Sri Lanken Supreme Court Justice leading the charge in woman's rights

Kristen Bradley                 Last Friday evening, 10 May 2013, the Auckland Women Lawyers’ Association (AWLA), in conjunction with the New Zealand Association of Women Judges and with support from ADLS, held the seventh annual Dame Silvia Cartwright lecture. Each year, AWLA selects an outstanding speaker who shows vision, passion and excellence in their chosen profession, and is a role model and inspiring example to other women.

This year’s speaker was Justice Shiranee Tilakawardane, who was the first woman in Sri Lanka to be appointed to the High Court, Admiralty Court and Court of Appeal, and is currently a member of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court. Justice Tilakawardane is active in the field of promoting human rights, with a particular focus on protecting the rights of vulnerable women and children and promoting equality in Sri Lanka. She has received numerous awards for her contribution to human rights, including the Sakshi of India Women’s International Award and the Shakti Award by the Canadian National Development Agency.

In her address, Justice Tilakawardane identified the root cause of abuse against women and children as a lack of respect for and belief in human rights for all. Justice Tilakawardane focussed on the importance of taking a multi-sectorial approach when addressing issues relating to women and children. The key sectors that need to be involved were identified as being the legal system, the health system and the social welfare system. 

By taking an integrated approach, these agencies can begin to address issues in society before they occur, both by taking steps to make potential victims aware of their rights and by addressing potential abusers. 

Justice Tilakawardane noted that the legal system has a tainted record in terms of how it treats the victims of gender-based violence and abuse. This tainted record needs to be confronted and addressed in order to make justice more accessible for those affected by abuse. 

Justice Tilakawardane identified the need for restorative justice in some cases, and spoke of steps that can be taken to mitigate harm that may be otherwise exacerbated by the legal system. 

Many of the issues being faced by the Sri Lankan Courts have resonance with those being faced in New Zealand, and the need to adopt a multi-sectorial approach to address the abuse of women and children is just as important here. 

While countries such as New Zealand may be more progressive than some other nations, it is a continuing journey.

Justice Tilakawardane noted that there is an increasing awareness internationally of the importance in ensuring women and children are treated with respect and dignity. 

While there are still suggestions from some countries and cultures that ideas about the rights of women are being imposed in an imperialistic manner, it is encouraging that countries such as the Maldives (which has codified Sharia law) are now starting to talk openly about strategies for addressing domestic violence, which would not have been discussed previously.

Justice Tilakawardane’s address was both eye-opening and inspirational and AWLA and the New Zealand Association of Women Judges would like to thank her for presenting this year’s Dame Sylvia Cartwright lecture.

Kristin Bradley is a Senior Solicitor at Bell Gully and a member of the AWLA Executive.

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