Students Without Borders is a WUSC and CECI program that enables Canadian university and college students to participate in exciting, volunteer learning opportunities in South America, Africa, and Asia.

Celebrating International Women’s Day (and 181 Days) in Sri Lanka!

March 8, 2017

A few weekends ago, while I was having dinner with a couple of fellow SWBs, I realized that I’d passed the halfway point of my mandate here in Sri Lanka. Admittedly, I had miscalculated, marking my midway on my Google Calendar in March instead of February! Thank goodness for people with good counting skills in my life.

Prior to coming to Sri Lanka, I had promised myself  to write a post to the SWB blog when I reached my midpoint. Here I am now. There’s a lot, of course, that’s happened over the span of six months, or 181 days to be exact. Quantifying my time here in exact terms makes for an interesting point for reflection. Today also happens to be International Women’s Day. I’ll do my best to fuse what today represents to me, alongside my personal reflections. But before this, in case you need some context on my role or who I am, check out my first and introductory post to the SWB blog here.

When I think about what #IWD2017and this year’s theme of #BeBoldForChangeand what it means to me, especially in the context of Sri Lanka, a lot comes to mind. Obstacles to gender equality is of course not exclusive to women and girls in Sri Lanka – it is a universal challenge that impacts all women. However, we need to recognize that there are differences in effects depending on your racial and socioeconomic background, so intersectional feminism is a framework that I find of utmost importance in discussions for the way(s) forward.

Overtime, I’ve had an increasing number of conversations about gender issues in Sri Lanka from young women, mothers, women from various ethnic and religious groups. I’ve heard stories about my fellow sisters facing sexual harassment or on the harmful expectations as to what it means to be a woman in present day Sri Lanka. I, myself, have also faced challenges in the public sphere. Regardless of one’s background, whether you’re a woman from the West or East, whether your rich or poor, every women deserves the respect and right not to be harmed – verbally, physically, sexually – period.

I think the first step for change, as with any societal issue, is to have spaces and opportunities for meaningful dialogue. As cliché as it sounds, change doesn’t happen overnight. I think it takes great courage and boldness, just as my friends have done, to share such personal stories and speak out about the impacts. In a context in which Asian women are hyper-feminized, and where it’s a taboo in itself to speak out on personal issues (which is often the case in the majority of Asian households, mine included), I try not to take it lightly, or the knowledge shared for granted, when someone has shared a piece of their narrative with me.

It is also promising to me to see that issues like sexual and gender based violence be put on the agenda  or launch of a public advocacy campaign during my time here. Whether there will be substantive change, or how long until there are improvements, I’m unsure, but it’s a step in the right direction. For now, in celebration of making it to 181 days in Sri Lanka and International Women’s Day 2017, I want to take time to highlight a couple of positive efforts that I’ve had the opportunity to participate as well as learned more about during my time here.

If you’ve read any of my personal blog posts, you know that I absolutely love to let photos tell most of the story, so here are a few to highlight some empowering moments for me in Sri Lanka:

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My colleague Shiroma and I posing with “thumbs up” cus we like this campagin

Today, I went to a local event commemorating #IWD 2017! I was so thrilled to see this street harassment advocacy campaign banner, as mentioned earlier, on the side of this public bus. I’m also dawning the red and supported local women entrepreneurs with my purchases today – my actions of solidarity – as I was unable to fully participate in A Day Without a Woman. Nevertheless, seeing this type of message in the public brings me a lot of hope and smiles.

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Me dancing on the bus, all smiles

4:30am wake-up call to attend my workplace’s organized annual trip for 250+ women entrepreneurs and members of our microcredit program. We packed six busses, to journey to three temples in the span of 18 hours. The buses we took became a place of safety and freedom for the participants, who danced their butts off for most of the time there and back. Empowering? Heck yes. FYI, I joined in too.

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Some of the lovely performers and I posing after the show

One of our program areas celebrated their 10-year anniversary with cultural performance and skits – all characters were played by women. I loved how comfortable they were in their roles and how much joy it brought them to take on a different persona, including the opposite sex. Awesome!

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Group selfie with staff members

Celebrating New Year’s at work was a lot of fun. Everyone got to dress up and contribute to the potluck lunch. Although this picture wasn’t the most perfect photo taken from the day, I loved how happy everyone is in the photo. I am also reminded of how hardworking and hilarious my colleagues are – we honestly drop way too many jokes in the office. Aiyoooo!

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#StreetsforUs presenting at the show

The British Council in Colombo hosted an evening to preview some performances with feminists to preview their upcoming Women of the World Conference Colombo down the road. Not only did I get to see some superb acts – ranging from poets, comedics, singers – it was also exciting to personally know the individuals who had the opportunity to curate the lineup. Please check out #StreetsforUs on Insta (they’re ft. in this photo), who also performed on that evening.

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Me alongside other WUSC interns at the event

As a major International Development student nerd, I was more than ecstatic to pose with the SDGs, including #5! This followed an event hosted by the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) in Sri Lanka, which celebrated volunteerism in SL. I’ll always stand by the importance of strong volunteerism. Volunteers are the ?  of our communities.

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Me alongside SWBs and WUSC interns at the event

Female political representation needs to improve worldwide. Relating to what I mentioned earlier about the need for spaces for dialogue, #FemParl, provided that opportunity for young women and allies to talk about political engagement and participation. It was refreshing to have conversations with the individuals and organizations I met that day #YesWeCan #YesSheCan #YAMU #LETSGO

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How to celebrate reaching the top – a selfie of course

Finally, probably the biggest personal moment of empowerment for me was reaching the summit of Adam’s Peak/Sri Pada. Started from the bottom at 2 am, reaching the top for sunrise around 5am. It was a mental challenge more than anything to get through the pain and fatigue I felt, but absolutely worth it. 

After writing these words, I am honestly filled with so much gratitude. I am also pinching myself, thinking, is this real life right now? Is this my life right now? Has all of these moments actually happened for me? They actually have. So I want to take a moment to thank all my support system – friends and family – for helping me get to this point. And a big cheers to 181 days and to many more moments like these in my remaining 145 (or so) days in Sri Lanka!

Follow my journey on my personal Instagram/Twitter @lindahuyenbui or blog.