Learning from the ladies

By Chenelle Fernando


International Women’s Day falls on 8 March and has become essential in marking the celebration of women around the globe. This year’s theme is #balanceforbetter, which highlights the importance of striking a balance between the genders for a better functioning world.

We spoke to a few Sri Lankan women who are entrepreneurs, businesswomen, moms, and all-round achievers about their own fields of work and what they thought of this year’s theme.

Fostering a sense of equality through fashion

Shehani Wijeyesekera

Shehani is the Creative Director of the home-grown clothing brand Mimosa. She is a product of Ladies’ College, Colombo and a graduate from Mod Art International. Whilst swimming played a major role during her childhood, art remained a constant, especially due to the influence of her grandmother, an avid artist herself.

“After leaving school and joining university, I was privileged to learn so much about art and the industry; from stitching to pattern-making and so much more,” she said.

Mimosa, although slightly over a year old, has garnered a great deal of attention with their outfits that work in unison with the ever-growing trends in the fashion industry. Whilst instituting that Mimosa has a long way to go in terms of attaining objective success, Shehani hopes to extend her ethos to the empowerment of women by making them feel confident about themselves.

The development of the brand has enabled her to obtain a greater understanding of what drives a successful fashion label in Sri Lanka. In her words: “Truly connecting with a customer base and creating value is something that I feel is a key reason as to why we are in this business.”

On #balance for better

The local clothing industry is, quite seemingly, a blossoming product, with new designers and trends coming in even before you say Gucci! Shehani said that local fashion has an equal representation of both genders compared to most other occupational scopes.

She works towards diminishing this disparity overall by fostering a sense of equality and support amongst her team members at Mimosa. “I feel that gender biases and workplace imbalance has been largely avoided as a result, to build a wholesome workplace environment for both men and women,” she stated.

Spreading joy and hope through Navyamaya

Dr. Yamuna Rajapakse and Dr. Lakmali Gunasekera

Dr. Rajapakse is a respiratory physician and Dr. Gunasekera is a respiratory physiologist, and together, these two inspiring ladies are a force to be reckoned with. Not only are they medical professionals who lecture at the prestigious Faculty of Medicine at the University of Colombo, but they are also the founders of Navyamaya, an initiative deployed for the empowerment of women who manage small-scale businesses. “It is not a profit-making business for us where we’ve made it our livelihood, but rather a creative outlet for us to enjoy more of what life has to offer, whilst helping those who need it at the same time.”

Interestingly, we learnt that the gift baskets and certain items were curated, designed, and handmade by these two ladies. “That’s the pleasure of it; shopping, creating, and putting it together,” stated Dr. Gunasekera quite enthusiastically.

Being stuck in one profession doesn’t mean that one is stripped of the ability to explore other avenues, and Navyamaya is testimony to this. “Because we did science, we felt that our creativity was being buried, but we had the courage to bring it out. So this, to an extent, makes life worthwhile for us.” Words don’t do justice to the satisfaction they receive in the process of it all – the receiver, the giver, and the empowered women emanate nothing but positive sentiments right round.

On #balanceforbetter

The medical profession, as we were told, doesn’t pose much of a disparity in terms of gender. “The ratio of men to women isn’t too bad here. The Dean, Vice Chancellor, and a proportion of the lecturers are all females,” added Dr. Rajapakse.

Furthermore, discrimination is rare as they are provided equal treatment in terms of opportunities and pay. That being said, they did highlight that surgeons in medicine were, to this date, predominantly male.

Dr. Rajapakse, however, declared that despite her interest in becoming a surgeon, she did not pursue it as this would have accumulated most of her time, including the time she had to spend with her children.

“Balance is important because it makes life more worthwhile. We have only one life, so we have to live it. The roles aren’t how they were before and it’s important we teach this to the next generation,” stated Dr. Rajapakse.

Mindfulness as a force towards building bridges

Dr. Tara De Mel

To be mindful is to be fully present in the moment and to be receptive of the surrounding environment without having to compromise one’s piece of mind. Dr. Tara De Mel, former Secretary to the Ministry of Education and former Vice Chairperson of the National Education Commission, currently works around Mindfulness Based Interventions (MBI) for children.

Kindness, ethics, values, empathy, and respect are some traits, as per her observations, that have been incorporated into schools’ curriculums in several parts of the world. Incorporation of these values makes school a happier a place for children where they would be able to cope better and adapt to adversarial situations with ease. In terms of local prospects, she added: “Certain schools in Sri Lanka are adopting these already, but as a national intervention, it’s still very much in progress.”

Dr. De Mel said that she was in the process of assisting in the development of programmes for sharing MBIs, values, and behaviour with teachers and early-childhood educators.

The Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, The Light of Asia Foundation, and the Walpola Rahula Institute are, according to her, some facilities she works with in a voluntary capacity. “This is done together with some colleagues and religious leaders who share similar values and interests,” she said. It is important to note that the instillation of MBIs is carried out whilst respecting the Sri Lankan population demographics, and should ideally run through every person as a unifying trait. Dr. Tara furthered that “MBIs can be a potent force in building bridges between communities in Sri Lanka.”

Being a part of a global movement

Sheshadri Kotterachchi

Sheshadri has a background in international relations from the University of London, and did an English special at the University of Kelaniya. She also has, however, steered towards communications due to her creativeness as a child. She told us that she has discovered this to be a method where she doesn’t necessarily limit herself to mere desk work.

She, through Oxfam, a global movement of people working together to end the injustice of poverty, attends to fieldwork where she receives hands on experience. As she asserted, Oxfam’s underlying theme is poverty and is moving towards more sustainable things. Not only is Oxfam the first respondent during the occurrence of a natural disaster, but they are rooted heavily in development work – work based on gender, campaigns, water, sanitation, and health are, as she construed, the basic pillars of Oxfam.

Since women are at the forefront of this organisation, Sheshadri included that it provides her with the opportunity to interact with a lot of women and young girls who undergo issues in the current context. She said: “I support a lot of campaigns for violence against women, harassment in public transport, ones that push women forward as entrepreneurs, and workshops on better menstrual health awareness.”

The importance of thinking differently

Sharanya Sekaram

Sharanya Sekaram sees herself as an activist working in gender. She pursued an education up until her masters, and has always found herself interested in gender-related issues. This stems way back from when she was young and wrote an article on the subject.

Reasoning the lack of emphasis placed on gender-related issues, she believed it to be attributable to a number of grassroots level issues. She constantly works on raising awareness on the seemingly untouched yet imperative subject matter.

Lack of education and awareness on sexual and reproductive health, lack of apt representation, and the patriarchal system are a few issues, according to her. She explained that most young girls in rural areas of Sri Lanka, specifically those within the ages of 14 and 15 were subject to the gruesome acts of rape and sexual assault and that the lack of educational knowledge on sexual and reproductive health, according to her, completely strips them of knowing the repercussions. She said: “They sometimes faint in school, only to realise that they are four or five months pregnant. This is because they haven’t been educated about their own bodies.”

She also explained that women within our country itself are of varied cultures and that naturally, we’d witness differences. “Women from Jaffna are unable to represent women from Kandy and vice versa because they are unaware of the intricacies that link each other’s issues.”

Within the framework itself, we see minorities – gender-fluid, transgender, and queer individuals – and Sekaram asserted that the respective challenges could be overcome through fitting representation and efficient discussion.

On #balanceforbetter

Sekaram feels that while there’s always going to be a sect that supports what they do, there’ll be others that vehemently oppose their line of work.
According to her, to certain men, the discussion of certain topics is shocking or considered taboo. “They say: ‘Well, we didn’t think about it in that way’, and this is because they weren’t taught to think that way and we unveil these issues by talking about them,” she added.

Sekaram also noted that certain males at panel discussions refuse to take part unless they see avid female representation. The presence of both sexes would invariably permit a more efficient and well-rounded discussion, thus contributing better to the cause at hand.


Photos: Indika Handuwala, Saman Abesiriwardana, and Krishan Kariyawasam