In their 70 years in the country, British Council Sri Lanka has expressed its ambition to reach gender equity and eliminate disadvantage. In doing so, they identified that some of the key issues in Sri Lanka that should be addressed are the very high rates of domestic violence, sexual harassment, social media exploitation, suicide, overprotection of girls, and under-employment, despite good educational achievements.
Whilst addressing some of these issues directly, the British Council has provided that in the longer term, their interventions are aimed at attitudinal change, tackling gender norms as well as attitudes, both among women and girls, as well as men and boys, and thus enabling the former to participate fully in society.
With regard to British Council’s dedication to achieving gender equity in the island, British Council Country Director for Sri Lanka Maarya Rehman said: “The British Council’s approach to women and girl’s empowerment and gender equality is to create dialogue, collaboration, and collective action with stakeholders. We’ve been working in Sri Lanka for over 70 years in both formal and informal spaces at individual and institutional levels. Through our work in arts and culture, English, and education, we remain committed in our efforts to ensure more women and girls have the awareness, skills, and confidence to improve their own and others’ lives, and to contribute economically, socially, and politically to a prosperous Sri Lanka.”
Celebrating women’s achievements, raising awareness against bias, and taking action for equality, the British Council has pledged a number of grants directed towards female empowerment in Sri Lanka. Taking the opportunity to heart, we reached out to a number of the change agents embracing the challenge and stepping up to the plate, dedicated women around the island making real change happen courtesy of British Council’s helping hand.
We Hear You
“We Hear You” is a joint effort of the Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka (YAN) and the British Council, with their main objective being to improve the access to SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) services to people living with hearing disabilities.
The project was initiated by sexual and reproductive health specialist Sarah Soysa and her team at YAN, who developed tools and interfaces which provided life skills, including knowledge on sexual and reproductive health, for young people specifically young girls living with hearing disabilities at the Ceylon School for the Deaf in Ratmalana.
Using the Ministry of Education’s health science curriculum for Grades Seven to 11, a computer-based module was developed containing sessions in a graphic and a pictorial manner supported by sign language interpretations, and a further grant has been provided to YAN to work with other schools for the deaf in the country.
Speaking with YAN We Hear You Project Co-ordinator Shelani Palihawadana, she shared the progression of the work that YAN has been carrying out since the project’s initiation. The project We Hear You, which commenced in 2014, has been working with people living with hearing disabilities for the past seven years, with a focus on expanding its scope through their website, which is in its final stages and will be launched on 20 March.
The website will feature information on seven thematic areas, and the age appropriate subject matter would be supplemented with video illustrations all of which has been completed and the resources will be made available to site visitors upon its launch. Despite the project nearing its end with the upcoming completion of Phase II, Shelani shared that the implementation of the project objectives has been such that it is sustainable, and they are confident in their ability to carry forward what they’ve put in motion.
Shedding some light on the work that they have done, Shelani drew attention to the work they did at the Ceylon School for the Deaf in Ratmalana, where they trained teachers and then students on SRHR matters. She shared that one of the most notable things they were able to achieve was creating a sign language glossary stating that there was a considerable lacuna in sign language when it comes to topics on SRHR. For example, she shared that up until now, the sign to indicate both sexual intercourse and rape were the same.
Shelani further shared that primarily, the project beneficiaries often tend to be young girls, particularly considering the SRHR subject matter which they are tackling. She commented that YAN is also a women and youth-lead organisation, where nearly 80% of their volunteers and three out of four of their board members happen to be women, adding that “We Hear You” has grown into a project by women and, for the most part, for women and they are hopeful to effectively continue on with their work in creating a more accessible environment for those communities with disabilities.
Female Filmmakers First
The “Female Filmmakers First” project was first initiated at the first Colombo International Women’s Film Festival, following which they were approached by the British Council that expressed interest in partnering with Agenda 14 (Pvt.) Ltd. in order to identify and nurture filmmakers interested in professionalising their skills, as well as hope to support the creation of safe spaces for thought-provoking content, promote dialogue and understanding, and connect with one another through creativity within communities.
Anomaa Rajakaruna of Agenda 14 shared that in order to carry out the project, an open call was held for women filmmakers, welcoming 61 applications from across the country, following which a pitch session was held to finalise 10 projects, of which seven of them went on to attend a workshop carried out by a BAFTA Award-winning writer. Following the workshop, a total of five aspirant and emerging filmmakers were selected to have their projects funded.
Four films have since been launched, three short films were launched during the second Colombo International Women’s Film Festival 2020, and one other was launched at the International Jaffna Cinema Festival later that same year.
Anomaa shared that two of the four films that have since been launched have gone on to garner appreciation for their content and subject matter of gender sensitivity and human rights focus. And the final project, which is an animated film, will be premiering in two months’ time. Anomaa shared that all of the projects are “about women, by women”.
The five directors are Shifani Reffai, Yoshitha Perera, Shalini Divyanjalee, Narthanie Serasinghe, and Lanka Bandaranayake.
“Animate Her” was initiated by Irushi Tennekoon, a children’s picture book illustrator and animator who represented Sri Lanka at the second edition of the Creating Heroines grants regional workshop organised in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The five-day workshop involved artists from the UK, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka and the attendees were afforded the opportunity to pitch proposals for projects they wish to get funded.
With the grant provided to her, Irushi started working on her animation project, which she titled “Animate Her”, where she is animating the recorded stories of six exceptional women living and working in Sri Lanka. The series features the animated interviews of marine biologist Asha de Vos, author-illustrator Sybil Wetthasinghe, architect and archivist Amila de Mel, lawyer and activist Ramani Muttettuwegama, traditional dancer Thaji Dias, and Founder and CEO of her own ICT firm Lakmini Wijesundera.
Speaking with Irushi, she shared that so far four projects have been completed, adding that her team of creatives have helped put together the final projects, prepping the props and sets accordingly. Irushi said that the subjects for her interviews, the women who were chosen, were selected for the role they have played in being trailblazers in their respective fields and for inspiring younger generations by being the real-life heroines we need.
She also added that it has been an unexpected journey and that the reception the films have revived has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Creating Heroines” is a collaborative international project initiated by the British Council, which brings together female artists to spark debate, challenge stereotypes, and share women’s stories. It explores themes of female role models, encouraging crowd-sourced conversations and sharing women’s stories in cartoons and illustrations.