Marini de Livera was at the grand opening of a rural community’s first schoolhouse library when she got word she had been replaced.
Then the chairperson of Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Authority, de Livera had made enemies by aggressively investigating child abuse — even when her work led her to the doorsteps of influential politicians. And when public ridicule, death threats and roadblocks from her own government failed to stop de Livera’s investigations, she was simply removed from her position.
Luckily for the children of Sri Lanka, that didn’t stop her either.
De Livera was one for 10 women from around the globe who were honored by the U.S. Department of State during the 2019 International Women of Courage Awards. The program — which recognizes women who put their own lives and personal safety at risk to help others — brings the award winners to the U.S. to share their experiences and to learn from the experiences of their American peers.
As part of her trip, de Livera spent a week in Pensacola discussing her work at Sisters at Law, a child protection organization she founded after being ousted from the National Child Protection Authority. Through Sisters at Law, de Livera serves as a pro bono lawyer for women and child crime victims, as well as promotes alternative care for children trapped in orphanages.
During a tour of Pensacola sponsored by the Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council and the federal International Visitor Leadership Program, de Livera met officials from local child protection organizations such as the State Attorney’s Office, the Gulf Coast Kid’s House and Guardian Ad Litem.
De Livera came away energized with new ideas to take home, and thankful that her efforts were being acknowledged.
“I’ve never been appreciated,” she said with a wry laugh. “On the contrary, there’s been so much negativity from everyone around me. The work that I do is a losing battle.”
Sri Lanka is an island nation of about 21 million people off the south-eastern coast of India. De Livera estimated that the population includes about 20,000 children who are trapped in orphanages, and that many of those kids wind up as victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Explaining the number of orphans, de Livera said, “The poorer people in Sri Lanka think the children will be sent to school and well looked after. They have this notion that because they are in the slums and they don’t have the conditions to bring up a child, that the orphanages are better.”
The children often end up in conditions worse than the ones they left, according to de Livera.
De Livera was appointed as the NCPA chairperson in April 2017, and she used her position to advocate for children in poverty, as well as for women who leave home seeking economic opportunity and end up victims of violence and trafficking.
“I would very proactively bring investigations of child abuse,” she said. “I got so many threats from politicians and people who are affected by my investigations, but I continued with my work.”
That was until April 7, 2018, when de Livera’s subordinates learned via text message that a new chairperson had been appointed to replace her. De Livera said she was upset for about two or three hours, then she resolved to continue her work.
“I decided to set up my own organization which is a hybrid between a law firm and a charity known as Sisters at Law,” de Livera said.
De Livera provides free legal services to indigent children and families, as well as helps give parents skills training, assistance finding housing and other services that may help them keep their families intact. She also works to inform families in rural communities of their rights.
After a young girl was raped and murdered in Sri Lanka, de Livera wrote and illustrated a children’s book giving steps on how children can recognize signs they are in danger, ways to get out of dangerous situations and how to report them to adults.
De Livera adapted the book into a traveling street theater performance that she and her team have performed in towns and villages across the country. De Livera said her funding and manpower are limited, and that she would welcome any attorneys or performers who would be willing to volunteer their services in Sri Lanka on a temporary basis.
“Legal aid goes hand in hand with legal literacy,” she said. “If people are not aware of the laws, if people are not aware of the fundamental rights that are enshrined in the constitution, they will not go to an attorney and they will not seek help … . As long as the people are ignorant of their rights, the perpetrators and all the powers that be will be very happy because they can do their own thing.”
More information about De Livera, Sisters at Law and her visit to Pensacola are available at her Facebook page.
The U.S. Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards are now in their 13th year, and since their inception, the State Department has honored more than 120 women from more than 65 different countries.
The Gulf Coast Citizen Diplomacy Council is a non-partisan, nonprofit organization that partners with the U.S. Department of State to bring up-and-coming foreign visitors participating in the International Visitor Leadership Program to Northwest Florida. The organization’s mission is to create and encourage collaboration between like-minded resident who value sharing our region with the rest of the world.