The 30-year ethnic conflict that ripped the island nation apart, prompted many families to flee and find base elsewhere. Many Tamil families found safe ground in Norway, Canada and other countries and amid challenges, they started their lives from scratch. Born in Jaffna and having left for Norway at the age of three, the young Khamshajiny Gunaratnam, best-known by her nickname Kamzy looked at these events from a different perspective. Rather than sitting back and observing, she was determined to find solutions tounsolved problems in society. In turn, she joined the Labour Party and contested for elections at the age of 19.
- I was always inspired to do something for the unsolved problems in society, but it took a while before I realized that politics was a tool
- I was born in Jaffna and was three years old when I came to Norway. I grew up in a multicultural city with 200 different nationalities
- As an immigrant family from anywhere, you face a lot of different challenges in the country which you migrate to
Having come across various experiences in her life, Kamzy was elected to the post of the Deputy Mayor of Oslo in December 2015 with unanimous support. Although it came in as a surprise, her solutions-oriented approach values rigorous debate and recognizes voices of people in all segments of her society.
During a recent 10-day visit to Sri Lanka, Kamzy visited several areas in the North and spoke to women and observed their challenges and issues. In a candid interview with the Daily Mirror, Gunaratnam spoke about her early life in Sri Lanka, her entry to politics and why it was important to include women in the decision-making process. The Excerpts:
Q Tell us about your early life in Sri Lanka and Norway?
I was born in Jaffna and was three years old when I came to Norway. We lived in the far Northern part of Norway for a couple of years, before we moved to Oslo. I grew up in a multicultural city with almost 200 different nationalities. I’m so thankful for that, because I grew up to become a person who didn’t care about nationality, ethnicity, religion or social background.
Q As an immigrant family from Sri Lanka, what challenges did your family face while settling down in Norway?
As an immigrant family from anywhere, you face a lot of different challenges in the country which you migrate to. The language and the culture is something you need to learn from square one. This means the older you are, the more difficult it is to adapt. For me, as a three-year-old, it was much easier than for my parents. That was why I’m so proud of how they started from scratch and are well-integrated into the Norwegian society now.
Speak up your mind, listen to each other and co-operate. Staying in our comfort zone with the same people will not bring any progress to you as a person or for this country as a whole
Q What inspired you to take up politics in a foreign country and how were you prepared for it?
I was always inspired to do something to the unsolved problems in society, but it took a while before I realized that politics was a tool. I was never really prepared. Suddenly one day I just got engaged. Read through the different constitutions of different parties and decided that I was a social democrat. That was why I entered the Labour party and contested in an election for the first time in 2007, as a 19-year-old.
Q What differences do you see in governments between Sri Lanka and Norway?
I don’t really know the governments in Sri Lanka, it wouldn’t be right for me to comment on that. I have been in Sri Lanka for 10 days, and met a lot of women. Clearly they would like a system in which there was greater transparency, gender equality and less distance to their politicians.
Sri Lanka-born Khamshajiny Gunaratnam, who is the current Deputy Mayor of Norway’s Capital Oslo, called on President Maithripala Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat recently.
Q You escaped a massacre in Utøya island. Tell us about your experience and how did it contribute to whom you are today?
In 2011, a right-wing extremist attacked the government buildings in Oslo and the Labour Youth summer camp at Utøya. I was there as an executive member of the Board. 69 people had been massacred. I survived because I kept my cool, ran and swam.
After that political engagement I grew stronger. Instead of focusing on how we should punish Anders Behring Breivik, we focused on how we, as a Norwegian society should prevent creating another Brevik. That’s my responsibility and that’s my job, which is to continue to create an Oslo with room for everyone.
Q During your recent visit to
Sri Lanka, you mainly focused on underprivileged women in the Northern area. Do you see a progress in them 10 years after the war?
I visited Colombo, Mullaitivu, Jaffna (where the Killinochchi women also attended) and Batticaloa. I listened to their stories. In addition to the issues related to the war not being investigated, they conveyed their feelings about their safety, access to necessary financial empowerment and how pressure that was thrusted onto them by society still persist.
Q Women have remained a vulnerable segment in Sri Lankan society. From your observations what needs to be done to give them more confidence?
Treat our daughters like leaders, don’t have different expectations to women vs. men in our daily lives and make sure 50/50 representation is a demand. Gender factors cannot be changed, because that’s just who we are. But gender roles are constructed, and therefore they can be changed.
Q There is also a struggle for women to get themselves involved in governance and authoritative positions. Why should women be involved in the decision-making process?
If women are half the population, then they should hold half the power. Today the men dominate those sectors. That is the reason that social structures seem to be man-friendly and not women-friendly. This is about legitimacy.
Treat our daughters like leaders, don’t have different expectations to women vs. men in our daily lives and make sure 50/50 representation is a demand. Gender factors cannot be changed, because that’s just who we are
Q 51% of our population comprises women but they are not given the due credit or place owing to the existing patriarchal mindset. Does it suit an Asian country talking big about development ?
The only thing I care about is that gender equality suits every country in the world, you just have to believe in it and work for it. I believe it’s good for Sri Lanka too.
Khamshajiny Gunaratnam addressing a group of women in Jaffna
Q As a young politician, how do you wish to bring a change to Oslo in your capacity?
I want to make the City of Oslo warmer, greener and more inclusive for everyone. Basically continuing to make Oslo more progressive for our future generations.
Q There are many young politicians in Sri Lanka and many youngsters are aspiring to get a seat in Parliament. Any messages for them...
Speak up your mind, listen to each other and co-operate. Staying in our comfort zone with the same people will not bring any progress to you as a person or for this country as a whole. Go out there, seek different people and talk to someone you never thought you could talk to.
Sri Lanka’s futurewill be determined by those who are willing to think differently. I truly believe that the youth in Sri Lanka could make a change.