After the ceremony on March 7 in Washington, D. C., de Livera spent several days in Pensacola as a guest of the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council. During her visit, she stopped by the WUWF studios to talk about her work on behalf of women and children.
First of all, de Livera says her selection as an International Woman of Courage has been great and the treatment she’s received since winning the award has been pleasantly unfamiliar.
“It’s a magical experience because as a human rights defender you’re not used to being appreciated,” she said. “It’s always negativity that we encounter.”
For example, de Livera received death threats and faced government resistance to her aggressive investigations of child abuse while serving as chair of her country’s National Child Protection Authority. She says the agency has great potential, with lots of boots on the ground.
“Locally, there are field child protection officers and child rights protection officers working with child victims. So, if it’s implemented properly, it’s a wonderful institution, a wonderful government mechanism,” de Livera said of the NCPA. “But, sadly, I had lots of obstacles; I had lots of unpleasant experiences when I tried to make this wonderful piece of legislation a ground reality in Sri Lanka.”
With less than a year on the job, de Livera "unceremoniously" was removed from the position, with notification from a subordinate, while she was on the road about to deliver a speech at the opening of a school library.
She went ahead with the speech.
Back home, de Livera says she was sad for about two hours, then decided that she didn’t need a government position to work for her community and improve society as a whole.
“If you have passion and if you have energy and if you have the drive, you can start your own organization and that’s exactly what I started to do,” declared de Livera.
Her response was the founding Sisters at Law, a nonprofit organization of pro bono attorneys for women and child victims of crime. In her country, this kind of work is groundbreaking.
“Sri Lanka does not have a pro bono culture. Even while I’m here, the cases that are being heard, there’s no one to argue those cases,” she explained. “So, I have to pay people to appear on behalf of me while I’m in the U.S.”
At this point, she says, there’s no looking back.
Sisters at Law now provides family strengthening programs and works to raise awareness of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, including the creation of a street theatre project to educate children about their rights and how to protect themselves from abuse.
Sisters at Law also rescues children - who may or may not have living parents – who are trapped in orphanages.
“There are so many social orphans, where they have sometimes the mother only or mother and father; and because of poverty, because of their economic circumstances, they think that the children would get a good deal in the orphanages,” she said of the practice in Sri Lanka.
But, as chair of the NCPA, she had the power to visit these facilities and described them as "chambers of horror."
“Children are woken up in the morning being kicked on their face,” she said of the environment at these homes for kids. “The washroom is horrible. The kitchen is horrible.”
Sisters at Law promotes alternatives to orphanages. Citing a recent child custody case, de Livera points to her successful arguments in court that resulted in the recognition of foster care in Sri Lankan law for the first time in the country’s history.
“And, I told the judge, ‘we cannot sign international treaties (that) we signed in 1989, the Child Rights Convention,” said de Livera as she implored the judge to act in the best interest of the child and respect the child’s rights to a happy home and a life of dignity. She continued, “This court is a court of justice and you cannot send the child away where all the people speak a different language. That amounts to cruelty.”
De Livera’s experience also includes work as a human rights trainer for the army, police, public officials, and grassroots leaders; she’s served on committees focused on the rehabilitation of child soldiers, prison reform and the prevention of domestic violence.
During her visit to Pensacola, the human rights lawyer had the opportunity to meet with the state attorney for the First Judicial Circuit’s juvenile justice system, as well as representatives of other organizations involved in protecting the rights of children.
She’s going back home to Sri Lanka with a lot of great ideas to work on. Of particular interest is the implementation of an initiative similar to the Guardian ad Litem program, which provides court-appointed guardians for children.
“The Australian government has just released funding for me to conduct training for magistrates and this concept is going to be introduced. So, it’s a question of getting volunteers and getting them to follow up and to be a voice for the kids in the court system,” said de Livera, pointing out that the court set up can be intimidating to youngsters.
Additionally, de Livera was intrigued with how the Families First Network uses a computer program to match children with prospective families, and she liked some of the case management models employed by 90 Works to help judges determine if a parent is suitable for custody.
For this 2019 International Woman of Courage, the designation has been a great honor, opening the door to collaborations that she would like to continue.
“I would like to extend my support network to Pensacola and to the United States and to ask everyone to hold hands with me and to assist me in my fight against child abuse and child rights violations,” de Livera said.