Dr Sepali Kottegoda is the Executive Director of the Women and Media Collective. She has decades of experience working on women’s rights and gender in Sri Lanka. In this interview with Women Talk, Sepali reflects on the formative years of the women’s movement in Sri Lanka and discusses reconciliation, political representation, unpaid care work, and sexuality education through a women’s rights lens.
You have been an advocate of women’s rights in Sri Lanka throughout several decades. Many women that I interviewed for Women Talk would refer to Sepali Kottegoda as having inspired their own interests in gender and feminism. Where did this journey begin for you?
At the time that I got admission to university in 1976, I was with a group of friends who were very much involved in social and political issues. Most of us were in our twenties. We started talking about social issues. When you are in your twenties, there are many things you may not have framed within the wider social, cultural, and political issues. I think my conversations with Sunila Abeysekera helped me to consolidate my understandings of social relationships.
I went to the Vidyalankara (now Kelaniya) University in Sri Lanka in 1976 where I read for my degree in English Literature. However, by the time I finished my honours degree, I knew I was not going to teach English. Very clearly, I knew I wanted to go into the social sciences. Which is why I worked with the Social Scientists’ Association (SSA) on graduation. I was involved with their first conference in 1981 on women workers in free trade zones (FTZ) in Asia, such as in the Philippines, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Sri Lanka had opened a free trade zone in the country in the late 1970s. I was involved with a study on Sri Lanka’s women workers in the free trade zone for the SSA. This was an experience that helped me get admission to the Institute of Development Studies, to read for a M Phil, followed with a DPhil in Development Studies. My DPhil thesis focused on women in urban low-income households, covering the economic and social aspects in Sri Lanka in the 1980s.
We set up the Women and Media Collective in 1984. Sunila, as she did in many ways, initiated the discussion on setting up this organisation. Thirty-five years on we are still here. It is not just that we are here but so many things have started to roll out in the area of socio-economic and political issues in the country, including the growing strength of women’s voices for equality. Dr. Kumari Jayawardena and Sunila Abeysekera were pioneering women who combined a feminist and political lens when looking at women in society.
I think the women’s rights discourse and concepts of WID and GAD came into Sri Lanka in the 1980s and the 1990s, when we stared to look at the socio-political nature of relationships between women and men in society. You cannot look at only women. You cannot look at only men. You have to also look at caste, class, ethnicity, and religion; all those things are important factors when we are looking at social movements and social change.
What was it like to have worked with some of the pioneering women who were involved in Sri Lanka’s women’s rights discourse?
A lot of organisations, including the WMC, were formed around the same time. When we established WMC we had Bernadine Silva, from the Centre for Society and Religion, and Dr. Kumari Jayawardena, who set up organisations such as the Voice of Women and the Women’s Education Centre. We had a lot of conversations with them. Voice of Women, the first feminist organisation in Sri Lanka, had the only magazine that actually used the word ‘women’s emancipation’. Professor Swarna Jayaweera and Dr. Jayawardena were also pioneers in looking at women’s issues in the academia. Professor Jayaweera looked at education, at the way girls and women benefit from education. Dr. Jayawardena, along with Charles Abeysekere and Dr. Newton Gunasinghe, set up the Social Scientists’ Association, which engaged in academic research on socio-political issues in the country.
At the WMC, we began to explore feminism in the broad canvas of the social, economic and political relations. We started trainings for women in silk screen printing because in the 1980s women did not have access to formal printing technology. We would print posters on political issues from a feminist eye. We started publishing a feminist Sinhala magazine which evolved into our current publication Eya. There was very good rapport with the older women and I think what was remarkable at the time was these interactions and the very rich discussions of that we were a part.
We took an activist approach at WMC. For example, Sunila and I went into the field to interview women who were working in FTZs for the SSA study. At that time, hardly anybody actually recognised the socioeconomic and political factors of a FTZ. Why does it employ such young women? What is the notion behind the reported ‘nimble fingers’ of women that was often referred to in the economic rationale for FTZs? All those are gendered notions. So, we looked at the role of women in terms of women’s access to employment and income through being drawn into large scale Ford style production systems, rationalised on the basis that women are better workers in factories because of their ‘subdued nature’.
How did the women’s movement unfold at the grassroots level?
We need to also understand the role that Sunila Abeysekara played in bringing feminism into Sri Lanka’s political activism of women. What Sunila did was move this discourse from the abstract to an understanding the issues of social and political power, of discrimination, rights and equality.
Post-1977, in Sri Lanka, development strategy encompassed an open capitalist economy facilitating foreign investment. We contrast this because pre-1977 Sri Lanka had engaged with a mixed economy that held on to a focus on a social development framework. The Land Reform Act during the 1970-77 regime saw the government taking over private land to address issues of economic disparities among the population; there was a push to recognise the small agricultural land owners.
In the post-1977 period, land was given to the private sector for large-scale developments such as for sugar plantations. I remember being at the Social Scientists’ Association where Dr Newton Gunasinghe, Charles Abeysekere, Sunila, Kumari, and various others were using Marxist economics arguments in analysing issues of the small land owners and the family-based farm, at an abstract level. When we went into the sugar plantations we saw how acres of land, where small farmers had worked before, had been taken over. Understanding that process on the ground was very important. Maybe, at the time, we didn’t realise how important it was.
Then we analysed the connections between the small farmer, the farm that is based on family labour, and the implications for labour rights and human dignity when a farmer is compelled to sell his/her labour to the companies – what then happens to the relationship of the farmer to that land and to the wider economy?
The changes that were taking place in the rural areas resulted in a burst of activity; a lot of rural women and men came together to protest the loss of their land, the conditions of working as labour for big companies etc. For the first time, we could put in the gender lens, the women’s rights lens, into these struggles. You realised then the many aspects that mainstream neoclassical economics will not talk about and that most Marxists who are male will not talk about.
What was it like to associate yourselves with women’s rights at a time like that in 1980s?
I don’t think the word feminist in the 1980s was that strongly or frequently used in Sri Lanka. But women who got on the streets, women who did not conform, who challenged, questioned, and positioned themselves in raising issues of discrimination were often subject to criticism. (This, of course, still happens!)
In 1986, the WMC Collective organised a women’s creativity workshop. We had a number of women from rural organisations who we were networking with. We had feminist artists and a teacher of classical dancing from India and Pakistan. For some reason, the following Sunday Diwaina had headlines, which said something like asarana gami kaanthawan winaasa karana Kolamba madyama paanthika gahunu (Colombo middle-class women destroying innocent village women). We were very surprised. How did this happen? The article was all about how we forced these women to drink arrack and gave them classes in lesbianism. There was nothing about the creative paintings, theatre, song that were the activities of the workshop. Two Sundays running this newspaper ran front page articles about this middle-class, westernised, alcohol-drinking, cigarette-smoking women ruining these poor innocent rural young women. At the end of the day, we were actually quite okay with all this publicity we were getting but that was the way in which a case against people like us was built up by some of the media at the time.
Is it different now when you say that you are a feminist activist?
Yes, now the reactions are different. That is because there is more awareness of women’s rights. Of course, awareness does not mean acceptance. But there is more awareness. It is not a shocking thing, as such. We are identified as feminists and we identify ourselves as feminists. We can sit at any forum and say that I am a feminist or I am a women’s rights activist or I work for gender equality.
Gender equality is the most acceptable term for many. Women’s rights activist is okay. But a ‘feminist’ is still somebody who makes people uncomfortable. Because there is still the misconceived notion that feminists do not value family relationships, they break up families, they are the reason why the woman went away from the man, or the reason why the man went away from the woman.
A lot of people would find a conversation that focuses on women’s rights uncomfortable. So, I don’t just go and talk about women’s rights as if nothing else matters. I try to put it within a context, for example, why I am interested in unpaid care work. When you raise the issue of unpaid care work, male reaction is, ‘You expect me to pay my wife?’. But the fact is it is not so much the pay but it is the recognising of the economic and social value of household work. Hence, one has to be prepared to take the conversation in that direction.
WMC advocated for legislation on domestic violence in Sri Lanka, engaging in an evidence-based process of advocacy and awareness for many years. Could you take us through that process?
My colleague Kumudini Samuel, initiated an analysis of newspaper reports on incidents of violence against women. We looked at Sinhala, Tamil, and English mainstream newspapers. Then we realised, as happens in many other countries as well, most of the incidents on violence that are reported are on domestic violence. There are also reports of rape and incest as well. We prepared the report on our findings and we embarked on strategic interventions to build a case to advocate for a law on prevention of domestic violence.
We recognised that we needed to have this conversation with different constituencies like women’s organisations, the different Ministries – education, health, women’s affairs, and justice. We invited them to discussions, placed our case, and argued on why we need such a law. Significantly, the Ministry of Justice took it up. They consulted us when the bill was being drafted. I recall what we wanted was to have such a law to be part of the penal code – to make domestic violence a criminal act. The Ministry of Justice argued that it should not be formulated as a criminal act, rather it should go as a civil offence. While we were not happy, I think in the Sri Lankan context that was how it had to go because when you talk to victims/survivors of domestic violence most do not necessarily want to send the perpetrator to jail, annul the marriage or to divorce; they want the violence to stop.
What we also have to do is not just make sure that laws are in place but to also monitor how that law is being implemented and used by the judiciary and by survivors. Domestic violence is a phenomenon layered with norms, power relationships, and social acceptance. Perpetrators as well as victims tend to rationalise it. If you want to do something about it then we have to actually break through these kinds of layers.
The WMC has done extensive work to increase and lobby for greater representation of women in politics. What are some of the key work that had been done in this area and outcomes?
The first national media campaign on women’s rights in 1999 by the Sri Lanka Women’s NGO Forum (SLWNGOF) brought in the issue of women’s representation in politics to the national level. WMC was a founding member of and the first coordinators of the SLWNGOF, which was the organisation that worked towards the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. With funding from a number of donor agencies, we facilitated about 60 women to participate at the NGO Forum in Beijing in 1995. That was the first time around 60 non-governmental women representatives ever went to an international conference of that magnitude.
Post-1995, the SLWNGOF executed the media campaign drawing from the 12 Critical Areas of Action in the Beijing Platform for Action. We had selected three critical areas; political representation, violence against women, and women’s economic rights. For political representation, we had a media campaign with messaging based on inputs of women from all parts of the country. For the first time, there was a national media campaign that posed the question, ‘Where are women in the decision-making process?’ and we followed up the media campaign with meetings with political party leaders.
Subsequently, WMC has used many opportunities to raise this issue. Why is it that Sri Lanka has less than six percent of women in parliament? Less than three percent in provincial and less than two percent in local government? This is disgraceful. In the early 2000s, WMC organised the observing of the workings of Local Councils. Groups of women from different districts went as the observers and compiled reports. With the learnings from these observations, and with a better understanding of the workings and the mandate of the local councils, we moved into a bigger program.
About six years ago, we had support from UN Women to launch a comprehensive campaign for increasing the representation of women in politics in collaboration with five organisations from Trincomalee, Badulla, Kurunegala, Galle, Monaragala. We had meetings with party leaders, party organisers at the ground level, women who wanted to contest, and women who wanted to get nominations. We had programs that trained prospective women candidates in public speaking, raised awareness on the Local Government Act, and the roles, responsibilities, and the mandate of local councils.
What was the negotiation process with political parties and party leaders like for securing quotas for women in parliament and local governance?
It has been a very long period, more than 20 years since we began this advocacy, as I said. In 2003, when the Parliamentary Select Committee for Electoral Reforms was sitting, WMC, the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka Women’s NGO Forum, the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum, and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs made submissions on the political representation of women. WMC gave a range of options, such as quotas and reserved seats, and argued that the Parliament should decide on the best format to facilitate the increase of the representation of women in the political sphere.
We argued that there are obstacles other than merit that prevent women from getting into politics. Every time we raise this issue, some of the male politicians would say ‘we don’t have female infanticide, we don’t have sathi, we don’t have these issues that all the other countries in South Asia have and we have free education and hence there need not be any special provisions to get women into politics’. We then asked, yes we have all that then why aren’t the women there in the parliament? Then they say women aren’t capable. They say we don’t have any women in our party. Then we say, look, we will give you a list of women. We gave them many options each time such protests were made. We even gave political party leaders lists of names and details of women who were members of their party and who were prepared to contest elections.
The advocacy has been very consistent. Over the years, many other organisations also came in and recognised the need for strong advocacy strategies. WMC has played a very important role in getting the 25 percent quota that the Parliament agreed to. It is a law now. It is an Act passed by Parliament. The Parliament is still debating the formulation for instituting the 25 percent. But there are concerns being expressed by political parties, some that echo what has been said for decades: ‘We have no women’, ‘there aren’t enough chairs for new members’, ‘there isn’t enough funds available’ etc.
It seems that political parties are still reluctant to go the distance, even to give women nomination to contest. We have had meetings within the last weeks with the Election’s Commissioner and the Minister Faiszer Musthapha. We have appealed to them to not change this 25 percent. And we are still on full alert. Because we don’t want to leave space for them to say there was something amiss in the formulation. We have come so far as to have an Act, which says 25 percent. How can you go back on that?
We ran a very extensive campaign ‘Vote for a Woman’ asking people to vote for women. What we want to see now as we roll on with the political representation of women issue is better voter education. Because Sri Lanka has had six decades of voting for one type of image of ‘a politician’. It has been predominantly a male image. Every now and then, a few women get nomination. People would tell us that women do not have experience, to come into politics. The reality is that women have not been able to get into the political arena.
We are currently living in a post war Sri Lankan society that is also shaped by nationalist discourses on womanhood. How do you think are women’s identities, bodies, and gender roles defined in our society today?
We are in a post war situation. We are not in a post conflict situation. Conflict is related to political rights of different ethnic communities. We have unresolved grave issues that the country has to work on. We have political parties, some recognise this and others are intransigent I think. But that is the Sri Lankan political society. We need to address the issues of the conflict.
In the post war period, one of the most disturbing phenomenon, though not unexpected, was the rise of what we term ‘ethno-religious’ nationalism. We coin the term ethno-religious nationalism because all those identities are involved here in this push for nationalism. We have to recognise how violent the discourse of these ethno-religious groups have been.
WMC did a study on ethno-religious nationalism and sexual and reproductive health and rights. We did this as part of a larger study supported by an organisation called ARROW in Malaysia. The multi-country study included a number of countries in South Asia as well. When we put our SRHR lens to ethno-religious nationalism, we could see the very uninformed way in which women’s rights are looked at, where women are positioned in this discourse. We found conversations on Facebook about women from different ethnic groups that were appalling, shocking, and abhorrent. Those are words that I don’t say lightly. And this type of exchanges was by people who proclaimed themselves to be Buddhists but feel justified about saying the most vile things about Muslim and Christian women.
We need to be able to respond very sharply against these kinds of attacks. This group of people have a very shallow understanding of the meaning of citizenship. They think that a Sinhala-Buddhist government (which is certainly a Sinhala majority government) ‘killed off’ Tamil nationalist demands for equality and therefore one can now quash the Muslims. The same people also referred to Sinhala women being made infertile by eating some sweets and wearing a particular brand of underwear. These kinds of sentiments can be absolutely dangerous for the community that is being attacked. There is a new intensity in the Sri Lankan political and social arena that we need to recognise; it will not necessarily go away should we ignore it. As citizens, as women’s rights activists, we need to have no illusions about the intentions of such groups to harass women.
There was a time during which sterilisations and mobile clinics were stopped by the government. The hold on some of the reproductive health services came almost at the height of these ethno-nationalist attacks, which makes a plausible link between these phenomena. Family planning has been available in this country for more than five decades. It allows women a choice in making life decisions. If one wants to use family planning, one knows where to go. I think that it is very important that, as citizens of this country, we act to counter such violations of women’s rights and human rights.
Speaking at the National Conference on The Role of Women in Reconciliation, a few years ago, you presented a paper ‘Do Women play a role in Sri Lanka’s ‘Reconciliation’? : Gender dynamics in the transition from war to peace’. What kind of a role(s) does women play in the reconciliation and transitional justice process in Sri Lanka today?
I think the role that women play in reconciliation has been from the grassroots to national level advocacy. In terms of reconciliation, here we are talking about a post ethnic conflict scenario, because reconciliation can also be on various other things. What I did in my paper was to look back at the way in which women’s organisations, women academics, and women activists, actually responded during the war to the plight of women living in conflict affected areas.
In 2002, WMC initiated what we called the ‘women’s peace mission’, which included women representatives from organisations in Sri Lanka as well as from Malaysia, the U.K., and India. It was called the International Women’s Peace Mission. This was during the time peace negotiations were taking place and there was a lull in the fighting. The Mission travelled through many war-affected areas and compiled a substantive report that was submitted to the peace negotiations that were taking place in Norway. It resulted in the setting up of a Subcommittee on Gender Issues as a component of the peace negotiations. What many do not know is that this was the first time in modern history that a process of negotiating a peace settlement had a special component called a gender subcommittee. Nowhere else had there been that, but after Sri Lanka they have picked up on this example and built on it in other countries.
My colleagues Kumudini Samuel and Dr Kumari Jayawardene were members of the Subcommittee on Gender. There were four people from the South, representing ethnic diversity, and four women from the LTTE. They met twice before the peace process collapsed. That is part of reconciliation. That is part of actually putting women’s issues and gender concerns right on the peace negotiation table. We need to recognise that women in the south have had a record of trying to build peace in a really difficult context. Now, in a post war situation, where mobility is much better, we are still having this conversation because there is much that needs to be done.
This term reconciliation also has to be reviewed. Who wants to be reconciled? For example, if I am from the community and I am located in a region where I had bombs falling on my roof, where my brothers disappeared, what do I want for reconciliation? Do I want reconciliation? It might take a much longer time. As the ethnic group that seemed to have won the war, the Sinhalese cannot demand reconciliation. We all have to work for it. It is now eight years since the war ended. So, where are we, in terms of reconciliation? And why do we have to only recognise these reconciliation processes that gets the news? The political parties can be bickering about this and that. But there are all the people who are living outside the parameters of political parties, whose issues are often not the focus of big news reports.
The WMC and you yourself have been involved in generating a discourse and research on women’s unpaid care work. Could you relate to some of the dynamics of unpaid care work in Sri Lanka and how those dynamics could impact women’s positions in our society?
I have moved into unpaid care work in a long journey of understanding women’s work from a feminist political economy framework; it is a consolidation of my learnings at this time. I think there are political issues around recognising unpaid care work such as housework, that is largely done by women, as work or labour that has an economic value. Why is this not included in the labour force? Why is the term unpaid used? The reality is there is a lot of work that is done within the home, which has economic value, but which is neither recognised or assessed.
It is not assessed because of the definitions used for the labour force: ‘economically active’ and ‘economically inactive’. Those engaged in housework are categorised as ‘economically inactive’ and excluded from the labour force. Data collection on and analysis of the economy and of labour in line with international frameworks and guidelines inform the definitions and categories used. These definitions place persons who are engaged in housework as being outside the economy, as not contributing to the economy. That is where the women are. That is where housework is defined – work that has no economic value.
When we talk about Sri Lanka’s labour force we are constantly struck by the fact that the component of women’s labour has always been between 30 and 38 percent. Men’s have been around 70 and 78 percent. We have always had employment policies and various programs put in place that say we must have more women in the labour force. I think it is a contradiction in itself. If you do not recognise the labour of women in the home what is this labour force that you are talking about?
Understanding and recognising the complexities around house work and care work is an ideological and a conceptual issue, which needs to then bring about change in policy, in the way in which we categorise labour. I always acknowledge that women may perform care work including housework because they want to or are expected to. I was told this is our culture. I say yes, it is not only our culture it seems to be the culture in many countries that women must do all this work. But the reality is that the actual labour that women expend gets nicely covered under this thing called our culture and love. Our issue is with the political economy of the 21st century in which the economy and the labour force excludes women’s contributions within and outside the household.
We have a very gendered economy that is mainly functional from the remittances of women migrant workers. Is this something we acknowledge enough in Sri Lanka in ways that could make a positive difference to women’s positions?
Unless the destination country is agreeable to guaranteeing terms and conditions of employment for foreign workers, which would ensure that the overseas migrant worker’s rights are protected, certainly the role of Sri Lanka as a country of origin of workers can be limited. There has to be compliance on the other side.
When we talk about women migrant workers, overwhelmingly, the dominant discourse is of them as victims. We have to moderate that. Because a million plus women from this country have worked as overseas migrant workers over the last thirty years. Many of them are now here. Are we saying that all of them are victims? That they have no agency? Why do we not recognise the enormous contribution that their remittances have made to the economy of this country? It rarely makes front page news. I would like to see front page headlines this year, appreciating women migrant workers’ remittance contribution to our economy.
We have looked at the families of these women who migrate overseas. Our publication Listening to returnee migrant workers is on these families. We have to listen to them because it is not at all a case where nothing has happened to improve their lives. The remittances of these women enabled their families to buy trishaws and motorbikes. They have built the houses. They sent the children to school and for tuition if it is needed. We need to move away from the victim scenario.
My colleague Viola Perera at WMC coordinates the Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM). WMC and ACTFORM work with the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau. We want to include a women’s rights aspect into the training modules for prospective migrants. So that these women also know that, as Sri Lankan citizens, they have rights within this country and that they should know about some key information they will find useful when they go overseas.
Look, thirty years down since women first began migrating overseas for short term employment, gender roles are being challenged. Women are the main income earners of these families. Men are not. Domestic violence and the pressure on these women to conform into their ‘traditional’ roles are quite high. Women are saying ‘no we don’t want to conform’. Women are extremely articulate. You see in them not the women who first migrated in the 1980s. Are we still content in saying that these women have no agency? Actually, we can’t. It is a huge dynamic change within our society and in the roles of women in the family, the community, and in society.
Recently, a shadow report was submitted by the WMC to the Committee on The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) that included a number of recommendations for the government in terms of eliminating discrimination against women. What is the mechanism and significance of CEDAW in terms of addressing discrimination against women in the Sri Lankan context?
The importance of CEDAW is that the government has to, and they do, take it seriously. This is one of the international conventions to that Sri Lanka is signatory. Probably on our part we should do more to publicise our responses in the Shadow Reports we prepare. The CEDAW committee can make recommendations. They call these Concluding Observations. They ask the State that is reporting to address these observations. They look at the shadow report to get the other view, the other side.
What I would like to see is the media publishing both the government reports and the shadow reports side by side, or highlight the Concluding Observations of the CEDAW committee. That would make a government more accountable. The CEDAW process does not get covered in mainstream media. You have to look for it on websites.
Domestic violence was an issue that we had raised in an earlier Shadow Report to CEDAW. Now the government can say that we have legislation. A lot of issues were raised in relation to women in conflict areas. The situation of women in conflict areas, now in post war areas, get raised and I think the kind of response from the government depends also on how much information the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Foreign Minister include on these issues.
This year in February the latest Sri Lanka Government Report, prepared in 2016 was taken up; both the Shadow Report that was submitted this year to the CEDAW Committee and the one before that, which included the issue of sexual orientation, the criminalisation of homosexuality. The CEDAW committee has made very strong recommendations to the government on decriminalising homosexuality.
Could you elaborate on WMC’s efforts to lobby for comprehensive sexuality education in Sri Lanka?
During the war, there were higher teenage marriages and pregnancies in the war-affected areas. We did a study on violence against women and reproductive rights in the conflict affected areas of Puttalam, Mannar, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Batticaloa, and Ampara. We found that young girls were being given away in marriage to avoid recruitment by the LTTE during the time of the conflict. But today also there is a phenomenon of teenage pregnancies and young pregnancies. Sometimes the girls are around 14-15 years old. We know the age of consent in this country is 16, which I think is a really progressive law. The age of marriage is 18. Within that period, the law recognises that this age group could engage in some sort of sexual activity.
We find that young girls are exploring their sexuality much earlier than our comfortable thinking about it. We have had conversations with the Ministry of Health and Education about including comprehensive sexuality education into the curriculum. You have to look at it because there is a rise in girls becoming pregnant. We are advocating for the inclusion of age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education for young girls and young boys. We tend to focus on young girls most of the time because they are the ones who can end up pregnant. But we also have to think of young boys, learning about responsible sex; to be able to explore one’s sexuality in a responsible way.
Date of Interview: 17.08.2017
Interviewer and photo: Shashini Ruwanthi Gamage