Sumika Perera has been a social activist, working on peace, democracy, gender, and women’s rights in Sri Lanka for over 25 years. In this interview with Women Talk, Sumika talks about how her journey began with joining the farmers’ rights movements in the 1980s, her involvement with the women’s movement in Sri Lanka, and her own experiences of having to face political violence during the late 1980s. She also reflects on how she set up the Women’s Resource Centre, a prominent women’s rights organisation that works with grassroots communities in the Kurunegala district of Sri Lanka.
Photo provided by ©Sumika Perera
You have over 25 years of experience, as a social and women’s rights activist in Sri Lanka. How did this journey begin?
I was only in my Advanced Level class at school when the government at the time introduced the ‘White Papers’ (dhawala pathrika) for education reforms. University students carried out a huge struggle against these reforms. They even came to schools and recruited children for this campaign. I joined a group of boys from my school during this time. That is my first involvement in a political struggle. We distributed pamphlets, underground. We did some work in Kurunegala. We then formed a student committee with students of the piriven (Buddhist monastic schools). That came to an end there. But while I was only an Advanced Level student and from the time when I had some sense and understanding, I read translations of Russian literature. I associated books like Mother, War and Peace and authors like Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorki. Our social background was in a village. We came from small poor families. We had nine members in my family. With that, I began to think seriously about class distinction and discrimination.
I then joined the Samastha Lanka Govi Sammelanaya, [a farmers’ union]. There was a paper called Goviya [Farmer]. I started writing poems for that paper. I also started reading that paper and getting involved in the work of the association. We didn’t have paddy lands. But I got involved with farmers’ associations and societies. I acted as the secretary of the village farmers’ society. I also became the secretary of the district committee of the district’s farmer association. Then came this struggle against the water taxes (jala badu). In 1984, the government imposed a tax on small irrigation waterways. While farmers mobilized against this, I went along to speak to women farmers. There was an organisation in Kurunegala called the Pragathisheelee Kantha Peramuna, a women’s organisation. I joined them also. I worked with their publications. I became their secretary, too. They published two journals called Kantha Maga and Athwala. I became the editor of both. The Pragathisheelee Kantha Peramuna and the Samastha Lanka Govi Sammelanaya worked closely with each other. During this time, a youth group who came back from prison after the 1971 youth uprising had just formed an organisation called the Janatha Sangamaya. I got the opportunity to join them through the Pragathisheelee Kantha Peramuna and the Govi Sammelanaya. We worked towards obtaining political power. I worked in the women’s wing of that organisation. We recruited women for this political group. We held classes from door to door. This is not the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). This group broke away from the JVP. We worked in areas like Matara, Polonnaruwa, and Kurunegala. I got the opportunity to attend women’s meetings. We exchanged ideas with women. We got interested in women’s issues.
This was the time when the women’s movement and women’s organisations began to gain momentum in the country. I got the opportunity to meet women like Dr Kumari Jayawardena and Sunila Abeysekera. They came to the village and conducted leadership training for women in the villages and we participated in those programmes. In Colombo, the Kriyaakaari Kantha Kamituwa has just started. So much work was done through this organisation. There was a huge struggle at the Polytex Garments, a garment factory. Girls who worked at the factory were involved in this struggle. We assisted them in their struggle. It was these days that the ethnic conflict began. There was a wave of violence in the country. We were not allowed to keep relations with the Tamil people. Through political organisations, we realised that peace and reconciliation is a necessity. We worked to establish connections with the North East. We connected with the brothers and sisters who were fighting there. In particular, we worked closely with PLOTE. Their ideals matched ours. We thought about mobilising the youth and people in the North East. The Pragathisheelee Kantha Peramuna worked as the women’s organisation and the Govi Sammelanaya worked as the farmers’ organisation to mobilise people. I then went to work in Monaragala. The government was working to hand over the lands of farmers in Monaragala to a multinational sugar company for sugarcane plantation. I got involved in mobilising farmers against that. I was very young then, about 21 years old. I mobilised women farmers to safeguard farming land. The women got ready for a farmers’ struggle. They somehow managed to save their lands. I continued to work in that women’s organisation.
What were the challenges you had to face as a social activist during the early stage, in particular, with the violent political climate of the country?
We faced the violent period that the JVP created during 1987-89. Many brothers who were with us who had been involved in the 1971 uprising were subjected to violence by the JVP and eventually killed. Jamis Athugala, T. P. Wijesuriya, Shelton, and many more. Even our lives were under threat. The government thought that we were connected with the JVP and the JVP thought we were a group working against them. So, we went to Colombo in search of sanctuary. Our team got a house and stayed there with another family. But we initiated many programmes. I edited a journal called Dharani in connection with the Women and Media Collective, alongside Sunila Abeysekera. I learned English. I got involved more with work in Colombo. I stayed in Colombo without coming to the village for about two years. We learned many things. I worked through publications. But I couldn’t work outside, publicly. We lived in secrecy. We had to escape from the JVP. When the situation eased a bit, we came to Kurunegala again in 1990 and started working there.
What were some of the work you did?
I got involved a lot in national level work from the beginning. The Women and Media Collective (WMC) guided me a lot. Dr Sepali Kottegoda, Sunila Abeysekera, and Kumudini Samuel guided me throughout. I worked with them. I started to edit the Eya journal of the WMC. Since 1996, until Sunila passed away in 2013, I edited the Eya journal. I also started working as a women’s rights activist. I got a lot of training. In 1990, I got married and had my elder son in 1991. Even with that child, after my marriage, I invested more time to study. I studied the communication diploma at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura. In 2001, I did the International Leadership Development Course (ILDC) at the Asian Health Institute in Japan. I got more and more interested in gender. I learned about the CEDAW convention. I got the opportunity to attend the world conference on women in 1995, which was held in Beijing. I now work as a member of the non-governmental organisations collective in Sri Lanka. We got involved in national level programs that were targeted to influence policy decisions and initiate changes to laws on women’s rights. I also worked at grassroots levels with women who had been impacted by violence. I assisted them and guided them.
After the tsunami, we started a collective of women, women’s organisations, and women activists called the Coalition for Assisting Tsunami Affected Women (CATAW). I worked as its coordinator in six districts across Sri Lanka. In particular, I worked in the North East. I got a lot of experience with that. We worked at a time of war, facing the situations of war. I also worked to uplift women’s livelihoods and on gender based violence. Until around 2005-08, we strengthened those women by assisting them, providing education and awareness on their rights.
How did the Women’s Resource Centre start?
I initiated the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC) in Kurunegala in 2005. I led this initiative along with a group of women who worked with me. In 2006, my organisation and I got interested in working to increase women’s participation in politics. Collaborating with the Women and Media Collective (WMC), we entered an independent women’s group for the Pradeshiya Sabha election to represent the Kurunegala Pradeshiya Sabha. Although the main political parties said they would give us nominations, some women did not receive nominations. So, we entered a group of 28 women. We did a huge election campaign. We could not win. But it became a valued experience for us. Then we continued to work towards increasing women’s participation in politics. We also helped a group of women in 2011. We have trained over 100 women for Council level politics. From regional level, too, in 2011 we trained 56 women. 18 women received nominations. Three women won. We collaborated with UN Women and the WMC for that. We are not connected to any political party. We encourage women from all parties to take part in politics. We have collected 30 women leaders who are ready for the next election. We are collectively bargaining from parties to obtain nominations for women. Those women are now working as leaders at the village level. Parallel to the programs we conduct to increase women’s representation in politics, we also work with migrant women. Kurunegala has the highest rate of migrant women in Sri Lanka. We are working with the Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM). We conduct programs to educate government officers, engage with women to mitigate violence they face, educate women on their rights before they go abroad.
Why is there a higher rate of women migrating from Kurunegala?
Kurunegala is an agricultural district. The place agriculture had is diminishing since the economy was opened up in 1977. Food and agro products are imported to Sri Lanka from other countries. Small-scale farming that was conducted, directing the household economy, has also been destroyed. People are giving up on small-scale farming because the raw materials are costly and the income is low. There is no certified price. When the harvest is reaped the same product is imported from another country. Small farmers cannot fight with multi national corporates. The government does not give incentives. There is no water. Climate conditions are also changing. Many farmers have given up on agriculture because of such reasons. I think most women migrate to compensate the economic destruction that takes place within the family. I remember before 1977, there were many handloom and rush and reed products that the women made here. Those products cannot compete with ones that are imported within the open economy. They lost the market. The fall of the small-scale products economy could be a contributing factor. Many women opt to go to the Middle East. The other thing is there is a high number of people enrolled in military and police jobs from Kurunegala. Even today, women headed households of the widows of military families is higher in Kurunegala than anywhere else in Sri Lanka. The destruction of the farming industry, lack of employment opportunities, and economic issues must have contributed to this as well. There are also caste problems in Kurunegala. We can see how young men who were marginalised from the society, as being low-caste, had joined the forces. They wanted to achieve a better economic status to deal with the caste issues.
What are some of the work that the WRC does for women of such communities?
The WRC works closely with female-headed households of military families. We get involved in their issues. There is an idea in the country that members of military families have no troubles because they get a salary and a pension. They are thought to be living happy lives. That is not true. The women, in particular, face a lot of problems because they are women. They face issues as single mothers. They have no land rights. They are in debt. They have issues managing money. They are objectified by the society because they are women who live alone. They face violence. When they have to get things done in the society they are asked for sexual bribes. Their children have grown up and they are subjected to violence by their grown up sons. Some women are very young, around 20-35 years of age. They have issues with their sexual health. There are negative attitudes about them in the society. They cannot remarry because if they remarry they lose half of their ex-husband’s salary. They have no right to a sex life. They have to face many such social issues. I spoke to 300 women during a research I did. I conducted 15-20 focus group discussions with 200 women in Kurunegala and 100 women in Anuradhapura. We found a lot of information from these. We are working to empower and improve the psychosocial conditions of those women. They have many psychological issues. The government does not take adequate measures for these. What we understand is that their issues, as women, are not addressed.
Could you elaborate on the research that you did titled Awareness raising of 100 women leaders on social, economic, and cultural rights with women in the Nikaweratiya and Giribawa rural areas of the Kurunegala district?
I trained at the PWESCR institute in India, an organisation that works with women on social, economic, and cultural rights. We did research into women’s social, economic, and cultural rights under this initiative. The number one problem was economic issues. Because rural women don’t have independent economic livelihoods this influences their ability to make decisions within the family. But these women contribute to the family economy at least 90 percent, in some way. They engage in small self-employment activities. There are many young girls working in garment factories. They work within and outside the district. If you take as families, these women fully participate in growing their home gardens and in the family agricultural activities. Men have moved away from small-scale paddy farming. It is the women who continue the work with the intention of at least supplying the porridge (kanda) for their family. If you take work in the paddy field, women do all kinds of work. Women contribute hugely to agriculture. But they don’t get any value for what they do. Women engage in small-scale economic activities like selling garden crops, cutting bricks, making paddy-related products, making flour-related products, making food items, making sweets. But these are not given a considerable value.
What are the social dynamics of women, according to the findings of your research?
Socially women have more freedom now. Women are more involved in societies and associations. We saw from our research that around 85 percent involved in societies are women whether it is a school development society, Samurdhi welfare society, micro-finance society, or a religious society. Women make a high contribution for all of these. If you take children’s education, mothers are mostly contributing. They take children to tuition classes and scholarship classes. Women manage those things. We found out during this research that although women are involved in social activities, they are not free from household duties. Just because women are economically active it is very rare for them to be free from the work in the kitchen. That time is supplemented from her leisure time or rest. The traditional role of the man in the household has not changed.
What aspects have you found out in terms of cultural rights and women?
Cultural attitudes towards women have changed a bit in rural areas. Those days they were not allowed to wear trousers. Now they wear trousers. They are more social. They go to work. But the status of Muslim women has not changed that much. Their girls do get educated but not beyond ordinary levels. They don’t get an opportunity to go to work. Some cultural norms remain intact. Something we also saw was that more than earlier times women entertain mythical beliefs, attitudes, rituals, voodoo practices that are proliferated through the media. We saw that this reduced in the 1980s and 1990s. Now it has increased. We are not sure if they are getting more attached to these things as a way of dealing with their everyday social struggles or as a result of popularisation through the media. In the 1990s, women tended to marry late. Women followed education until after they were about 25. They worked in various professions. They went to work in garment factories. But in our areas now there is a huge trend where women tend to marry at a very young age. At the age of 16-18, they get married. They at least elope. There are many issues within those families. They get divorced within a short time. A lawyer told us that around 80 percent of cases at the Kurunegala magistrate court is of divorces and family conflicts.
With women migrating, many things have undergone change, culturally. There are many negative attitudes about women migrant workers in the country. But that is not so. We did a research together with WMC. We collected case studies of women in Ibbagamuwa. We saw how these women migrate and build their families. They have contributed to uplifting their families economically and socially. Women have gone abroad and earned. They have given their children in marriage, they have bought land for their children, built houses, saved mortgaged farmlands, sent their children for higher education, bought three-wheelers for their sons, bought vehicles … Unfortunately, nothing has been left for the migrant woman who worked for her family in the end. But they have contributed to uplifting their families through migrant labour.
We also found out about unpaid care work while conducting this research. Women contribute labour for their households. They look after children, elders, the sick, children with disabilities, siblings. But such care work is not valued socially or economically. In this way, women make a great contribution to the economic and social system of this country. But this is not accounted for.
You have acted as a member of the Sri Lanka human rights commission’s Wayamba locality. What was your role there?
I was the only woman member. All the others were men. During my time there, we educated communities on human rights. We acted to create human rights defenders and activists. We trained paralegals and educated them on the general law, allowing them an opportunity to get involved in the community’s struggles. In particular, we got involved with women’s issues. We carried out legal aid activities.
You received two scholarships from the Australian Government for your work.
We learned about women, peace, and democracy during a three-week stay in Australia in 2012. It was a scholarship. It is a very good programme. We went to Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra. We met women’s groups and politicians there and learned a lot from them. This was organised by JERA International. We also got another scholarship from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) this year. This program was on unpaid care work. I got to travel to government offices in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Canberra. I met with government officials and women politicians and learned a lot. I am implementing some of those things we learned there in Sri Lanka.
In 2017, you got an N-Peace award. Nine women who are acting to promote peace and empowerment in their societies were nominated from 7 Asia Pacific countries for this award that you won. Could you elaborate on your experiences on peace, democracy, and women?
I didn’t know actually. Dr Vagisha Gunasekara had nominated my name for the N-Peace Award. I got to know sometime later that it was a competitive award and there was a voting process happening across the world for this award. There were two other nominees from Sri Lanka but I was given the award. I was to get it in Bangkok this year but I could not attend. They had a ceremony in Sri Lanka and gave me the award. I think it is an appreciation I got for the work I did on peace in my community as well as with other communities. During the time I worked in CATAW, and afterwards, I work with many women’s groups in the North East. I acted as an advisory board member of the Suriya Women’s Development Society in Batticaloa. I worked for peace and reconciliation with female-headed families in the North East. I still work with those women’s groups. I worked as a trainer of women in the North East and have exchanged ideas with them. Based on my training here and abroad, I act as a trainer of gender, women’s representation in politics, and human rights. This became a huge strength to me when conducting peace programs, when working for those women, and when working for peace. Those women faced very difficult situations in life. After the war, even today, I think that we have not paid adequate attention to women in North East. They have many issues. To overcome this, the government and the civil society has much more to do.
Recently, the government appointed a zonal task force for inquiring public opinions on the reconciliation process. I acted as the chairperson of the Wayamba area’s committee. We listened to the public’s opinions on reconciliation in Kurunegala, Chilaw, Puttalam, and Galgamuwa pradeshiya secretariat divisions. We conducted focus group discussions with various groups like disabled soldiers, military widows, sex workers, farmers groups, civil society activists, and educators. We have submitted a regional report on this. I am determined to influence the government to implement those recommendations on reconciliation. Now, it has been passed in the Parliament to establish an office on the missing persons. I feel that these are the results of the work we did. I am also involved in bargaining with political parties to get nominations for women for upcoming elections. We worked about 25 years to get a 25 percent quota for women in politics. Now it has been awarded. We are continuing with programmes to strengthen this during the coming elections.
Access the original Sinhala interview script here: Sumika Sinhala interview script
Date of Interview: 25 July 2017
Interviewer: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage