Throughout the month of March, in view of International Women’s Day 2021, Brunch, in our series “Celebrating the camera-shy woman”, will be speaking to and celebrating some trendsetting and inspiring Sri Lankan women who don’t always make the news. This week, we spent some time with VraÎe Cally Balthazaar.
VraÎe greeted us at the gate with loud laughter (a given, seeing as we actually went to a wrong address just two houses away). We were immediately made to feel comfortable with her easy-going personality and lively banter as she gave us a once-over of her home and her garden. She’s got a green thumb and is proud of it, as much as she is proud of bravely rescuing the occasional unanticipated monitor lizard and harmless rat snake from her energetic pooches. Proudly showing off her most prized possession, a majestic monstera plant in her indoor garden, VraÎe sat down to a chat with us to share her story.
What are the causes and organisations that you work with?
I am part of multiple spaces; Women’s Voice in Politics where the women can identify as being from a party or not. We facilitate the space for women to be able to come together, learn from each other and participate in solidarity building. The Progressive Women’s Collective is for left feminists from different parts of the island, who feel that ideologically, feminism and the values that we discuss are important in changing the direction of our nation. We work on migrant worker rights, domestic violence and more. The other organisation is a space for left-thinking, progressive youth, geared towards creating political change.
You spent a lot of time volunteering. What’s volunteering like and what did you personally gain from it?
Volunteering is something that I am passionate about and committed to. I started at 15 at a children’s home, which was an eye-opener for me, because I feel I live a very privileged life. I thought that mothers who leave children behind are “bad” and I am glad that I realised so early on in life, that this binary mindset is wrong and that it is not so black and white. I realised I also had an affinity towards working with children. A lot of my perspectives on life come from my volunteer work that spans 20 years.
What is the story behind what you do today?
Much of the work I have done has been about raising voices and sometimes, in a bit of a naive way. I functioned as a single entity and now as part of a larger group, I realise the power in a collective. The real turning point for me was the constitutional crisis, because by then I had both my kids and what was happening in the country made me feel deflated and sad. I realised that I had detached from politics and had come to live a very happy and privileged life and that had to change for me to push back against what was happening.
Is our lack of awareness about the Constitution and democracy putting us at a disadvantage?
I definitely think that there is a real disconnect between people and politics, more so in urban and affluent areas. Everything is privatised and there is no need to connect with politics. There is an urban affluent and middle class mentality that says “we don’t want to get involved in politics. Politics is bad”, which needs to change. With less-affluent communities, there is no choice but to be connected with politics, because they go to government hospitals and their children go to government schools. However, the ability for them to fight back as individuals is almost non-existent and that’s why it has to be a collective effort. If we don’t step up, we are doing ourselves and everyone else a great disservice.
Do people make use of the benefits available to them in the system, or is there a disconnect?
I am a part of the Dehiwala Residents’ Association which came together as people who want to connect with our community. Especially after the Easter Sunday bomb blast in Dehiwala, we wanted to instil that sense of community and share resources. I think people are ready to use resources, albeit, not in the way we expect it to happen. There needs to be a push in the right direction.
What are the toughest and most trying challenges you face in your causes?
In all the spaces that I work with, people have their own political identities, perspectives, and ideologies. Building coalitions and relationships between people and bringing people together, is the biggest challenge. Taking opposing views, being negative towards other parties is easy and I’m not saying that that is wrong. But keeping the peace is a lot harder. I have come to learn how important keeping the peace is. You need to find ways of connecting and resolving problems. I’m not saying that we cannot be assertive – in fact, we absolutely should be. But being able to compromise, understand, and to have basic respect is crucial, which is something that political space lacks right now. And for me, being who I am, I need to unlearn a lot to be somebody in these spaces.
What goals are really close to your heart right now?
We are in challenging times right now. Because most of these spaces are political, I’ve noticed that we are very reactive and the goal should be for us to come back to proactive politics. What can we do without waiting for something to happen? How do we do what we are supposed to do within this pandemic and still make it effective?
What’s your message to the people of Sri Lanka?
My message at this point in time, would be to try and find ways to get involved. This is an appeal to anybody who may read this. There is a mindset that politics is for politicians and then there are NGO (non-governmental organisation) workers and activists and researchers and “I am nobody”. Please know that this does not matter. For those of you who are watching me and reading this, you may feel that there is a disconnect. Understand that this disconnect is precisely why we are where we are right now. There is no one way in which you can contribute. All you have to do is find your own way to contribute and connect with our communities and our places of power and know that we have a huge role to play in that relationship.
You handle a lot, so what does a day in your life look like?
I bite off much more than I can chew and I am always trying to appease everything and everyone and I have learned that I cannot. I am a researcher trying to finish off my thesis which is due in a couple of months and which I have barely started. It’s very manic and mad and I wish I had some eloquent answer. But I can say that despite the anxiety and that sense of being overwhelmed, I know in my heart of hearts that the things I do, somehow, in some way, contribute to something that is bigger and better than me.
You’re a mother to two children. Has motherhood changed how you see the world?
I don’t do this very well I think. It’s an interesting partnership that me and my husband share. With the pandemic, he has become the primary caregiver. With my professional work, research, and academic work, this has become a shift for me because I was the primary caregiver a couple of years ago. I am learning that I carry some guilt with me. My kids have a very privileged life. There are countless others who cannot access food, schools, or books and I see this daily. I try to share my experiences with my children and I hope that I can make them see this, so that they become more empathetic towards the world. Otherwise, it is going to be difficult for them and for me.
How can people reach your spaces?
All of our spaces have social media pages – both Facebook and Instagram. I am also personally on social media and so, that would be the best way to reach out to us.
We walked into VraÎe’s home hoping for an interview that had a lot to say about systems, what we lack, why we are lacking, and why rules matter. However, we learnt how powerful we are as a people, how much change we can bring about, and how we can do it. We are a community of one people in one nation and what affects one of us, affects us all. To change a flawed system, we must know the system and be a part of it, to foster positive and productive change for future generations.
VraÎe taught us that life needs to be approached with the right mix of humility and confidence. Humility that we are imperfect and that we have to unlearn and learn if we are to make a change, but also, confidence that we are that change. That in a time where empathy is treated as weakness, it truly is strength and that honesty and vulnerability in the right place and the right time, can make the impossible possible. And perhaps, the words that resonated with us the most was what she declared with unapologetic conviction; “you matter”.
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PHOTOS KRISHAN KARIYAWASAM