Sri Lanka, as a developing nation, is observed as a breeding ground for rampant marginalised and underprivileged groups, thereby calling for the need for ample assistance at the community level. Social activism is one such avenue of social welfare that widley contributes to the umbrella of social welfare.
Merriam-Webster defines social activism as “a doctrine or practice that emphasises direct vigorous action, especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue”. With the rise of social media, social activism is now more accessible than ever before, giving the opportunity for existing activists to enhance their actions and reach out to greater audiences such as social empaths and intrigued schoolchildren to also participate in activism in respective degrees.
Among the many fascinating harbingers of social justice and welfare, The Sunday Morning Brunch had the privilege of corresponding with animal rights advocate and activist Dominic Perera and youth activist Kaushal Ranasinghe for insightful conversations on the topic of the work they do as ground-level activists.
A day in the life of an activist
Dominic Perera is also the Director of Justice to Animals and Nature, headed by the Bodhiraja Foundation. Having lived in two countries for the last 33 years – Sri Lanka and the US – he has been actively pursuing studies on animal affairs ever since he came to Sri Lanka. He is often involved in animal rescue and welfare initiatives in urban areas, and having visited every slaughterhouse from Negombo to Borella, he regularly rescues stray cattle and those in slaughterhouses.
Through the conversations we have had with Perera, we learnt that in addition to the 16 rescued dogs at his home, he also feeds 65 strays every night from Mount Lavinia into Galle Road, stretching towards Ratmalana, Pepiliyana, and Mirihana: An expedition that once caused him to break his mobile phone in the process, which remains in the same condition to date.
“No matter what duty I have, I try my best to step out and head out to the streets to do this everyday. I know what it’s like to go without a meal without the ability to tell someone that I am hungry. Domesticated animals are heavily dependent on people for food and for a clean source of water. Clean water is something stray dogs don’t usually get and it is one among the main causes of the many diseases they are infected with.”
Other than compassion extended to animals privately, Perera is currently working on resolving the human-elephant conflict (HEC) in whichever way possible, also working on a project by the name of ECHO Project (Elephant Crossing Help Operation) to mitigate the elephant-railway issue.
Activist and Anuradhapura-based youth forum Youth for Tomorrow Founder Kaushal Ranasinghe, who engages with sexual reproductive health and rights issues, advocacy on gender equality, and youth engagement in rural areas, was one of the most pioneer advocates in pushing for the Hathe Ape Potha which sought to introduce sex education to the Grade Seven curriculum.
Ranasinghe conducts surveys in this regard, with one study revealing that 40.5% out of 350 participants of said survey had encountered some sort of problem due to the lack of sex education, and uncovering that lack of proper sex education is one of the main reasons why the interviewed children had fallen prey to sexual bribery, sexual harassment, and sexually transmitted diseases (STIs).
Amidst Herculean tasks: Underestimated, underappreciated
Sri Lanka has been internationally recognised as a volunteering hotspot with regard to social welfare. Yet, their efforts are more often than not undervalued.
Perera stated that the most difficult challenge for activists, volunteers, and advocates like himself is to cut through the red tape of bureaucracy of government bodies, in addition to their lack of co-operation with the private and public sectors, and best of all, lack of interest.
“For activists such as myself, there are certain monthly target goals to be fulfilled. If we don’t do that consecutively for three to four months, we would never be able to finish any task that we started. The minute you stop, we take many leaps backwards,” Perera said.
“Some people have told me that I need to ‘chill’. But if the law and the government do not address the problem, the only remaining solution is to take matters into your own hands. Sometimes I feel like the only way to apply a sufficient amount of pressure is armed resistance for animal rights advocates because at some point in time, the much-neglected issues must boil over to a level that is not tolerated,” he explained.
Negative societal perception of the term “activist” is also a sizable obstacle, Ranasinghe explained, adding: “There are people in this country who are accustomed to living on a dependability mentality who live only for the day-to-day. This situation is being taken advantage of by traditional politicians and cultural thugs. Yet, we must seek out the community that rejects us.”
It can be said that Covid itself has added fodder to the fire in terms of hardship, as it has affected everything systematically. It is tedious for the Government to fulfil its own goals and it trickles down to activists in equal sense with the inability to implement envisioned projects due to the lack of funds.
Real activists, not ‘keyboard warriors’
Due to the wide-spread use of social media, everybody can be some sort of activist in this day and age. This, paired with people’s general interest in social welfare, is now an attractive breeding ground for fraud and misconduct by those with ulterior motives that are beyond social support.
“There are some activists who are trying to protect their class. They think they are activists just by speaking English and putting up a couple of posts on Instagram. We should appreciate their service, but we have to go looking for real problems on Earth. If you go to villages where there is no internet and no telephone facilities, you will see real problems,” expressed Ranasinghe.
There are still people in this country who have given the right to direct their intelligence to the media channels in the country. We must change their attitudes and work to be independent.”
Many post pictures on social media, captioned with stock phrases everybody uses with no real information as they do not have sufficient knowledge to venture extensively into the subject matter, according to Perera. It has come to a point where the real activists are not recognised with due respect and appreciation they deserve as they are outnumbered by the “keyboard warriors”.
Perera uncovered the lack of advertising and promotion of their service as another reason as to why service is undervalued.
“We honestly do not have the time to advertise ourselves with everything that’s going on. Not only do we have to engage in a livelihood ourselves amidst all the social welfare work, but the neverending nature of Sri Lanka’s social problems puts more strain on ground-level activists,” he said.
He also acknowledged those who collect funds illegally for personal gain through fake accounts on social media, and that his organisation mobilises three to four individuals who keep track of such unethical activity.
“Many people think we are getting dollars from abroad for all this. But we do this work for self-satisfaction. There are people who sell social problems and we have to face the consequences of their foolish actions,” stressed Ranasinghe.
He further uncovered that some political parties have labelled social activists as “NGOs” (non-government organisations) for their own benefit, citing a personal experience he has had, in which a politician publicly threatened his life and he was the subject of hate from other Facebook pages.
“Real activists should proactively work with other activist groups and co-operate with government agencies no matter how difficult it is, and constantly reach out and report findings with the media. They should also provide media personnel such as investigative journalists the resources to investigate significant points of interests, such as essential contacts and needed documentation,” stated Perera from his expertise.
Social welfare work: Cultivating it and reviving what we have
The next step to be taken is to cultivate more active civil societies and ensure co-ordination between existing private organisations to help reduce the burden on the Government. Encouraging the Government to make more use of the existing equipped private sector is crucial in the same.
Justice for Animals and Nature, the organisation Perera represents, has programmes to educate the young in Sunday schools on the significance of nature and wildlife, and the organisation owns a sanctuary for rescued cattle on a 100-acre land in Embilipitiya, owned by Bodhiraja Foundation Founder Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera.
Perera noted that efforts taken by qualified wildlife enthusiasts, such as former Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) Director General Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, to educate safari van drivers in national parks as a great initiative. He also noted the importance of cultivating values such as empathy and compassion within households.
“Children themselves are so busy nowadays with their studies that they do not have the time to learn kindness and compassion towards animals and how to be helpful to them in dire situations. Furthermore, many people feel sympathy towards animals and would like to help, yet are not aware of the means to do so and if they exist in the first place,” he expressed.
Ranasinghe echoed Perera’s sentiments that social awareness ought to be cultivated starting from childhood, adding his personal experiences of being interested in rights since he was in school.
“Back then, I did not recognise it as activism. Then I identified many people who are active in associations in Colombo. Due to the low turnout of the community in the rural areas, I left my home district of Colombo and came to the Anuradhapura District. Now I work closely with the community in very rural areas. However, it is a journey that started as a child,” he claimed.
Ranasinghe noted that youth participation is quintessential in the future of social activism, as the young see the world in a new perspective and are equipped with ample sources of information. However, he added that unfortunately, the politicians of our country are working to create a younger generation of slaves.
Not everyone will turn out to be an activist, but it is important to inculcate compassion for humankind and life of all forms.
Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash