Over the weekend, news broke that the US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs would be honouring one of our own, activist and lawyer Ranitha Gnanarajah, with the 2021 Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award.
The IWOC Award honours women who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in acting to improve the lives of others, from families to communities to countries. It is an extraordinary opportunity to bring international attention and support to women who have put their lives and/or personal safety at risk to improve their societies and inspire fellow citizens.
Gnanarajah was one of 15 women to be honoured with the IWOC Award this year for fighting for and defending the rights of marginalised and vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka despite the risk of threats and challenges to her safety.
As the Head of the Legal Department of the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Gnanarajah has dedicated her career to fighting for accountability and justice for victims of enforced disappearances and prisoners detained often for years without charge under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act, by providing free legal aid and related services.
The Morning Brunch reached out to Gnanarajah for a brief personal chat on how she’s feeling, following being recognised as an International Women of Courage. Describing herself as very media-shy, Gnanarajah shared that though she now works as a lawyer championing human rights, she had a keen interest in geography when she was young and initially wanted to study to become a teacher in geography. Life took over, however, and following the death of one of her uncles, as a medical faculty student at Jaffna University, Gnanarajah was sent by her family to study law in Colombo and eventually focus on helping marginalised communities. “Because of this, my family chose to send me to the faculty in Colombo, where my interest in human rights was piqued,” she explained.
Speaking of her determination to change the country for the better, she explained that, being born and bred in Mannar, she grew up in a war zone, so she is no stranger to human rights being drastically violated in troubled times. “My grandfather was also a human rights activist in Mannar, and his brother was a barrister, so I was surrounded by a passion to help the people of my country, and dedicate myself in service to them.”
On their website, the US’ Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs recognised Gnanarajah as an individual personally affected by the conflict and who, based on her extensive experience working with victims and their families, has demonstrated tremendous passion and dedication to justice and accountability, especially for Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable populations.
Sharing her thoughts on the award, she commented: “I’m honoured to receive this award, but it was my team who helped me achieve this recognition. I will keep continuing my work and whatever is going on with me. I’m open to trying out new things and then moving on.”