The future is equal: British Council commemorates the International Day of the Girl Child

By Naveed Rozais


11 October marks the International Day of the Girl Child. British Council Sri Lanka hosted a live webinar to commemorate the occasion featuring a conversation with social anthropologist and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) Assistant Representative Madu Dissanayake.

Dissanayake is a social anthropologist with over 18 years of experience and expertise in her field. Dissanayake holds a postgraduate diploma in international relations, a diploma in health promotion, a diploma in early years education, and a certificate in sexuality and sexual health from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV. Her career has revolved around policy, social and behavioural change communication, public health, and gender and human rights.

Dissanayake shared that the 2020 theme for the International Day of the Girl Child is “my voice for our equal future”, with a call to action to young people to join this conversation and entry points where they can create positive changes in their societies.

2020 marks 25 years since the formation of the Beijing Platform for Action, the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights, which discusses and treats women’s rights as human rights. In the 25 years since its inception, much progress has been made in the field of women’s rights. Health and education gender gaps, for example, are closing and are nearly on par, Dissanayake shared.

UNFPA Assistant Representative Madu Dissanayake in conversation with the moderator for the webinar Mrinali Thalgodapitiya

However, political and economic empowerment gaps remain quite large. Twenty percent of women are still illiterate in 44 countries. Globally, only 18% of women hold ministerial positions, and only 24% of parliamentarians worldwide are women. Out of 149 countries, only 17 heads of state are women. From the global workforce, only 34% of women hold managerial positions.

Violence against women is a huge global issue. Globally, one in three women is physically and sexually violated. The prevalence data of gender-based violence is not yet available in Sri Lanka, but women in Sri Lanka do face violence, not just privately, but in public spaces and public transport as well.

For an equal future, all these issues need to be addressed. Dissanayake shared the most crucial entry points where youths can get involved and affect positive change.

For equality to be achieved, women need to be able to practice equal bodily autonomy, where they are able to decide what happens to their bodies and who gets to touch them. Women need equal access to employment and political participation. Only 34% of Sri Lanka’s women are part of the workforce, and out of Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament, only 13 are women. Women also need to be entitled to equal pay.

Women also need equality before the law, where women hold all the same legal rights as men. Sri Lanka’s laws haven’t changed to suit our current situation, with women facing many discriminations within the legal system.

Dissanayake shared that there are many ways change can be created, especially with youth involvement. There are 1.8 billion 15 to 24-year-olds globally, over 50% of whom are female, all of whom can take action by speaking out against discrimination when they see it by studying these issues, understanding the gravity of it, and spreading the word and slowly shifting the cultures in which they live, thereby creating positive impact that moves away from established stereotypes, toxic masculinity, and patriarchy.

A huge part of shifting culture is through embracing multiple narratives and unlearning established behaviours. Dissanayake encouraged young people to read and research different perspectives and sources when thinking about issues; to look at things from different perspectives like the neuroscientific perspective, the psychological perspective, the sociological perspective, and the anthropological perspective, and to bring these conversations up at home and in day-to-day life, and be willing to have difficult conversations that challenge how you and those around you view the world.

Dissanayake also stressed the importance of supporting survivors because while we can create conversations on prevention, discrimination and violence still happens and it is vital to have support services that allow victims to heal and grow.

Dissanayake ended the discussion by noting that change doesn’t come overnight; it is about visualising the future and using our passion to help make that future possible. In the worlds of Mahatma Gandhi, “you must be the change you wish to see in the world”.