist.
In the early years, Kamalini was involved with the legal literacy programme of the Sri Lanka Women Lawyers Association; she was one of the founding members of Women in Need (WIN) organization (a dire need of the time) and counseled survivors of domestic violence for many years; she then worked as a program officer at Canadian International Development Aid (CIDA) for a while; she was a long-term independent consultant on legal / gender issues and a gender trainer to many local and outreach organizations (such as the Kantha Shakthi, Vehilihini Development Centre in Moneragala, the Uva Welassa Women Farmers Organization, the Centre for Family Services, the Women’s Development Centre Kandy, the Rural Development Foundation – Puttalam, and the Sri Lanka Canada Development Fund), often traveling the length and breadth of the country on weekends, interacting with women from many fields of life, creating consciousness about gender and women’s issues, conducting legal literacy programs, and working out schemes for the overall empowerment of women.
She was also able to influence the gender policies / women’s programs of a large number of NGOs and women’s organizations on a more short-term basis. She was also very much involved in the formulation of the Women’s Charter of Sri Lanka and she also drafted the Guidelines for a Code of Ethics on Sexual Harassment for the Sri Lanka Employers’ Federation / ILO. At the time of her death she was a member of the National Committee on Women, and gave her inputs to such initiatives as the (now defunct) National Women’s Bill.
Kamalini was able to network extensively with women in countries like Nepal, Thailand, India, Pakistan etc. through the Asia Pacific Women, Law and Development Forum (APWLD); and she was also at the forefront of the Sri Lanka NGO Forum, and was part of the delegation to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (UNCEDAW) a number of times, to present the Sri Lanka Shadow Report on the Women’s Convention.
Kamalini was known to many, more closely, through her association with the Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR), where as a board member, she initiated and researched a large number of legal and other studies spanning from her extensive work in the field of violence against women (domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment) to women’s inheritance rights; from legal aid for women, to women’s family rights etc. Kamalini’s other written work focuses on concerns such as peace, critical gender issues; Govt-NGO initiatives for women's rights in Sri Lanka; incest; trafficking of women; women's movements; globalization; women workers in the Middle East, engendering the national budget, post-conflict reconstruction etc., and form a considerable corpus of research within Sri Lankan women’s studies, and situates Kamalini as a significant feminist writer of the past two decades.
Kamalini also wrote a book on a topic close to her heart - Unraveling Herstories – A Three Generational Study on the life experiences of mothers, daughters and granddaughters during the 20th century; tracing such issues and events as menarche, virginity, marriage, dowry, divorce, childbirth etc., and such roles and responsibilities as heading the household, providing for and decision-making within the family etc. This book is a cultural analysis of women’s situation and relations within the family, and constitutes an important feminist record of contemporary history in Sri Lanka. Gender trainer
Kamalini was also one of the first gender trainers in the island, creating her own resource material to suit the Sri Lankan context. Her keen intellect and incisive arguments (enhanced by creative anecdotes) were always channeled via a calm demeanor through which she was able to convince people about the discrimination faced by women and the need for gender equity /equality.
Unlike other activists who sometimes use the media as a political tool, Kamalini believed in working at a person-to-person level – which in fact, was her great strength. For this reason, many of you did not know her – because that was the way she wanted it. And for those of us, who did know her, she was just ‘Kamalini’ – we doubt that anyone ever addressed her as Ms. or Mrs. Wijayatilake. Above all, Kamalini was a sensitive, kind and gentle person: her unassuming, low-key character; her down-to-earth nature; her subtle irony and unexpected sense of humour; her tenacity of mind; combined with her absolute integrity and strength of character with which she worked, played and lived made sure that she was loved by all, and most importantly, accepted by all who had the privilege to know her. She could empathize with all of us - not barring age, race, social class, geographical location etc. She was equally at home in the thorny jungles in Mahawalatenna talking with rural women, as she was serving ‘Mysore mixture’ to her friends in her house in Colombo.
At the same time, Kamalini’s love of life and friends, her spirit of discovery and adventure, and her appreciation of creativity whether it be in literature, art or craft, ensured that she was erudite not only academically, but also about the little things in life - such as family histories and local places of interest. She was a creator herself – though perhaps not always acknowledged by her – of exquisite embroidery and of her own clothes, of designs for book covers, of floral arrangements, and of course, through her writing.
We have merely charted and compressed to a column the things that struck us of a woman who was a dear friend. To others, she was much more. To her family members, she was a much-loved wife/partner, and a beloved and progressive mother. We know that Kamalini, herself, would have been (characteristically) very annoyed with us for writing about and publicizing her.
But, forgive us, even five years later we feel the need to salute you: your courage especially during the last three years of your life – undaunted by the craven disease that finally killed you; your activist and intellectual achievements of a lifetime - not only for yourself - but for many women in this country; and your spirit that was always unpretentious yet sometimes mischievous. While our grief at loosing you is still profound; we celebrate your life, and treasure in our minds, the image of you; and in our hearts, the memories we have of you.