Sharanya Sekaram is an activist, feminist, writer, researcher, and has extensive experience working in the fields of reconciliation, conflict, gender, youth activism, and community building. In this interview with Women Talk, Sharanya discusses her work in a gender space, the significance of prioritizing relationship education and sexual and reproductive health and rights in Sri Lanka’s post war context, and the challenges of engaging as a feminist and an activist.
You have been working as a research analyst, specializing in areas such as reconciliation, conflict, gender, community building, and urban development. You also have a LL.B. You are a writer and a blogger. You are a feminist, working in a gender space. How did this journey begin for you?
I think it really began when I was living in Australia, right out of school. I spent a year in the University of Sydney. The Australian student representative movement and the gender movement is very different from ours but it was also where I saw that activist movement. Student politics is very influential in Australia. I joined the Women’s Collective and I found myself constantly in conflict conversations because there were very few people who actually lived in a conflict country. It kind of started there. I realised that you do not only have to be a volunteer and there is this whole other space where you could work in. I came back and started my LL.B and I was stumbling into the same sort of spaces. I think you just find them when you are ready to find them.
How do you go on to work in a gender space?
I joined the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute as a Research Analyst. LKI at that time was a meeting ground for a lot of the civil society conversations around conflict. It was there that I began to build networks in Sri Lanka in the civil society.
I got involved in youth activism. Even within the youth space and the conflict space, I have always been a feminist at heart. That is where everything begins and ends for me. Even when I wrote papers on peace and conflict, I focused on women in conflict. For example, I am deeply fascinated by women in terrorism and the gendered aspect of terrorism. When you look at conflict, women are always seen as victims of conflict. They are never seen as the perpetrators. I find that fascinating.
Even when I was in youth activism, I always also found myself in the sex and sexuality conversations and the gender conversations. For example, when I was at the World Conference on Youth, I ended up facilitating the gender sections. I just kept going back to gender.
An opportunity to be concretely involved in gender came when I joined International Alert. While I focused on youth, which was why I was recruited, we also worked with women and political participation. We also worked on building a road map to engage Sri Lanka’s diaspora. Through that I was able to focus on media, art, and culture. But gender is where I am. Gender will always be the bigger focus.
You are currently involved with Grassrooted and their work on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and relationship education.
I knew of Hans Billimoria and Paba Deshapriya’s work. You cannot exist in the gender space in Sri Lanka and not know what they do. I have friends like Sarah Soysa and Dakshitha Wickremarathne who have been part of Grassrooted in the past. That is how Grassrooted started, for me. I continue to be present in other spaces but now the majority of my energy focuses on Grassrooted.
With Grassrooted, I got more and more involved in Bakamoono. It was launched a year before I joined. It is a team of small people. We are passionate about what we do. When it comes to the work that we do it is about what needs to be done and we do it. That is what I love the most about Grassrooted.
Currently, as we undergo a post war and transitional justice phase in Sri Lanka, where do you think is SRHR positioned within that whole context?
More than ever, in a post war society, it is important that we start this conversation. We treat SRHR and relationship education as a non-priority. I think we have been treating it like this for a long time. We forget that SRHR is a cross-cutting theme. Sexual and reproductive health and rights come up in refugee camps, in the battle fields, in conversations about the armies, about sexual violence, and in conversations on how women and gender minorities are disproportionately affected in situations of conflict.
I feel so strongly because we don’t treat it with that significance. We don’t look at the contributions our sex workers make towards the conflict. We pretend they don’t exist. We don’t look at how the gap of governance and transparency disproportionately affects women and their sexual and reproductive health and rights. We don’t look at the disproportionality of the culture and masculinity, which all plays in very strongly in conflict situations. We don’t treat it as a priority.
Now SRHR has expanded into relationship education, which we strongly advocate for. If we think it is important to teach people math, logic, engineering and basic history, how do we not think it is important to teach them their rights, empathy, respect, consent, and emotional intelligence? It baffles me that we don’t think these are important things to teach our children.
Grassrooted also focuses on the cyberspace and cyberbullying. What are some of the issues that you work with in terms of gender, violence, and the internet?
When you look at violence against women online or gender-based violence online, which is what it is, I think we still treat it as something that came up because of technology. That is not true. This is the same violence that women face everyday, on the streets, in the bedroom, in the kitchens, in houses, and in workplaces. The same harassment and violence is just online. We try to pass it off saying that it is technology. People can hide behind screens. People have been abusing and harassing women since time immemorial.
Our approach to working with cyber exploitation and violence is that you cannot discount the gender angle of it. It is gendered. Women do experience the internet differently to men. Whether it is from the point of access. For example, we were at the Internet Governance Forum. It was a very interesting conversation because studies show that if there is a device in the house, the men have the first access to that device. Then you look at the fear, harassment, and shame that women face online. Women are more unwilling to have their pictures online. They are less willing to speak out because they are afraid of the repercussions. I know activists and journalists who get rape threats on a weekly basis.
Then you go one step further and look at how these modes of communication and this ease of sharing is simply used as a tool to further violate, shame, and abuse women. I can’t see how we can say it is not gendered. It is one of the most gendered things.
In fact, more than ever our patriarchy and misogyny is flagrant online. So, technology is not the problem. It is how we use technology and the values with which we use technology. That is the problem.
Would laws or policies help to change the situation?
Laws and policies are two different things. I think laws help when they are implemented well. It is about consequences. Why don’t people go around stabbing each other every five minutes? Because there are consequences for doing it. The same way, if you have consequences for online harassment, abuse, and violation, then it will at least be a deterrent.
In terms of policy, I think the policy that will help is education. We keep going back to it but it is a policy that will help. You can have representation of women in the board room, you can have women in decision making seats, but are their voices genuinely being engaged and heard or it is just to check the boxes? A lot of companies would say we have three women in our board. But how often are they really heard? When they bring up issues of workplace harassment or child care how many of the men go oh god she is at it again?
It is about how you engage with the issues and your commitment to those issues. For me, everything lies in education and implementation. You could have a very basic policy, but if it is implemented well, it will help because it gives guidelines. It is about how we actually implement it in real life.
You are also very active on social media. You have over 4000 followers on Twitter. You are a blogger. How does it position yourself as a feminist when you actively voice your knowledge and views on SRHR or gender?
I think you have to develop a very thick skin and cull your Facebook friends list. You have to constantly take people off. A lot of people find me, and these are words I have heard, hysterical, a bitch, a feminazi, just causing a fuss for nothing. They use ‘feminist’ as an insult. I have had people telling me you are one of those feminist types. When I say things I make people uncomfortable and that is my goal. If you are comfortable with what I am saying and only agreeing with what I am saying, I am not the person you are supposed to be talking to.
I also have now, over the years, learnt to disengage. When I was younger I engaged with everyone, regardless. I made myself very angry and got into a lot of angry Facebook comment threads. As I have gotten older, and marginally wiser, I think I realise that not everyone is engaging in the same spirit as you. It is important to be able to realise that. I have also found that people online are very unforgiving, once you make a mistake.
I think the worst of humanity is that people aren’t afraid of consequences online. You can delete your account and everything else with it in seconds. It is tough to engage. You can’t see people’s expressions. Their body language is not there.
I still think the internet is an amazing platform – the way it is able to connect us. The way we are able to share information and learn. It is all about how you use it and how you engage with it. For instance, with Bakamoono we have found amazing engagement online. We have been able to disseminate information so fast. We have been able to update it quickly, keep it organic, keep the community going, talking, and thriving. For me, it is very much how you use it.
I started writing this column for the Weekend Express. Editor Hana Ibrahim has been amazing. She gives me complete freedom to say what I want, how I want, and to be as critical and flagrant about gender and feminism as I want to be. I am so grateful to her for giving me that space.
On a personal level, I think it has kept me engaged. It has kept my writing engaged. I enjoy writing because it is a chance to start a broader conversation with people. When you put a whole issue out in 1000-1500 words, rather than a three-line Facebook status, I think there is a lot of space for you to better articulate your arguments. I also enjoy writing because it helps me to refine my thought process. I really think that people still read and they like to read. And they are more likely to engage with you if they read you.
You are also a member of the Global Shapers, a network of young people, born out of the World Economic Forum, working to address local, regional, and global challenges. Could you elaborate on the significance of young people’s involvement in decision making processes?
I am still part of the Global Shapers. I am very passionate about that movement. What I like most about Global Shapers is that it was one of the few spaces I found that genuinely engaged youth. They did not put us in the youth table or in the youth forum. They put us in the main forum. We always get young people to talk to each other. We talk to each other enough. We need to be talking with the people who make the decisions.
Why would you design a world for people who have to live in it? Why not get them to design it for themselves? I am very confused by the fact that we think we know best for a generation that should be a part of it. If I go to schools, for instance, I am still confused why education syllabuses don’t engage the students themselves. We underestimate young people. We like to call them lazy and entitled. That is unfair. The previous generation should take the responsibility for the world they left us also. We are not lazy and entitled, we just function differently. I feel frustrated when young people are constantly made to apologize for who they are and how they function. We don’t empower young people enough.
How did having an LL.B connect with your current work?
An LL.B is an academic degree in law. You are not learning the law to practice. For me, I strongly encourage an LL.B because it taught me a lot of things. With an LL.B, you study sociology, history, and humanities, because you are not just studying the law you are understanding why the law exists and how and why that law came about. That is really important. When you are taught law, everything is very clear and very precise. Evidence becomes a second nature to you. Laws also dictate so much when you are in rights-based work. The legal aspect of it is very important. That training has been a huge support system, for me.
Any current and future work to follow?
I am very passionate about the relationship education work that we are doing at the moment with Bakamoono. I love Bakamoono for the fact that it is a one stop shop in all three languages.
I was also recently a part of the Sthri by Selyn fashion show, which I was really excited to be part of. Fashion and modelling is really not a space I ever thought I will find myself in. But what I love about Selyn, Selyna Peiris, and the whole Sthri collection is the fact that they stayed very true to that ethos. Being a part of that fashion show gave me so much renewed hope. We were all women who were awkward and freaking out about tripping on our heels. Our bodies are different sizes. I am so proud that it is a Sri Lankan ethical fair trade brand. More than being ethical and fair trade, they stay very true to what they say they will be. It also captures that entire ethos of who we are and what we should be doing.
Date of Interview: 15 November 2017
Interviewer and photo: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage