Prof. Goonesekere, Trailblazing Lawyer and Academic
Interviewed by Adilah Ismail and Sakina Mansoorally, Written By Adilah Ismail
Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.
From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive —Professor Emeritus of Law Savitri Goonesekere
Illustration by Devni Jay- email@example.com
Professor Emeritus of Law Savitri Goonesekere did not want to pursue law. She loved sketching, was interested in history, architecture, and conservation, and was gently nudged into law by a loving parent.
She didn’t enjoy her first year at the Department of Law, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and found it dull. But then she picked subjects she liked and soon established her niche within the sphere, following her interests. “That sense of engagement with law as a meaningful discipline, in my case, came late. It came not at the beginning but during the course of my undergraduate years, and definitely when I was a postgraduate student. It was a progression — you saw this as a very sterile discipline, then you found your spaces within it, and then you connected with it,” she muses.
Hailing from Matale and Gampola, Prof. Goonesekere had two older sisters and a younger brother and was a voracious reader, growing up in an intellectually stimulating childhood. Prof Goonesekere’s backdrop was rooted in the Buddhist tradition, humanism, modern values, independence, a spirit of curiosity, and a strong sense of justice and respect for diversity.
In university, she was one of six women (the number later dwindled to three) in a class of 25. A legal luminary and academic, Prof. Goonesekere was the University of Colombo’s first woman Vice-Chancellor (1999–2002) and its first woman Professor of Law. Prof. Goonesekere entered the Faculty of Arts on one of three university scholarships. She graduated from the Department of Law, the University of Peradeniya with First Class Honours in 1961 and qualified as an advocate of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka a year later. She became a Smith-Mundt Fulbright scholar, reading for her master’s degree at the Harvard Law School in 1962. In 1983, Prof. Goonesekere was appointed as Professor of Law at the Open University of Sri Lanka. She spearheaded the establishment of the first and only Bachelor of Laws program under the concept of distance education and lifelong learning at the Department of Legal Studies in the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL). She was the first Head of the Department and was later appointed as the first Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“I see law as a profession that seeks to pursue justice,” says Prof Goonesekere. Her work is a lifelong commitment to this philosophy. Her early research was on personal law and the impact of colonialism in the transformation process, offering insights into how law reform should be undertaken in Sri Lanka’s post-colonial and contemporary environment.
She has made vital contributions to research on legal history, personal law, children’s rights, women’s rights, human rights law, constitutional law and development, and legal education in Sri Lanka and South Asia. She has also contributed to several areas by proposing law reform, institution building, policy development, and institutions’ management.
For Prof. Goonesekere, robust and meaningful personal relationships bring joy and are a source of nourishment. This personal ethos tints her professional life. Her advocacy and work are firmly rooted in building community, forming relationships, and strengthening institutions and mechanisms which can empower people and withstand tides of change. “I see myself very much as being connected to others,” she says, emphasizing the importance of connectivity and community.
An early experience witnessing her husband navigate political pressures as a sole individual formulated Prof. Goonesekere ’s lifelong ethos around building community while deepening lessons in resistance.
“I think resistance can’t just happen with one person or one organization scoring brownie points,” emphasizes Prof. Goonesekere. “Resistance is useless if it’s just an exercise in resistance,” she says. She mourns the expanding fractures that persist and the loss of strong, collective voices advocating critical issues.
An example of resistance translating to collective action and successful lobbying to bring about change was the converging of multiple stakeholders to pass the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005 in Sri Lanka, she points out. Women’s groups, scholars, activists, civil society organizations, and numerous stakeholders pooled their technical expertise, patiently converged over a prolonged period, and got creative with their advocacy efforts. The result was a pivotal change to legislation that ensured that justice through prosecution was also an option for those subjected to domestic violence in Sri Lanka.
“Resistance requires connectivity,” says Prof. Goonesekere, highlighting the need for sustained networked efforts to bring about positive change.
About Prof. Goonesekere ’s Artefacts Two artifacts symbolize Prof. Goonesekere ’s journey. Both are gifts from her parents. One is a Parker 51 pen with a gold plated cap and her name engraved on it. It was a gift from her beloved father when she was 19 years old and had completed the exam to become eligible for admission to the University of Ceylon Peradeniya. “I’ve cherished it because, for me, a pen is very important for writing. And to quote the cliché, you like to think the pen is mightier than the sword, and so I value my pen,” says Prof. Goonesekere.
The pen also aptly symbolizes a link to another part of Prof. Goonesekere ’s life and personality, which many are not privy to. She loved sketching and illustrated a few children’s books with pen and ink. The pen was a link to this other side of her personality.
Another artefact that she deeply cherishes is a delicate, silver waist chain — a havadiya. This was a gift from her mother when she entered university. Prof. Goonesekere reminisces about how she wore a sari for classes every day and has always worn a sari since and has used the waist chain right throughout her life as it keeps the Kandyan sari tightly in place.
“It’s an interesting thing because it [the waist chain] tells you something about life also,” she explains, her eyes twinkling. “Because it has these little links in between, and so as you get fatter and your waist gets thicker, it reminds you that you had this slim waist once,” she laughs.
(Adilah Ismail is a freelance writer and communications specialist. She is a contributor to the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka and her work has been published in Scroll.in, Architectural Digest India, Vogue India, Echelon, Gourmet Circle and more. She was a Chevening Scholar and an ICCR scholar and has a BA (Hons) in English Literature from Lady Shri College for Women, University of Delhi and an MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). You can find her on Twitter and Instagram)
(Sakina Mansoorally is a nineteen-year-old with a love for reading, writing and scrolling through Instagram, and an unshakeable determination to help further women’s rights and empowerment. Currently working as a social media executive, Sakina looks forward to making a difference through whichever career she ultimately pursues. Fourth in a set of five siblings, you’ll find her happiest when she’s spending time with her two nephews, her sisters and brother.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
Professor Savitri Goonesekere (Author), Groundviews.org, https://groundviews.org/author/professor-savitri-goonesekere/
Q&A with Professor Savitri Goonesekera, World Health Organisation, 20th Feb 2010, https://www.who.int/maternal_child_adolescent/news_events/news/2010/20_02_10/en/
Savitri Goonesekere — Academic Prize 2008, FukuokaPrize.org, https://fukuoka-prize.org/en/laureates/detail/a62dae45-ca29-41ee-84a8-0f4ccbfa0f98
Emeritus Professor S.W.E Goonesekere, University of Colombo, https://cmb.ac.lk/member/emeritus-professor-savitri-w-e-goonesekere/
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