Vijayakumary Murugiah has witnessed and endured a series of violent acts since she was a child. But rather than being consumed by her own trauma, or running away from violence to seek a separate peace, Vijayakumary has devoted herself to helping women victims of violence. She has been doing this for over a decade, at considerable risk to her own life. But the frustrations of her work have not defeated her-she constantly pushes against the boundaries of what can be done to stop the rampant violence against women.
One of seven children of a paddy laborer, Vijayakumary Murugiah grew up in the village Varani, 19 miles from Jaffna town in Sri Lanka's conflict-torn Northern Province. As a child, she saw harsh poverty and endured her father's violent alcoholism. This class X dropout's life changed in 1989 when she decided to join Poorani, a safehouse and vocational training group for women. It exposed her to a group of women bent on changing women's status. Unfortunately, political pressure forced Poorani to close down in 1991. Some Poorani women and feminists from Sri Lanka's south and east formed Suriya in Colombo; in 1992, Vijayakumary joined them, working for displaced women and families from the east and the north. In 1994, when the displaced from the east returned to Batticaloa, Suriya relocated, and so did Vijayakumary a year later. From 1999, she focused on violence against women, dealing with cases of rape-including gang rape-by the military, religious fundamentalists and civilians, and incest, harassment and domestic violence. Collecting and documenting data, Vijayakumary interviews women, counsels and mobilizes them, and provides them with support and information about their rights. She organizes social campaigns, works for advocacy with the relevant officials, and initiates legal actions-600 so far. District officials and NGOs today recognize that domestic violence and other forms of violation of women's rights are a serious problem. Police are quicker to take action as more women come forward to protest the violations. A Tamil from Sri Lanka's embattled north, Vijayakumary lives with discrimination. She encountered problems when she moved to the south and the east, was arrested twice by the Sri Lankan army, and put in detention for 12 days in Colombo and a day in Batticaloa. But the intimidation has not worked.