Challenging Patriarchy, Stigma and Violence in Sri Lankan Schools

Senel Wanniarachchi, Sri Lanka’s Official Youth Delegate to the United Nations discusses the need to address structural barriers preventing women and girls from accessing high-quality learning opportunities.

22 years ago, I was born to a Buddhist mother and a Christian father in our tiny island which was scarred by a bloody war for over 3 decades: a war between constantly changing governments and separatist rebels. My sister and I saw our father leave home to fight a battle of which we were too young to understand the cause or effect. Even though she tried to wear a mask of complaisance before us, I saw the fear in my mother’s eyes. As we stayed at the army housing apartments, we saw how kids we played cricket with in the evenings lose their fathers and wives lost their husbands. Even though we never spoke about it, we lived with the fear that, we too might lose our father. We learned to live with that feeling. That moulded a significant of portion of who I am and what I want to do in life.

I always believed that if you need to change a people, you can only do it through education.

Education should be used as a tool for promoting civic mindedness and social consciousness. We need to help students understand that this is their country and they are not mere spectators and that we all should have a stake on how this country is run. Education should be used to instil values of coexistence and mutual respect in children.

In this palpably patriarchal world, with unequal power relationships between men and women, my mother fought a lonely battle to raise my sister and I, all by herself. She raised us to believe that there is nothing in this world that passion and hard work can’t achieve.

But women and girls around the world face many structural barriers that prevent them from achieving their full potential. This is why we need to rethink the way we look at structural dominance and power relations in our societies.

While many countries in the region are focusing on the need to improve education access for girls, Sri Lanka is facing a reverse situation where girls are actually performing better than the boys. But while we celebrate these sign posts of progress there is still a long road ahead.

Growing up could be an awful lot confusing especially with all the changes happening to you physically and socially. This is why we need comprehensive sexuality education at all levels so our students don’t have to turn to their peers or the internet for help. Either could end up terribly wrong.

Growing up could be an awful lot confusing especially with all the changes happening to you physically and socially. This is why we need comprehensive sexuality education at all levels so our students don’t have to turn to their peers or the internet for help. Either could end up terribly wrong.

Even though government spending on education has been increasing as a figure, it has kept decreasing as a percentage of the Sri Lankan GDP. This needs to change (and soon). Investing in education is investing in our future. A smarter Sri Lanka is a brighter Sri Lanka. And we are simply not investing enough. In fact this was one of the recommendations in the Colombo declaration on youth which was the outcome document of the World Conference on Youth as well. Of course as much as how much is spent, we also need to look at how we could spend the existing funds more efficiently as well.

On the 3rd of February 2008, 7 students of my school and their baseball coach were killed at a suicide attack at the Fort Railway Station in Colombo.  The students were returning home, having finished their club matches in Kandy.  While the city was readying itself for the 60th Independence Day Celebrations, a female suicide bomber of the Black Tigers Wing of the LTTE; slowly got down from the train and blasted herself during rush hour on Platform 3. Kolitha, Radeeshwaran, Supun, Dinuth, Thiwanka, Eranga and Mr. Malinda didn’t die for a war they started.

Even though government spending on education has been increasing as a figure, it has kept decreasing as a percentage of the Sri Lankan GDP. This needs to change (and soon). Investing in education is investing in our future. A smarter Sri Lanka is a brighter Sri Lanka. 

We need an education system that reminds our children that we lost some of the smartest and brightest minds of this country to a war that could have been avoided. We need to remember that many good men and women died for our safety and that we need to do everything within our power to preserve that freedom.

The young people of Sri Lanka are emerging from a war that was fought for far too long, we understand the power we have to change our lives and to change the world, we are a resilient people and we are determined to take our energy, innovation and creativity and ambitious idealism to strive to find solutions to our common problems. Together, we can make it happen.

Bio: Senel Wanniarachchi is Sri Lanka’s Official Youth Delegate to the United Nations. He is columnist to several newspapers and blogs. Senel is a Senator in the Sri Lanka Youth Parliament & was a member of the International Youth Task Force of the World Conference on Youth 2014. He was named a ‘Global Changemaker’ by the British Council and a Commonwealth Changemaker’ by the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council. He is an Ambassador for Young Men for Gender Equality & is a Champion of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. He is passionate about social & new media and is always seen scrolling down his twitter feed @Senel_W.