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Pushing for Citizen Empowerment and Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka



This story is part of the series We are human rights changemakers to celebrate Equitas’ 50th anniversary (#Equitas50). All through 2017, we invite you to discover stories of 50 inspiring human rights changemakers. These are but a few of the hundreds who have changed lives around the world through human rights education with Equitas’ support.


For attorney Ermiza Tegal, human rights education has had a profound personal as well as a professional impact. As a young adult in 2001, Ermiza was faced with the question of what to do with her life. She had just completed her pre-university education and “I was trying to decide what I like doing, what do I feel like doing with my life and time.” Her interests were in the sciences. While waiting to be accepted into a University, she enrolled herself at human rights course to see what it was all about. She eventually started working at the organization that conducted the course as her interest in human rights had been peaked. She also became interested in studying law.

It was at this turning point that at the recommendation of a lecturer, Ermiza participated in Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP), in Montreal, Canada, in 2001. “There were so many different countries represented at this program and everyone seemed to connect to it. There was this amazing unifying tactic that cut across those boundaries and even differences in language and culture.” Besides a broader world view, the program gave her something not readily found in the culture of her native country of Sri Lanka, confidence that she did have something valuable to say and that people would listen and engage with her.

She particularly remembers something Vincenza, director of education at Equitas, told her that she still finds useful today,

“If you’re thinking about an issue and you have the tools in place, then trust the process.”

This experience empowered her. When she later became a lawyer, she did not become just any lawyer. Her focus was on the under-represented, “mostly cases related to women, to children, and men who are coming from poverty, a particular ethnicity, caste or class background and are just treated unfairly for that reason and therefore they need the support of someone on their side.”

Her goal in doing this work is simple. She uses the opportunities brought in the wake of 30 years of conflict in her country to not only work through the existing legal system to help improve the lives of those she represents, but to also improve the law itself. “Human rights education lends itself very well to trying to articulate the needs and aspirations of people who have been affected by conflict in designing a system that helps them out […] to address some of the grievances they’ve been affected by. On the other hand, sort of in parallel, we are also looking at this opportunity to right the wrongs in the systems we’ve always had in place.” As part of transitional justice, Ermiza explains that this kind of systemic change is needed “because the issues are too fundamental [and] they require a lot more state recognition of wrongdoings and entrenched inequality on part of the state as well.”

The other side of Ermiza’s intense focus lies with passing along the education she’s received to her clients and others. “I want to be a different kind of lawyer. I want to talk to clients and tell them what the law is. I want to explain to them how it works so they can decide for themselves. It empowers them to engage.” She also sees the potential impact of sharing human rights education on an even broader level.

“Human rights education is for all different people. It’s not only for the people who are disadvantaged or discriminated against, it is for everybody.”

She sees human rights education as “a good vehicle to talk about the system and how it works and how it treats people and how institutions are privileged and how they don’t see the discrimination that they dish out […] the language of human rights is a powerful language.”

Whether interceding between local human rights organizations and various state agencies, sometimes also UN agencies, or accompanying a client to the local police station to lend her voice to support theirs, Ermiza strives to fill in or highlight the existing gaps towards protecting human rights. As a woman in a “man’s field” that hasn’t always been easy, but she is determined to continue this important work and educate others as she does so.

Her forward focus? “I would say women and children, because there has been such a rise in numbers of abuse, violence – and it speaks to our culture and the fact that we keep denying it as a real problem in Sri Lanka. Those are issues I would put on the table saying that’s something I want to focus on. Because as much as we talk about it, there is a bigger and more powerful community that also wants to not talk about it. So there’s nothing wrong with at every opportunity putting it on the table, even if it’s in an interview.” Spend any time talking with Ermiza Tegal and one cannot help but learn something important.


Attorney at law
Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP) Alumnus, 2001

Story prepared by Terri Blanchette, TimeSorters LLC. www.timesorters.com
Member of the Association of Personal Historians



Equitas’ International Human Rights Training Program is undertaken in part with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

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