iProbono is at the forefront of promoting equality and justice across South Asia. One of the cornerstones of iProbono’s commitment to social justice is its Equality Law Program, which has played a pivotal role in driving tangible change for the LGBT+ community in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In this article, we delve into the specifics of iProbono’s Equality Law Program in Sri Lanka, highlighting its achievements and its special focus for 2023.
A Beacon of Change
In the last few years, iProbono’s Equality Law Program in Sri Lanka witnessed profound changes that have significantly advanced the rights of the LGBT+ community. Among the key milestones was a2022 case involving the attempted prosecution and incarceration of a lesbian woman by her family and the police.
The legal battle centred on the police’s application to subject the woman to a physical and psychiatric evaluation, with an aim to declare that she suffered from a mental illness due to her sexual orientation. iProbono’s legal team argued in court that homosexuality is neither a mental illness nor a criminal offence. The court, acknowledging the merits of the argument, dismissed the case. In addition to this crucial victory, iProbono sought a protection order for the woman under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 of 2005, which resulted in securing an Interim Protection Order against her parents, who were subjecting her to forced conversion therapies and wrongful confinement.
The significance of this monumental order reverberated not only within Sri Lanka but also drew international attention. The case was prominently mentioned in the US Department of State’s 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Sri Lanka, highlighting the groundbreaking precedent set in favour of LGBT+ rights.
iProbono’s impact extends beyond the courtroom, as the organisation has actively engaged with legislators to bring about meaningful legal reforms. Collaboration with parliamentarians, including the Member of Parliament Premnath Dolawatte, has been instrumental in advancing the cause of LGBT+ rights. Mr Dolawatte tabled a Private Members Bill aimed at decriminalising homosexuality by repealing sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code—sections commonly used to target the LGBT+ community.
iProbono played a crucial role in supporting Mr Dolawatte refining of the proposal, ensuring it aligns with international standards and met the expectations of the LGBT+ community in Sri Lanka. Subsequently, the constitutional validity of the Bill was challenged in the Supreme Court, citing concerns related to child abuse, increased risk of HIV, and threats to national security. iProbono’s Equality Law Director Aritha Wickramasinghe became one of the intervening petitioners in this case. In a landmark determination, the Supreme Court held that the Bill was not inconsistent with the Constitution, thereby enhancing the constitutional rights of the LGBT+ community to equal protection under the law.
Recognising the importance of fostering an environment of support and acceptance, iProbono also actively collaborated with law enforcement and government officials in Sri Lanka. In December 2022, the Inspector General of Police apologised to the LGBT+ community for past abuses, harassment, and discrimination they had faced at the hands of the police. This symbolic gesture was accompanied by a commitment to create a safe space for LGBT+ individuals coming into contact with law enforcement agencies.
Additionally, in October 2023, iProbono organised its second Access to Justice Programme in Sri Lanka. The bilingual program brought together 15 lawyers and 18 police officers from around the country, providing them with valuable insights and education on offering emergency support to the LGBT+ community, women, and children. This collaborative initiative facilitated an exchange of best practices, allowed participants to discuss practical difficulties, and explored effective ways to support vulnerable communities.
iProbono’s Equality Law Program in Sri Lanka stands out as an example of how strategic legal advocacy can bring about transformative change for marginalised communities. Through its multifaceted approach that encompasses legal representation, legislative advocacy, and collaboration with key stakeholders, iProbono has made significant strides in advancing the rights and well-being of the LGBT+ community in Sri Lanka. As the program continues to evolve, it serves as a beacon of hope for those advocating for equality and justice across South Asia.