Inspiration and New Perspectives: Reflections on My Interviews with Sri Lankan Women Activists

My internship with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies is now coming to an end, although I still have some work I need to complete for the project I have been working on this summer. My project involved interviewing women activists in Sri Lanka about their work and their experiences, and I need to finish transcribing and editing a few of the interviews before they can be posted, as they took place towards the end of my internship.

The interviews I conducted went well, despite occasionally encountering some technological challenges, and often interviewing at night so that the time was more convenient for those in Sri Lanka. Neither of these problems greatly interfered with the interviews, as most could be solved relatively easily. Increased internet usage due to people working from home when Sri Lanka went back into lockdown in mid-August did cause some difficulties when using Zoom, but this could often be solved by turning the camera off or scheduling interviews at non-peak times. The most important thing I learned from these difficulties was to be flexible and accept that technological issues happen to everyone.

Despite the inherent difficulties in remote interviews, I have currently conducted six and have a seventh scheduled for this week. While I would have liked to interview more individuals, not being present in Sri Lanka limited my ability to continually reach out to people to set up meetings. As well, only being able to contact people using email reduced my ability to establish a more significant connection which I believe would likely have led to more people agreeing to speak with me. However, since this internship was remote, I view my project as a success, and I am proud of what I have been able to accomplish while working for an organization on the other side of the world and in the middle of a pandemic.

I also found speaking with the women was very interesting, and I learned so much about Sri Lanka, activism, and the impact human rights work can have. Indeed, I was surprised by all that these women were willing to share with me, as I was somewhat of an outsider, being a Canadian law student. The women I interviewed worked in areas such as LGBTIQ rights, women’s issues, disability rights, peacebuilding, and the rights of minority communities. Their activism was expressed in a variety of ways, including demonstrations, writing, art, education, and training. All had been involved nearly their whole adult lives, and many had lived or worked in multiple locations within Sri Lanka and/or around the world. Their accomplishments inspire me, and I am now even more resolved to pursue a career in which I can help individuals, as the lives of these women demonstrated how the work of one person can make a difference in someone else’s life and how rewarding it can be. While they may have faced difficulties because of their gender, ethnicity, the war, or the political situation in Sri Lanka, none had ever let this get in their way, and I left each interview feeling motivated to work towards change.

Additionally, the women often raised ideas I had not previously considered, allowing me to gain a new perspective on different aspects of activism and human rights work. One woman discussed the changes in women’s activism over the course of her career. Shortly after she first became involved, women began to break away from other organizations and form their own because they did not feel respected or that women’s issues were taken seriously by the men. However, the younger generation, perhaps learning from what did and did not work in the past, has stopped creating women’s organizations, instead working with men on specific issues. I believe there is a tendency to view activism as historically significant moments which appear somewhat spontaneously and then disappear over time, yet this woman suggested there was greater continuity and connections between activists of different generations. Instead of isolated moments of activism, groups continually share ideas and strategies and learn from one another. I had not previously considered how interconnected different eras of activism can be, and how although issues may ebb and flow in salience, activism tends to be constant, and so I greatly appreciated hearing this woman’s perspective.

As well, another woman told me she no longer likes to be involved in organizations because she believes their hierarchal structure makes them a reflection of our patriarchal society. She explained that because she was working to achieve equality, she felt having power over others in the organization was a contradiction, and organizations only looked as they did because of the influence of men and the patriarchy. While she did not aim to change any organization’s structure, she preferred to consult, as this was a more equal role which better aligned with her values. This was another idea I had not previously considered, yet I understood why she felt the way she did. If someone is trying to change an aspect of society, perhaps it would be better if they rejected all or many of the structures and norms that aspect is responsible for creating.

Finally, I found asking certain questions could be particularly valuable and interesting and reveal more of that woman’s personality. Often I would ask the women I interviewed to tell me about a particularly memorable experience, and what they chose was usually a personal anecdote that gave me some insight into what they valued. I also found these stories to be some of the most meaningful and inspirational answers, as they typically demonstrated how small actions could make a big difference. Whether they were stories of many people coming together despite adversity to raise awareness of an important issue, or someone finding a way for a disabled child to have an education, I was in awe of these women’s perseverance and what they accomplished. I am also incredibly honoured and grateful that they chose to speak with me and share their experiences.

Overall, I really enjoyed my internship with the International Centre for Ethnic Studies and having the opportunity to meet (virtually) so many remarkable individuals. While I would have preferred to travel to Sri Lanka, the work I did still allowed me to develop some personal connections. I now have greater knowledge of what it means to be an activist, and I am certain this experience will affect my future work and worldview.

The Importance of Inclusion: Lessons Learned While Working Remotely Across an Ocean

Taryn WilkieBy Taryn Wilkie

This summer I am working for the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo, Sri Lanka, however, due to the pandemic, I am working remotely from Canada. While the project I am working on does not require being in an office, and is relatively self-directed, the distance has made my work more challenging. For example, I miss being able to easily speak with others who might have valuable feedback about what I am working on. Instead, I am dependent on emails for answers to my questions, and the nearly 12-hour time difference means I usually do not get responses until the next day. Consequently, I have had to be fairly independent in my work and carefully plan my emails to make sure each one is clear, and I can get answers to any questions as quickly as possible.

Working remotely has also made it more difficult to accomplish the goals of my project. I am currently attempting to schedule interviews with women activists in Sri Lanka about their experiences; the distance between Canada and Sri Lanka has complicated this process. I am reliant on email to contact them instead of being able to call or visit organizations where they work. For those who do agree to an interview, I must find a time that not only fits their schedule, but also works with the time difference. Working in Sri Lanka and not having to deal with the pandemic would therefore have made this aspect of my project much easier. Nevertheless, I hope I will be able to interview many of the women activists I have contacted, as I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with them and learn from their experiences.

Yet even without having currently completed any interviews, this internship has highlighted the diversity of issues activists aim to address. When I first learned I would be interviewing Sri Lankan women activists, I thought these activists would focus primarily on women’s rights issues. However, I have found they work in many different areas, including the environment, garment work, tea plantations, health, the legal system, peacebuilding, and the rights of children, youth, minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to women’s rights issues.

The diversity of topics reinforces the importance of understanding women as more than just their gender and recognizing they should be included in attempts to solve many different issues as they will make valuable and unique contributions. I am thankful this internship has made me more aware of the diversity present in activism and given me the opportunity to learn about so many different areas of important work from women who are directly involved.

Researching Sri Lanka has also caused me to reflect on the importance of reconciliation. Divisions between the majority Sinhala population and the minority Tamil population, who are the majority in Sri Lanka’s North and East, led to a brutal civil war between 1983 and 2009, as many of the Tamils fought to secede.[1] However, years after the war’s end, and despite a reconciliation commission, it appears the underlying grievances which led to the conflict have not been resolved.[2] Consequently, I have become aware of how difficult it can be to build a lasting peace in a country with deep divisions, and how easy it can be to ignore what are often legitimate issues that have led to conflict, especially when one side has greater power.

Although the situation between settler Canadians and Indigenous peoples is very different, the increased discussion about reconciliation in Canada this summer has led me to think about what is needed for change to occur in both countries. I hope members of the majority communities and governments in both countries will learn to listen to minority communities and work to address their concerns, as otherwise reconciliation and peace may remain elusive.

Overall, I have learned many important things about Sri Lanka, activism, and human rights work from working at ICES this summer, and I am grateful for the opportunity. I look forward to learning even more as I continue my internship and interview women activists about their experiences.

[1] Nithyani Anandakugan, “The Sri Lankan Civil War and Its History, Revisited in 2020” (31 August 2020), online: Harvard International Review <hir.harvard.edu/sri-lankan-civil-war/>.

[2] Anandakugan, supra note 1; Kate Cronin-Furman, “UN Human Rights Council Outlines Sri Lanka Abuses, But Demurs on Action” (26 March 2021), online: Just Security <www.justsecurity.org/75510/un-human-rights-council-outlines-sri-lanka-abuses-but-demurs-on-action/>.

Finding Familiarity in a Foreign Place

By Adriana Cefis

The first time I experienced home abroad was while eating McDonald’s soft serve at Colombo’s Racecourse as little kids played soccer in front of me. The experience brought back foundational childhood memories of summer: house league soccer followed by Wild Willy’s ice cream. If you’re from Montreal’s West Island you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was taken aback by the strong feeling of comfort: how weird it is to experience home a million miles away as a foreigner in a place you’ve never been before, a misplaced sense of déja vu.


On my first day, my supervisor at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) in Colombo assigned me the task of writing a report on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). He explained that States party to the Convention must submit an initial report within two years of ratification. Sri Lanka ratified the Convention in February of 2016 but as of yet, no initial report has been submitted.

I was originally asked to research and write a shadow report. To give you an idea of the work involved in such a project, Canada’s initial report was drafted in consultation with  over 700 civil society organisations. In addition to the time constraint imposed by my three-month placement, the subject of disability rights is under-researched in Sri Lanka (or “poverty stricken” as one activist I spoke with put it), and the available data is paltry and outdated. The potentiality of producing a rich and nuanced report in just three months seemed implausible. My first challenge at ICES was therefore to narrow the scope of my project and devise a new proposal for my supervisor.

ICES HQ

Having already completed a great deal of desk-based research, I arranged to meet and informally speak with a number of disability rights “veterans.” I ended up writing a report on barriers to both formal and informal mechanisms to the implementation of the CRPD. To do so, I conducted interviews with umbrella disability rights organisations that represent the country’s main geographic areas, individual Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs), International Non-Governmental Organisations, disability rights activists, and the the country’s Human Rights Commission’s sub-committee on disability.

I used Alexander Betts and Phil Orchard’s institutionalisation-implementation gap to organise the information gathered from these interviews in my paper. This theory provides a frameworks for why norms institutionalised at the international level (for example, through the ratification of conventions) are implemented differently domestically by categorising implementation gaps into ideational, material, and institutional barriers.

At times, this project was a source of personal conflict for me: I wanted to be a responsible researcher. I devised ethics forms and had them approved by my supervisor, I tried my best to acknowledge the limitations of this three-month research project and underscore that this was not a scientific study, but a report designed to offer a comprehensive foundation for further research and activism, and I spoke to my supervisor about sharing the information contained therein widely among the network of organisations I spoke with.

I also grappled with the inability to include all of my findings in the report. The conversations I had yielded some viewpoints that would make for interesting studies in their own right as well as some side-points that could not be included in my project. For example, some of the people I spoke with asserted that disability can be a a model for reconciliation among different groups of people, specifically emphasising how parents associations provide an arena where people from different ethnicities, religions, and paths of life rally together. Others suggested that ex-combatants make for better activists because they know how to mobilise effectively.

One of the comments that came up and struck closest to home was the idea that there’s a hierarchy among disability rights when it comes to research, advocacy, and representation among disability rights organisations (primarily with visual impairment being very well represented and intellectual disability the most underrepresented).

This point was especially relevant in the Sri Lankan context where formal mechanisms of implementation often treat “disability” as a homogenous group and are not especially conducive to the implementation of disability rights, meaning that service provision often falls to the informal sector. The strength of the “rights movement” in a “niche” area of disability rights is therefore related to how well that “niche” area is represented and serviced.

I have a family member with an intellectual disability and my family has always been involved in organisations that provide services for this group of people in Montreal. Speaking to parents of children with disabilities in Sri Lanka and hearing their frustration at the lack of services and stigma experienced by their children accordingly struck close to home, as did listening to stories of families that went door to door to raise awareness and funds for service provision. There it was again, that familiarity, that sense of déja vu.

Volunteers for the West Island Association for the Intellectually Handicapped over 50 years ago – my grandmother is in the middle at the back

Overall, I’m grateful for this amazing opportunity which allowed me to experience the challenges and beauty of field-work, including but not limited to addressing conflicting viewpoints, identifying and acknowledging internal biases, dealing with a variety of forms of transportation, the occasional battle with Sri Lankan fauna and flora, intriguing conversation, and the space and time to reflect on all of the above.

Public transit snack

Sri Lankan cooking class

The Deception of Comfort

By Adriana Cefis

* This post mentions sexual harassment

I feel the need to start this post off by saying that the negative experiences detailed below are in no way representative of my time in Sri Lanka thus far. In fact, I often forget they happened. This is partially because so much is constantly happening here. Yes, the pace of life is much slower than at home, but at the same time so much is new to me – the colours, the sounds, the smells, the culture, the responsibility – it all feels very happening. At times, overwhelming.

At work, I research the implementation of the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This project has involved a significant amount of field work on my part. Among other things, I have discovered that I enjoy talking to people much more than I do sitting behind a desk from 9-5, reading other people’s research. The personal connection is what has made the work interesting for me. It has also instilled in me a heavy sense of duty: to write something compelling and nuanced that grasps at the complexity of the issues people from a variety of communities have shared while also speaking to larger structural problems. But I’ll leave that for a different blog post.

I’ve also had a fair number of personal distractions. On weekends, my friends and I travel, and let me tell you, other memories were quickly washed away and replaced by the time I was ejected from an inflatable boat and thrown over a few rapids whilst white water rafting. We accepted the recommendation for what the contact of a new-friend advertised as a “beginner’s” rafting adventure without much thought; the spontaneity of the decision seemed fitting in a country where plans are fluid. I’ve since been told that this activity is dangerous, especially in off-season when the water is wild from the excess rain. Luckily, we’re all fine. We are outsiders, but we’ve become comfortable outsiders, at times trusting our surroundings to a fault.

Spontaneous decision to go rafting – before picture (when we were still smiling)

I could share a number of positive experiences I’ve had and ways in which I’ve made little changes to my life, not because I’ve felt particularly pressed to do so but because I am comfortable.

This comfort was not present when I first arrived, but grew steadily over time. It took me three days to learn how to cross busy intersections – “you just have to start walking” – eventually I lifted my hands up like Moses parting the Red Sea and prayed for the best.  I also used to refuse to take tuk tuks alone after dark, opting for uber instead (until my friends pointed out that you can be locked into an uber). These precautionary measures marked the beginning of my stay, but they aren’t what I would tell you about now. Now I would tell you about how I’ve cut my nails short and learned to eat with my hands, and how much I look forward drinking fresh and frothy fruit juices in the peak heat of the afternoon. I would describe how happy I was to discover that the pineapple here is sweet and doesn’t cause my tongue to tingle uncomfortably. I would talk about how easy it is to make friends, especially with Colombo’s large network of short-term interns. I would rave about how helpful and kind the locals have been (provided they’re not driving, at which point road-rage takes on a whole new meaning). In fact, when I got water-poisoning on a weekend away in Kandy, the hostel owner offered to drive me to the doctor’s office and find me a ride back to Colombo (approximately 120km away).

All of these experiences contributed to my comfort, and feeling secure, I eventually let my guard down. This process happened so steadily I don’t think I was consciously aware of it. But at times, that comfort has betrayed me. On one occasion, my friends and I were bargaining with a tuk tuk driver. When he refused to lower his price, we moved to the next tuk, and its driver agreed to charge the amount we wanted. Before we knew it, several angry men including the previous tuk driver surrounded us, and one of them slapped our driver. My first instinct was to raise my voice and protest, luckily a good friend had the common sense to point out that we were about to be trapped in the tuk tuk and should leave before matters escalated.

On another occasion, I took the train alone between Kandy and Colombo, leaving my friends behind because I had water poisoning. I rationalized the decision to make the journey by myself because it was the middle of the day and I was sitting in the “pregnant mothers” section. To my credit, all my research pointed to these choices as safe decisions for solo female travellers: travel during the day, trains are fine, sit in the family section. But that didn’t stop the man who sat next to me from stroking my upper thigh and touching himself. If you’re wondering what happened, I promptly stood up and screamed at him until he left. My larger point here is that up until that moment, my biggest preoccupation was trying not to vomit on the train. When the man sat a little too close to me, I blamed my North American standards on personal space. After all, the train ride over was so packed people were practically falling out of the doors – western rules on capacity definitely don’t apply here. When the strange behavior persisted, I told myself I was being paranoid. I refused to trust my own instincts.

unclear whether being pregnant makes you a mother or whether the sign required one to be pregnant and have a born child to qualify, but that’s beside the point

While I consider my comfort here in Sri Lanka to be a beautiful testimony to my relationship with this place, the truth is that it has nearly gotten me into a trouble a few times. As exhausting as it may be, I do feel that an extra sense of self-guardedness is required here. This might seem evident; to the Adriana from 2 months ago it certainly would have been. To this I have two responses: firstly, things are different when you’ve spent time in a place, made friends, and learned to walk long distances on sidewalk-less streets without getting hit by a tuk tuk or accidentally stepping on exposed wiring. The once unfamiliar place I mostly knew for its 26-year civil war, the 2004 Tsunami, and reports of harassment from fellow female travellers became associated with happy, personal experiences, and these experiences made a difference. In my comfort, I thought I had earned some sort inside knowledge on how to avoid these situations. Secondly, I find this need to constantly be aware of one’s surroundings suffocating and burdensome. Sometimes so much so that I unconsciously abandon it.

Living in Sri Lanka is not easy. I don’t think I can afford the luxury of mindlessly doing things here without somehow compromising my safety. However, I also feel it’s fair to say that if you do stay on your guard you will have some beautiful, unparalleled experiences.

Elephant crossing in Udawalawe National Park

Sitting at the World’s End in Horton Plains

Delawalla Beach

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