Women’s Day 2021: Breaking Barriers

Mar 02 2021.

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Breaking barriers is a challenge for every woman. Today more women are involved in many professions ranging from architecture to wildlife conservation among others. In view of Women’s Day, we spoke to a few women game-changers in varying fields who shared their experiences while giving a few words of advice to women who aspire to make a change in their respective fields.

The challenge has always been gender bias 
“Architecture is a field which is globally poor in female representation. It may be to do with social modelling, where technical fields are supposed to daunt women; evidently, many women are suitably intimidated, but I believe this reluctance is diminishing. However, environmental conservation, which is a relatively young field, does not seem to have been subject to this Victorian gender bias. As a result, many pioneers in environmental conservation, such as the sisters, Irangani Serasinghe & Kamini Vitharane in Sri Lanka, and many of their peers across the globe: Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Dianne Fossey, Joy Adamson, Vandana Shiva etc; seem to have successfully flown below the patriarchal radar, as early as half a century ago. Today, there are many female environmental conservationists in Sri Lanka, but still not enough. Perhaps this is due to the danger of challenging a government, which is presently the biggest enemy of our environment.
In architecture, the challenge has always been gender bias; particularly from men who are of the generation before mine. The assumption is that a woman couldn’t possibly know as much, and certainly not more, than any man present. My work had to speak for itself before this patriarchal pressure eased off.
In environmental conservation and activism, I have not faced any challenges because I’m a woman. I believe this may be because, relatively, true environmental conservationists have an inherent sensitivity and intellectual edge. 
Believe in yourself and don’t compromise on what you’re passionate about. Women are often more sensitive than men - turn that into a skill that is displayed in your work.”  - Sunela Jayawardene, Environmental architect 

Powerlifting puts you face-to-face with all your insecurities 
“For a woman, a sport can be life-changing, and that change first starts when a young girl is in school- the environment around her has a great deal of influence on what she does, and how well she does it. At this stage, it is vital for a young girl to understand the effect sports has on her, both mentally and physically. The girl child needs to have opportunities and access to the sport. I feel that this support needs to be provided for young sportswomen and with it, enable them to feel truly valued in their role in sports and as talented women, who challenge the status quo of what a woman should be. 
Powerlifting is not a traditional sport that women are drawn to, and I understood that at the get-go. I wanted to be able to participate fully, and though my participation shows other women who have the desire to do so, that they shouldn’t be afraid of what society will think, this cultural influence is something that isn’t healthy and needs to change for women to be valued as sportspersons. My advice for aspiring female powerlifters is simple; this is a sport that puts you face to face with all your insecurities, face them! And when you do, you will come out stronger mentally, physically, and emotionally on the other side of it.” – Adhissha Dahanayaka, Powerlifting Champion

Be mentally and physically prepared to face consequences 
“I think I was born a performer. Nothing makes me happier than getting up on that stage and dancing my heart out. It is what I have worked towards my whole life! So that would have to be the most satisfying thing about being a dancer. I get to perform! I get to do what I love to do with no inhibitions. I get to be myself and just get lost in myself when I perform and there is no greater feeling than that for me.  
Many artists have lost their jobs during this time. Not just dancers but all artists. It has greatly affected the ritual dancers and drummers who earned their living through performing the ritual, performing in the processions. The mask-makers, the drum makers, the pandal makers whose work is a part of this whole cycle have also been badly affected. So many have had to start looking for alternate options to earn. Teaching these art forms have become an even greater challenge, posing a threat to its continuation. Art forms like these cannot be learnt online. It takes time, practice and experience to master these to perfection. There are many theatre artists who are exploring alternate performance options. Like creating outdoor performance spaces, performing to a more concentrated audience, are some of which I have personally connected with. But I feel actively helping and finding solutions to the problems these artists are facing should be given national importance considering they are the heirs to the indigenous art forms of our island.    
I think as females we have many great female dancers/artists before us in Sri Lanka who can inspire. But it’s not just about inspiration. It’s not about being a female or a male in our industry. Learning, practising and performing a traditional or classical art form requires a lot of commitment, strength and will. You will face many downhills along the way depending on the way you choose to earn from it. So if you are not mentally and physically prepared to face those consequences then one should not tread the path to become a professional artist, especially in a country like Sri Lanka.” – Thaji Dias, Principal Dancer, Chitrasena Dance Company

Volunteerism should be in everybody’s thinking 
“Most challenging is to let people especially men understand why peace is important. The work I do is most satisfying as it involves women of all walks of life, be it urban, rural, educated, not so affluent, have and have nots. But what is amazing is that they all have similar issues when it comes to gender-based violence or cultural or religious barriers. Volunteerism should be in everybody’s thinking and activism needs to be inculcated in young minds.” – Dr Dayani Panagoda, Policy specialist and activist in social cohesion, peacebuilding and reconciliation 

Be well prepared 
“Know what it is you want to achieve and prepare for it accordingly so that you have the correct skill sets to get the job done. This goes for both women and men but a woman needs to ensure more so that she has equipped herself with what will be needed to do the chosen field of work because it may not be something that she is automatically trained on.  In my field of Wildlife Research for Conservation, this holds even more so, as it is not the usual field one would think to venture into and this kind of work requires multiple skills that may not be called for in other jobs.  So it is important to be well prepared always. This in turn will give you the confidence to get out there and follow through. Being well prepared will also limit the challenges you will face as you will be able to deal with them and so not view it as a negative challenge but as positive learning”. -  Anjali Watson, Ecologist and Managing Trustee, Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust



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