Fighting for Women’s Rights in Serbia and Sri Lanka

Co-written with the contribution of the Sri Lanka section by Meghana Bahar, WITNESS’ Social Media and Communications Consultant for Asia-Pacific. 

In honor of the achievements of the women and human rights defenders who fought before us and those who fight alongside us now, WITNESS wishes everyone a happy and safe International Women’s Day. Today we’re launching a new tipsheet on Interviewing Survivors of Gender-Based Violence, adapted from a more comprehensive guide, offering guidance on preparing for an interview, filming tips, and more resources. Download and share it here!

Below we feature two of the women and organizations who are currently working to ensure equal rights, safety, and freedom from discrimination and harmful practices for all women.


ATINA, an NGO based out of Belgrade, Serbia, focuses on supporting women who are survivors of human trafficking and gender-based violence. Working in mobile response teams and centers for asylum seekers, ATINA’s staffers do not call themselves employees, rather they are activists – activists borne out of the feminist and anti-war movements following the bloody wars and conflict-based rape tactics of Yugoslavia’s breakup. Over the last two decades, ATINA shored up expertise in supporting those communities most at risk in the Balkans, specializing in advocating for and supporting children, unaccompanied minors, LGBT groups, and refugees.

It is thus surprising, at first glance, that ATINA’s Up The Road, a documentary made in 2014 in collaboration with a young journalist, featured no interviews with women. Facing a critical mass of women, children, and men traveling North, ATINA found themselves pivoting to support survivors and at-risk communities speaking different languages, from different cultures, and those with long roads ahead of, and behind them. With some 65% of women reporting knowledge of violence against a woman in refugee camps, and over 11% of women reporting direct violence by police or military staff, these individuals often arrive in Serbia after some time on the “Road North” – through Greece and Macedonia carrying a mistrust of, and trauma-based reactions to, journalists, human rights defenders, police and NGO workers.

Milica Gudovic, ATINA’s communications manager, explained the challenge ATINA faced in building an advocacy plan for Up the Road – with their commitment to protecting the communities they work with, ATINA decided to forego interviewing  women for Up The Road in order to avoid pressuring those who didn’t feel safe enough to be on camera. Instead, they amplified their support network and services in order to build that trust and security. This is a principle which ATINA retains in practice today – whether it is vetting journalists who wish to speak to survivors or while filming their own productions, ATINA refuses to compromise the safety of survivors for the sake of storytelling. And this is exactly why training support staff on interviewing survivors of GBV and sharing resources across organizations and borders is pivotal to the shoring up of the international support systems of south east Europe.

With close to 90,000 unaccompanied minors in EU member states, children have become targeted victims of human trafficking and gender-based violence. As a result, ATINA now operates in partnership with the Greek ARSIS and Macedonian Open Gate: La Strada to help track those at risk who are moving through south east Europe, especially unaccompanied minors, and to share resources on training materials and security. With between 7,000-8,000 people tracked on this regional network, it is more important than ever to have groups like ATINA advocate for and support women and children who are on their own, without families or states to go back to.

Today, ATINA’s launched an International Women’s Day campaign with a list of wishes as both a guiding point and inspiration to those working to support women’s rights. For the full campaign, visit


Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka recently celebrated its 69th year of independence from colonial powers on 4th February 2017. And yet, Victorian legislation still persist on issues surrounding sexuality Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 9.28.34 AMand sexual orientation, whilst
laws recognizing the existence of transgendered persons are virtually non-existent. Recently, the Sri Lankan parliament adopted against decriminalizing homosexuality, lumping it as a cultural matter and not one of human rights concern. Currently, no laws exist that intend to protect the rights of the LGBTQI community in Sri Lanka.

Culturally deemed as outcasts, offered no means of government protection, and severely underrepresented politically, LGBTQI persons continue to live in fear, face daily obstacles, and are discriminated against throughout the island. The government does not include the community in its educational and gender equality initiatives. Socio-economically too, households headed by same-sex couples are ineligible for any kind of protection that may be afforded to cis-heterosexual couples. In the healthcare sector, initiatives exist to “correct” homosexuality, and mechanisms like the state police detain and harass LGBTQI individuals, as reported by Human Rights Watch. Hate groups, such as the nationalist-exScreen Shot 2017-03-09 at 9.28.44 AMtremist group ‘the Island Nation of Sinhale’, have taken to social media to spread radical ideology and hate-filled vitriol against the LGBTQI community. Some clergy have been reported to use religious rhetoric to justify homophobic and transphobic speech and violence.

In the recent past, Sri Lanka’s human rights record, particularly with regard to its treatment of Tamil-speaking minority communities, and women and girls, has come under major scrutiny by the larger international community, human rights movement and international treaty bodies. However, past and present governments continue to assert their independence to assess violent war crimes and crimes against humanity via the induction of in-country, autonomous judicial and prosecutorial mechanisms.

16831978_10155031425826804_8515587305428559136_nEQUAL GROUND Executive Director, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera at CEDAW66

In such an environment, EQUAL GROUND, a Sri Lankan non-governmental organization, leads the fight to further equality, justice and the full dignity of LGBTQI individuals. In a country where the concerns of the LGBTQI community continue to be trod on or largely ignored, EQUAL GROUND stands out like a sore thumb. Currently, the Chair of the Commonwealth Equality Network, EQUAL GROUND represented the voices of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community at the 66th Session of the CEDAW Committee in Geneva, Switzerland, citing the misapplication and abuse of laws by State officials in the extended NGO Shadow Report.

No stranger to discrimination, violence, stigma, slurs, murder threats or hate, EQUAL GROUND has continued to champion the equal rights of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI persons since 2004. Accessible on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, they have produced a number of documentaries for the purpose of raising awareness on LGBTQI concerns. The group have today, on International Women’s Day, launched their ‘134 campaign’ to raise awareness on the archaic laws that criminalize homosexuality. Preceded by an online petition that has garnered over 38,000 signatures, the campaign uses video interviews to document the lived realities of LGBTQI persons in Sri Lanka.

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