- Amilani Perera on ‘Heal’, her third collection with the UNFPA
Violence against women is a global issue, and across the world (and in Sri Lanka), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) supports governments and women’s organisations to strengthen their response to violence against women and girls.
In Sri Lanka alone, the 2019 Women’s Wellbeing Survey (the first formal survey of its kind ever done in Sri Lanka) showed that one in four (24.9%) women in Sri Lanka have experienced physical and/or sexual violence since the age of 15 in their lifetime. The pandemic, for many reasons, has only served to increase incidents of violence against women.
Key to fighting violence against women is awareness and education, and this year, the recently concluded Summer 2022 Season of HSBC Colombo Fashion Week (CFW) saw the third iteration of a unique collaboration with the UNFPA and designer Amilani Perera to create a collection that acts as social awareness on violence against women. This year also saw the UNFPA enter into a formal partnership with CFW.
Fashion, and CFW in particular, presents a powerful medium to advocate for a violence-free Sri Lanka for all women and girls. Apart from the opportunity for advocacy, the fashion industry consists of a workforce that is overwhelmingly represented by women. In light of this, the partnership for 2022 goes a step further from the fashion week in itself and includes sensitisation on the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) for the organisers, designers, models, and crew of CFW to ensure that all are respected and treated with dignity.
In a formal statement on the collaboration, UNFPA Representative in Sri Lanka Kunle Adeniyi said: “Fashion is how we present ourselves to the world but fashion is also a platform that can present the issues that affect women. Colombo Fashion Week gives us an opportunity to speak to people, especially in the fashion value chain, from the producers to the consumers, to make everybody an agent of change.”
The Morning Brunch chatted with Amilani Perera on her third incredibly successful collaborative collection with the UNFPA. Titled “Heal”, the newest collection focuses on the mental health of both perpetrators and survivors of violence against women, telling a new chapter in the nuanced story of violence against women and building on the message of her two previous collections with the UNFPA.
Building a meaningful collaboration
Amilani shared with us that as with many successful partnerships, her work with the UNFPA came about quite by chance through conversation with a UNFPA representative about gender-based violence (GBV), and how GBV can affect and disrupt even small teams like Amilani’s when women within the value chain are victims of violence. “This triggered how we can do so much with a powerful platform to empower survivors of violence, to provide livelihoods, and teach them to work on their own business. The UNFPA was also really impressed by Amilani Perera’s journey as a brand presenting at international shows (at the time I had showcased at CFW for the sixth consecutive year),” Amilani noted.
This was what led to Amilani’s first collection with the UNFPA, “Unbreakable”. This was a collection that talked about taking care of survivors, featuring embroidery and handwritten messages from survivors of domestic violence at the Women’s Development Centre (WDC) in Kandy.
Her second collection, “With Her”, dealt with building awareness on protecting survivors of domestic violence regardless of religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic background and seeing them for what they are; women – mothers, daughters, sisters – and giving them a chance to build a new future. One stand-out visual from the collection was an illustration that showed a woman wearing the Muslim hijab, the Tamil bindi, and the seven traditional necklaces worn by a Kandyan bride, to drive home the point of the collective Sri Lankan “her”, and show that regardless of a religious, ethnic, or socioeconomic background encouraging violence, it is our duty to protect the survivors of violence.
‘Heal’ – the third chapter
Amilani’s third and most recent fashion collaboration with the UNPFA, “Heal”, deals with the mental health of both perpetrators and survivors of violence against women. “It’s something very internal that triggers the perpetrator, and once a violent act is acted upon by a survivor, it is something very internal that helps them survive and heal. Something intangible that turns tangible.”
This concept of tangible and intangible is something Amilani explores through her collection, using sheer fabrics like organdy to represent intangibility and different embroidery techniques to evoke tangibility.
Another key concept of “Heal” is to promote the understanding that even with perpetrators, what pushes them to commit violence against women, is also something internal and deep-seated within their own mental health and that this is what the topic of discussion should be when someone is violated; not questions that blame the victim like “what were you wearing?” or “where were you when this happened?”.
“Violence against women is something that can happen anywhere. At home, or on the bus, or in the club. Wherever the perpetrator is,” Amilani said.
The prints of “Heal” also reflect the internal, with prints featuring the heart, with the veins leading to and from the heart drawn from the palm lines of survivors of violence at the Women’s Development Centre in Kandy. The elasticated heart is also a motif that is dear to Amilani because it represents the power survivors have to heal and move past the violence that was acted upon them and come out stronger.
This story of strength comes through in Amilani’s collection with the use of softer, more organic elements like leaves and flowers to represent the strong yet gentle nature of the empowered survivor who can walk confidently despite the pain they have borne.
Taking this powerful partnership forward
The UNFPA advocates for a world free of violence against women and girls and a place where everyone has access to sexual and reproductive health services and information. Their goal is to empower women to make informed choices about their body and life, and Amilani shared that she hopes to work closely with the UNFPA to empower survivors of violence, not just through fashion but through advocacy as well.
“This is far from the end of the project. CFW is the tip of the iceberg,” Amilani said, adding: “I’m planning on going to the North, to Jaffna or Mullaitivu, to shelters for survivors there, and doing seminars with these women on skills like embroidery works as well as about business material, building business portfolios, and moving forward with their lives. There are also other activities planned with the UNFPA like ‘15 Days of Activism’, for example. The partnership is not just about CFW; that’s how we engage with audiences to build social awareness. The rest of it is through the empowerment of survivors through shelters, etc., and especially after this most recent show, the partnership is quite vast.”