The panellists (from left to right) Dr. Vagisha Gunasekera (Moderator), Dr. Kaushalya Perera, Dr. Vivimarie Medawattegedara and Ambika Satkunathan
Sri Lanka as a society in transition
Sri Lankans take great pride in their traditions, customs and the unique way of life. Indeed, there are many things to remember and celebrate within this beautiful culture. At the same time, there is a quite uncharted dark side as well. For instance, where does Sri Lankan society stand, in terms of ensuring gender equality, equity and fight against discrimination?
Are the women and gender diverse/fluid people afforded the equality, equity, justice and respect they deserve within Sri Lanka? The answers to these questions would prove that “the culture is male”, as Joanna Russ has famously stated and Sri Lanka has a long way to go to be more inclusive, understanding and accepting of the differences and uniqueness of all its citizens, despite gender barriers. For instance, 2018 United Nations (UN) report on Sri Lanka states that,
While national prevalence data on violence against women is not available, a recent survey revealed that 90 percent of Sri Lankan women have experienced sexual harassment on public transport…Further, a small-scale study on men’s use of violence found that 33 percent of (ever) partnered men reported committing sexual or physical violence against an intimate partner, supported, though likely under-reported by 29 percent of (ever) partnered women who reported experiencing such violence…While domestic violence is prohibited under law, some forms of violence such as marital rape are not included. Impunity from justice remains a significant concern. A National Plan of Action for addressing Sexual and Gender Based Violence is in place but has not yet been adequately resourced or implemented.
"Working towards gender equality, equity and fight against discrimination is not a “man-hating” or “male-bashing” endeavour"
However, all hope is not lost in terms of ensuring the gender equality and equity within Sri Lankan society. The long walk to achieve these goals has already begun within different facets of Sri Lankan society. Sri Lankan universities, academia and activists play a significant role in this process. These institutions and individuals create dialogue, awareness and activism required to make a difference. One such milestone took place on 30th January 2020 in the Open University of Sri Lanka, where a panel discussion organised by the Centre for Gender Equality and Equity of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) was successfully carried out. Events like this prove that Sri Lanka is a society in transition, changing for a better and inclusive future.
Centre for Gender Equality and Equity of the Open University of Sri Lanka
When the positive changes are initiated from within an academic setting, such initiatives most often tend to be more sustainable and effective in creating progressive differences within the society. As the Director of this centre, Dr. Sreemali Herath states,
The Centre for Gender Equality and Equity of the Open University was set up as a step forward in developing partnerships to build supportive and inclusive learning and working communities that work towards equality, equity and challenge discrimination. The establishment of this Centre recognises the diversity of the OUSL staff and students as a mark of quality and strength. This diversity in our community also calls for the need to provide equitable, accepting and inclusive working/learning spaces that are based on understanding and mutual respect for each other free from any form of discrimination and harassment.
So, this centre operates with the purpose of recognizing and accepting the gender diversity, while ensuring that the equal and equitable chances are provided for everyone. The very first event organised by the centre was this panel discussion, which took place with the participation of Ambika Satkunanathan, a lawyer and human rights advocate who currently serves as a
|Director, Dr. Sreemali Herat
Commissioner on the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka,
Bhoomi Harendran an activist representing National Transgender Network, Dr. Kaushalya Perera from University of Colombo and Dr. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten Medawattegedera from OUSL itself. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Vagisha Gunasekara of OUSL.
How we encounter gender inequality in our own ‘Turfs’/Worlds of work and life
The ultimate purpose of the panel discussion was to mainstream the gender related issues that are prominent, yet seemingly invincible within our own society. It explored a range of initiatives taken to build more inclusive gender culture and the significant challenges that remain to be addressed in Sri Lanka.
The panel discussion started with highlighting the fact that working towards gender equality, equity and fight against discrimination is not a “man-hating” or “male-bashing” endeavour. Moreover, the victims of these unfortunate circumstances are not only women.
Men and gender-diverse/fluid people also become victims of the dominant patriarchal ideologies. It was a very approachable and enlightening session, where the panellists discussed their own experiences of gender inequality within their personal and professional lives.
Ambika Satkunanathan, approached the issue with a more legal perspective, where she discussed how women and gender diverse/fluid individuals are discriminated within the existing legal system of the country. She mentioned how women are judged based on their attire and the lack of active female engagement in practising criminal law.
She also mentioned National Study of Prisons, a research endeavour they carried out in prisons and the initial objections they faced when women had to go to prisons to interview the inmates. However, after about a year and half those objections died out, when the involved stakeholders realised women can handle their responsibilities effectively within the research.
So she concluded that initiation of projects against gender inequality and discrimination might be criticized in the beginning. But the process itself will normalise female engagement and in turn legitimise equal opportunities.
"While national prevalence data on violence against women is not available, a recent survey revealed that 90 percent of Sri Lankan women have experienced sexual harassment on public transport"
Bhoomi Harendran’s account was heart felt as she described the darker sides of reality we tend to overlook within our society. She explained what it means to be a member of the transgender community in Sri Lanka and the unfortunate circumstances they have to face, sometimes from their own family members.
The mistreatment most of them experience is normalised to such an extent, that they themselves think the discrimination they face is to be expected and normal. As Boomi stated, “The harassment, the bullying we face in schools, work places, in our day-to-day lives is so normal, that we think it is our karma. We are different and we are born this way, so, nothing can be done about this.”
According to her, unless proper measures are taken and proper support is given to these individuals, their circumstances can be dire. She insisted that everyone needs to take off their black and white glasses and look at the reality as it is, where everyone has rights and everyone should be respected for who they are.
Dr. Vivimarie Vanderpoorten Medawattegedera spoke from her linguistics background and shared how language itself is used to reinforce discrimination within society. For instance, who would we visualise first at the first mention of a policeman or a nurse? As she explained, we are trained to associate a male image with a policeman and a female one with a nurse. So, she explained how language subtly hides these associations, internalising and embedding inequality within our minds.
Dr. Kaushalya Perera also shared her thoughts as a linguist and as educator with numerous years of experience. She stated how all of us are trained to think in a gender segregated fashion. “If we want to move a white board in class, who would we look to in a classroom with both male and female students? Even if the female students sit closer to the white board, the responsibility would fall to a male student. We do not think twice about that”. As she stated, even with micro-behaviours such as this, both students and teachers have internalised these stereotypes as the norm.
The panellists and Dr. Vagisha Gunasekara as the moderator discussed these blatant and subtle forms of gender inequality, gendered expectations or ‘gendered annoyances’ in their professional/social environments. They also discussed gender related harassments and violence in Sri Lankan society and our own silences about these circumstances. It was a very relatable and illuminating session which highlighted the subtle forms of gender inequality and discrimination we all might experience within our day-to-day lives.
Long march forward…
The presence of such gender related inequalities within Sri Lankan society proves that overt as well as covert actions are essential in changing the status quo, in order to make our society more inclusive for everyone. While different stakeholders have different roles to play, this event highlighted the role of Sri Lankan universities, academics and the activists in challenging the dominant and stereotypical thinking within Sri Lankan culture.
Dr. Sreemali Herath, the Director of the Centre for Gender Equality and Equity of the OUSL explained the duties and responsibilities the center would undertake within the university to initiate change and inclusivity.
As she stated, “we would carry out series of sessions and events within the Open University to increase awareness regarding gender inequality related issues. We would play an active role in faculty orientations of new students, we would try to create an effective web presence and we would also try to establish a hotline for students, if they have any complaints related gender inequality, discrimination and harassment. These are a few of the initiatives we are hoping to undertake.”
Understanding the existence of diversity and understanding the root of the issue are vital for acceptance. If we can create that understanding within our institutions of education from the very beginning, a change might be possible. Along with this bottom to up approach, the relevant policy making authorities, institutions of law enforcement and governing bodies would also have to play their part in ensuring equality, equity and fight against discrimination.
All these approaches are important as change is not possible within a day.
It is a long process, a long walk that should pass insurmountable barriers. As Nelson Mandela famously stated “And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” This appeared in his book ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, reflecting on South African’s fight against the apartheid rule, where they were able to win their fight against the years of discrimination and violence.
So, it is possible to defeat injustice, inequalities and violence created by predominant ideologies, as long as we all are willing to share our lights with each other. So, it is time to wake and join our own long walk to create a more inclusive Sri Lanka, where civil and human rights of everyone are ensured.
The Audience at the lecture