Shanthi Dairiam: Celebrating a life of purpose and consequence

Masimanyane Women's Rights International joins thousands of women around the globe in honouring the life and legacy of Shanthi Dairiam, former Executive Director of IWRAW Asia Pacific and a founding member of its Board, who celebrates her 80th birthday today (17 September 2019).

Shanthi is a human rights and women's rights advocate and United Nations official who has dedicated her life and career to women’s rights programmes, advocacy and capacity building.

"Shanthi has been a key ally and supporter of Masimanyane and the work we do, locally and internationally," says Masimanyane Executive Director Dr Lesley Ann Foster.

"She introduced us to international advocacy and has mentored and sustained our growth in his regard."

Born and raised in India, she initially trained as an English teacher. Her activism was triggered in the 1970s when she volunteered with the Federation of Family Planning Associations (FFPA), where she was first exposed to the vast inequalities women faced.

"While with the FFPA, I realised that inequality originates from the family and it controls every other aspect of women’s lives," she recalls.

"I 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 later joined the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and became involved in the mid-1980s in lobbying for the enactment of the Domestic Violence Act (which was eventually passed by parliament in 1994).

Since 2004, she has served on the United Nation's Gender Equality Task Force, as well as on the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). She was also a Special Rapporteur from January 2007.

"The CEDAW Committee sets standards for women's human rights using the framework of the CEDAW Convention with its emphasis on substantive equality," she says. "This is a critical function as it is the only UN organ mandated to do so.

"Having worked as an NGO promoting the human rights of women for more than 25 years I felt that I would be able to bring the realities of women's lives to this function and would be able to provide a sharper analysis of the persistence of inequality and the kinds of interventions that need to be in place."

In 2010, Shanti was appointed as one of 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 now frequently travels all over the world to train officials and activists, advocating equality and in particular CEDAW as an instrument for equality.

The holder of masters degrees in Literature and gender and Development, she has served as an international women's rights expert, assisting key UN agencies such as APGEN, the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and UNIFEM.

Her book, A Woman’s Right To Equality: The Promise Of CEDAW, was launched at the Beijing +20 conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

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