Meet the brave young woman leading the charge to end violence against girls in Sri Lanka
Chamathya Fernando - Colombo, Sri Lanka
Global Goal 5: Gender Equality
Chamathya Fernando, a 23 year-old Girl Guide and student at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, has made it her mission to end violence against girls in Sri Lanka.
As Sri Lanka’s coordinator for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts’ (WAGGGS) Stop the Violence campaign, Chamathya works tirelessly to create a better world where all girls are safe, valued and empowered.
Chamathya recalls first becoming conscious of gender inequality from a young age:
“When my mother was younger, her brother was offered three different types of meat to eat for dinner. The girls just got one. In my grandparents’ opinion, he was their only son so he deserved to be treated differently – simply because he was a boy.
“As my mother recounted this story to me, I knew it was unfair and I realised with time that gender inequality is a deep-rooted issue that has been prevalent for many years.
“In Sri Lanka, in comparison to boys, girls are not equally valued or provided with equal opportunities. Girls are prevented from engaging in certain activities, unlike boys, who enjoy much more freedom in many aspects of life.”
The failure to value and respect girls is at the root of the alarming rates of violence against women and girls in Sri Lanka. An estimated 60% of women in Sri Lanka experience domestic violence and at least 12% of girls are married before the age of 18.
Violence and harassment is part of the daily reality for girls and women in Sri Lanka, both in the home and in public spaces.
“As a young woman in Sri Lanka, one of the worst experiences has to be using public transport. Girls face harassment on a daily basis while commuting on public transport and even when accessing public spaces. It’s at risk of becoming normalised in my country. Whether verbal or physical, sexual harassment is a violation of women’s rights.
“And violence against girls is not limited to harassment. Physical and sexual violence and harmful cultural and traditional practices still persist all across Sri Lanka.”
Chamathya’s experience as a Girl Guide has given her the skills and confidence to stand up against violence and it’s taught her that no challenge is too great.
“I first became involved in Girl Guiding when I was eight, and I am proud that I have continued to be involved in Girl Guiding through the years. It has really moulded my life – it has taught me to be independent and to believe from a young age that girls can do anything. My team is vibrant and inspiring. They support and motivate me to work on this issue, as it is something we all believe in.”
Chamathya wants to empower girls across the country to speak out and realise change is possible.
“Whenever we speak about violence, harassment, discrimination or inequality, society blames the culture of a community or country. People might put the blame on culture, but I believe it is the culture of silence, impunity, ignorance and acceptance that makes victims silent and not take action,” she says.
“I want to change this culture of silence. I want girls and women to realise they are allowed to have a voice, share their experiences and speak up for their rights.”
One way in which Chamathya is encouraging others to speak up is through her role as National Trainer for the Voices Against Violence programme, part of the Stop the Violence campaign. In 2013, in partnership with UN Women, WAGGGS developed Voices Against Violence – a non-formal educational curriculum to help children and young people explore the root causes of violence against women and girls and challenge gender stereotypes.
‘’This programme helps children and young people to learn about violence, understand their rights and develop skills. It also gives them the confidence to speak out and take action against discrimination in their own lives and lives of others,” Chamathya explains.
The Voices Against Violence programme can be used with both boys and girls, something Chamathya feels is important, while both boys and girls are involved in delivering the project.
“If change is to happen, boys and men must be included. There’s no point in just addressing half the population and neglecting the rest. As much as we educate girls about human rights, gender equality and standing up against violence, boys should be educated on those topics as well.’’
In her role as coordinator of Sri Lanka’s Stop the Violence campaign, Chamathya has led workshops on gender-based violence across the country. She has trained educators who have gone on to work in each of the 25 districts of Sri Lanka and, to date, Chamathya and her team have reached nearly 10,000 young people with educational sessions on gender-based violence and how to take action.
Chamathya also actively works to raise awareness about violence among the general public. She has organized rallies around railway and bus stations and worked with bus drivers to make them more sensitive to violence and harassment. She’s also appeared on local and national TV stations and even organized an event in Parliament on the issues faced by girls and young women in Sri Lanka.
“Strides are being made and the Girl Guides Association here in Sri Lanka is doing all it can to change attitudes and breakdown stereotypes so girls can enjoy their rightful place in society – and that includes at the highest decision-making level. We have worked together and we are now able to see the impact of our collective efforts and hard work over the years."
As the world gears up to mark the International Day of the Girl on October 11, there’s never been a better time for Chamathya and her fellow Girl Guides to make their voices heard.
“On the International Day of the Girl, the world must recognise the importance of girls’ voices and ensure their issues are being heard and taken into account at all levels of decision-making.
“Why? When girls and women are empowered, they not only change their lives, they change the lives of their peers, their communities and their countries. It means a better world for all of us.”
Girls like Chamathya around the world are working on projects to change their worlds, one step at a time.
Make a start on your own project to make a change in your community with the #TeamGirl challenge
Projects like Stop the Violence would not be possible without the support you can provide. Join #TeamGirl and help fund the change.