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

Taryn WilkieBy Taryn Wilkie

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/>.

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