S Indramalar | The Star
Mary Shanthi Dairiam, 75, has spent half her life advocating for human rights and women’s rights all over the world.
She is currently the founding director of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch – Asia Pacific (IWRAW -Asia Pacific). She also served on the United Nations’ Gender Equality Task Force on the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) committee from 2004 to 2008.
In 2010, she was one of the three UN experts to lead an inquiry into the Israeli navy’s response to the Marmara flotilla that sought to break a blockade of Gaza. She is well-known among activists internationally and travels frequently all over the world to train officials and activists, advocating equality and in particular Cedaw as an instrument for equality.
Trained as an English teacher, Shanti says she was first exposed to the gross inequalities women faced in their lives when she volunteered with the Federation of Family Planning Associations (FFPA) in the late 1970s.
Little did Shanti know that her time at FFPA would change the course of her life forever.
“While volunteering with the FFPA, I was exposed for the first time to the personal lives of women. We see and meet many women in our lives, but in public, we see them as teachers, doctors, professionals.
“We rarely know what happens in their personal lives. While with the FFPA, I got to see a different side of these women and I realised that inequality originates from the family and it controls every other aspect of women’s lives.
“I’ve met women who come for family planning services in secret because they could not tell their husbands that they do not want children and are taking contraceptives. These women had no control over their own fertility. I saw women who were abused, physically and sexually, in their marriage … it was shocking for me,” she shares.
Shanti had not been exposed to such gross inequality before that. Increasingly, she began to feel the inner push to do something about addressing this blatant inequality.
“What finally got to me was meeting some women who had come to the FFPA clinic for treatment for vaginal infections. When they were given medicines to give to their husbands, they refused. We would explain to them that if they were infected, their spouses would be too. If their husbands were not treated, they would just get reinfected. They refused. They said that they could not tell their husbands they were infected because if they did, they would be blamed for infecting them.
“This was the trigger that made me realise just how unfair and unequal these relationships were,” says Shanti.
Soon after that, she became a member of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO). In the mid 1980s, she was involved in the lobbying for the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act (which was eventually passed by parliament in 1994).
Shanti began working closely with women who were abused and sought refuge with WAO.
“I’d sleep at the shelter with them and in the process, learn a lot about the dynamics of domestic abuse. I realised that underpinning all that violence was the inequality between men and women at every stage of their lives. Violence was a form of control,” she says.
Shanti resolved to do more and she focused her attention on law reform as she knew that there had to be a legal framework for gender equality if anything were to change.
In the course of her work, Shanti came across Cedaw.
“Immediately, I knew that Cedaw was the equality standard that we should follow. This was the instrument we had to work with,” shares Shanti.
She then did a graduate degree in gender and development at the University of Sussex in Britain.
“I had a lot of on-the-ground experience and knew about the realities of women, but I realised that I needed to know more about the ideology of gender and inequality,” she says.
When she returned, Shanti started her own programme on Cedaw and its implementation in practice.
“It took me almost a year to get funding. I’d go to the National Council of Women’s Organisations (NCWO) office at night to use their computer because I had nothing. I’d quit my job to do my masters … I didn’t even have a laptop at the time,” she says.
After a year, she set up IWRAW-Asia Pacific and is now regarded as an expert on Cedaw and provides technical services to several governments in the Asia Pacific region to build capacity for the implementation of Cedaw. Shanti’s book, A Woman’s Right To Equality: The Promise Of Cedaw, was launched at the Beijing +20 conference in Bangkok, Thailand recently.