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Volunteers Abroad

Fighting for Gender Equality in Sri Lanka

Back in March when I first started to consider what to do for my summer vacation I thought of AIESEC. The next choice I had to make was what project and country I wanted to go to. What was most important to me was the choice of what United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) I wanted to contribute to. The two who came to my mind was SDG 5 on gender equality and SDG 13 about climate action. In the end, I chose to work on a project for women empowerment in Sri Lanka where I would soon learn that the work was highly needed. My final choice came down to what can best be summarized by this quote from Kofi Annan, 7th UN Secretary-General: “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”

A group photo from one of our awareness sessions at a school

Over the last month, I have gained a level of insight into the Sri Lankan culture and how it is to be a woman in Sri Lanka. To some extent, more than I might have imagined from home. I traveled in South and South East Asia before and therefore expected to have a pretty good idea about this part of the world since it would not be my first cultural exchange to this part of the world. To be honest, there were just as many differences as there were similarities. I knew coming to Sri Lanka to work on a project for women empowerment would be ambitious but then, on the other hand, I knew that it is exactly what AIESEC’s platform is all about. A platform for young people to explore and develop their leadership potential through a model that seeks to prepare you to take a stand for what you care about while making a difference through everyday actions. My choice of SDG was also made out from this passion for women empowerment which I would soon find out that I care more about than I even thought at first.

A Sri Lankan girl expressing what she really really want

We have done a long list of interviews to understand what it is like to be a woman in Sri Lanka. Sunali Fernando who is a journalist and study gender issues taught me about the factors affecting gender equality in Sri Lanka. The part of the lecture that made the biggest impact on me was her story of the workshop named ‘If I were a boy’, where she had told young girls to write down how their lives would be if they were a boy. One wrote that if she was a boy she would be free as a bird. This turned out not to be the only time I encountered that a Sri Lankan girl expressed that she wanted to be free as a bird. I experienced the same at an awareness session we had with some youngsters at a local school. We did a session of #WhatIReallyReallyWant. The hashtag comes from the UN campaign to promote SDG 5 on gender equality where the Spice Girls song “Wannabe” have been made into a music video with the message of girl power. The question is, what do girls want? What do they really, really want? One of the girls said: “Women should have freedom, like a free bird.” This genuine desire for freedom had me both by surprise and yet I had already started to notice this lack of freedom during my work with AIESEC. An example hereof is how I in Sri Lanka have gained more male friends than I have at home. Inviting local guys and girls we meet through AIESEC to join us for a dinner or a drink will result in only the guys to join. Many of the girls we have worked with are not allowed to go out or travel without their family after dark due to lack of safety for them. An issue we were made aware of again and again in our interviews. The lack of security for women in Sri Lanka results in a lack of freedom. What Sri Lankan girls really want is considered a basic human right according to the UN charter of human rights: “You have the right to live, to be free and to feel safe.” I have now truly understood how limiting lack of safety can be and only been inspired to fight and stand up for the women who do not have that right. Your sex should not limit your ability to feel free like a bird.

Entrepreneur Dunilsha Hewage we interviewed on how to empower women

As we learned that the lack of freedom is a result of lack of safety for women and girls we set out to understand how this barrier for women empowerment could be challenged. The answer we got each time was education and upbringing. Entrepreneur Dunilsha Hewage brought school segregation to my attention. In Sri Lanka, most schools are sex-segregated into boy and girls’ schools and the mixed schools that we visited we still experienced a clear division of the sexes during classes. Dunilsha told us that schools are segregated because of safety. Only the boys are given sex education, which leads to an unsafe environment. The culture was also highlighted both by her and others as an issue when it comes to respect for women and to prevent sexual harassment. She herself had chosen to boycott shorts because as she expressed it “I don’t have time to get catcalled every 10 seconds.”


We experienced the lack of safety first hand when in Kandy for the famous Buddhist festival Esala Perahera. The crowd was larger than any Beyoncé concert and that says a lot. Families had gathered since dawn on the sidewalk with umbrellas as shadows for the sun seating to make sure to have a prime seat. We came an hour before it would start and ended up in one of the large crowds. As the parade started to come closer to our spot the crowd also grew and more came to see the parade and get as close as possible. I and one of the girls from Spain were standing together where she kept being sexually harassed by two men a bit from us creating an offensive environment in the middle of the largest religious festival in Sri Lanka. I kept feeling a hand on my ass or one sliding down my thigh as I kept trying to move as much as possible away in the crowd, but it did not matter. One of the other girls used her umbrella to punch backward toward a man who thought it was ok to grind his crotch up against her. We soon had to remove ourselves from the crowd, and as we left we realized how the crowd had become a crowd of men. Because as everyone has told us, it is not safe to go outside at night. This contributed to my acknowledgment of that what I really really want is for every girl to feel safe. The awareness sessions we have done is one way to change the culture and a way to do a cultural exchange. A successful female bank manager, Nelum Wasala, said to us: “You contribute to society through empowerment.” And as the leader of the MJF Foundation in Moratuwa explained us about safety in Sri Lanka was that it is changing but slowly, and she said something extremely valuable. She chooses to work with the mindset of her staff every day through communication and challenging gender norms for them to be able to teach the kids who come to the foundation and their families about how to break out of the conservative way of thinking of things as just the culture.

Cactus from China enthusiastically talking about Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign

It was also during my time with the MJF Foundation that I had one of the most inspiring moments of my time in Sri Lanka. Not only because of the leader of the foundation in Moratuwa but also because the cultural exchange we had in one of our awareness sessions with women our own age and until their forties. At first, we had not been told the age group and our presentation was made for creating awareness about women empowerment for a much younger crowd. So, when the age range was finally revealed to us right before our presentation and workshop I got scared. Scared how I should talk women empowerment with women also older than me. If they would find me young and out of place to talk with them and present my ideas of women empowerment. But as we quickly adapted to the situation and ended up having one of the best sessions I learned how I handle pressure. I panic for a moment and then my brain starts to come up with solutions. We adapted in the moment and as we exchanged our experience in Sri Lanka of life as a woman from our interviews and started to ask for their opinion and experience, they were interested in sharing. As we were sharing anecdotes from our respective countries concerning the different topics ranging from marriage, work, maternity leave and upbringing to sex education and rape culture there was nodding, laughter, and sharing of opinions. When we discussed work life a woman said she would have liked to go directly back to work after her maternity leave because it would be better for the family economically and to be a role model for her children if there had just been better daycare and pre-school for her to place her children. In that moment, I found common ground with a Sri Lankan woman despite cultural differences.

My experiences in Sri Lanka with AIESEC have only confirmed me in the importance of women empowerment and how truly passionate I am about ensuring gender equality. As a Danish woman, I have the capacity to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes, and I will continue to use that power, freedom, and independence to raise my voice for other who have not been given the same opportunities as I. AIESEC place their confidence in youth as the key to unlock a better future because of the passion and entrepreneurial spirit needed to shape the world. We can only change the world if both women and men, boys and girls have the same rights and opportunities across all the sectors of society and around the world. Or as lawyer and former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama put it: “As a woman, we must stand up for ourselves. We must stand for each other. We must stand for justice for all.”

Written by
Elisabeth Dencker Løwe Jacobsen
Elisabeth will start her MSc studies in International Business and Politics at Copenhagen Business School after the summer. But first, she has chosen to go abroad with AIESEC to Colombo north in Sri Lanka to understand how to empower women and support the fifth UN development goal.