An International Women’s Day reflection on female Sri Lankan diaspora abroad

The interview is with Kala Sriranjan who is a writer, educator and social activist based in the UK where she recalls her memories of Sri Lanka and explains her educational backdrop and her work with children and different communities in her adopted country. Kala Sriranjan is known as a women’s activist in the UK, working for the cause of both women and children and this interview is especially carried to mark international women’s day falling on 8 March.

Q: How long ago have you left Sri Lanka and what was the background that caused you to leave Sri Lanka?

I left SriLanka 32 years ago to join my brother’s family in the UK. It was a time when the socio-political situation in our motherland was not great and educational options in Jaffna remained limited. Therefore, I moved to my uncle’s residence in Colombo to finish my Advanced Level, after which I decided to further my study.

My childhood was full of challenges due to losing my mother, a teacher in Negombo and Kachchai – Kodikamam, in a motorbike accident in Jaffna when I was very young. After that painful tragedy, a traumatic incident, many personal social circumstances led me to believe that reuniting with my brother’s family in the UK would benefit my future.

Q: What is your home town in Sri Lanka and what are your memories growing up there as a child?

Kodikamam, a charming village in Jaffna with many sweet mango trees, delicious jackfruit trees and other natural resources, is my hometown. We had a great time growing up with the blessings of nature. 

Before relocating to Kodikamam, I lived for over eight years in Negombo, where my father had a business and my mother was a teacher. I don’t need to tell you that Negombo is known for its stunning beaches and soothing sea wind.

We mingled with many diverse communities in Negombo and the society was knitted by different races and religions together harmoniously. I began my first formal education in a small Sinhalese Catholic convent. In Negombo, we celebrated all festivals and exchanged food, gifts, and positive thoughts with our neighbourhood. That is one of the most fantastic memories I had about my childhood.

Q: Have you travelled to other parts of Sri Lanka as a child and what are your memories pertaining to these areas

I have toured Mannar, Nuwara Eliya and Anuradhapura with my parents, who had many friends in every community in Sri Lanka. My parents instilled a sense of humanity that transcends race, religion, and language. I believe it is because of their upbringing that I am still able to maintain a character in which I do not lose as much self-esteem as possible in any vulnerable position.

As a mother and a teacher, I teach and nurture the same values to my kids at home and school in the United Kingdom.

My uncle, Mr. Shanmugalingam, the Coordinating Secretary to the-President Premadasa, kindly reunited me with his family a year after my mum’s death. During that time, I had the opportunity to study for a year at Wellawatte Hindu Ladies College (1981). I also had the opportunity to travel with his family members to various parts of southern Sri Lanka while attending the opening ceremonies of the President’s New Village Development Scheme (Gammuthava). Those were the best times of my life. Those were the days when we could speak freely and exchange our beliefs with people of all races and ethnicities.

After completing two years of primary school at Kachai Maha Vidyalaya (a small, picturesque coastal village neighbouring Kodikamam) and higher education at Chavakachcheri Hindu College, I spent another year in Wellawatta with my uncle’s family (1988). During that time, I visited Kandy for my teacher training interview and it was a pleasant experience too. However, I left Sri Lanka before I started my career.

Q: Could you explain your professional line of work, qualifications and expertise?

When I first arrived in the United Kingdom, I had to hunt for part-time work in various sectors, but my ultimate goal was to be a teacher, nurse or lawyer who could serve society.

Meanwhile, I started my married life and then had a six-month-old infant. So, thinking of starting my degree made my life quite challenging. However, I still believed that completing a bachelor’s degree would serve as a stepping stone. On the other hand, my brother was a strong supporter of this decision. Somehow, I completed a degree at the University of London, South Bank, combining Health and Sociology in 1997. The degree was known as a BSc (Combined Hons) in Health Sciences with Social Sciences.

After completing my degree, I decided to learn about the UK’s laws, disciplines, and privileges associated with education. I was elected twice as a parent governor at my son’s school, allowing me to have in-depth knowledge of primary education for six years (1998-2004).

At the same time, despite having a degree from the United Kingdom, teacher training is legally required to be taken separately. However, I believed I couldn’t handle the rigorous teacher training and family responsibilities at the same time.

As a result, I took a job as a Care Manager in an English nursing home for the elderly and during that time, I earned a management diploma and NVQ 4, which was compulsory for all the Care Managers. As a result, I learned about many legal issues concerning the nation’s social welfare and the social constructs of the English way of life that enabled my integration into the community.

I crafted my knowledge and skills in the health sector during those 10 years and turned them into publishing a health promotion book in 2004. I think it benefited many Tamils who were not aware of specific health services available at the time. It was especially beneficial to the female Tamil diaspora social, personal and physical well-being. The doctors recommended my health promotion book at their clinics, and some of the libraries took them for their Tamil readers.

I eventually began writing articles for a number of local Tamil newspapers. I joined online forums to discuss children’s education, well-being and the Safeguarding and Child Protection Act. I also discussed the struggles of women, such as gaining women’s rights, domestic violence and psychological aspects of their lives and the importance of maintaining their physical and mental health.

As I always have a passion for writing, when I had time after a long day at school, I began writing short stories about various community issues and challenges faced by women and children. This week, a small collection of the stories was published recently in South India. It just reached the Chennai Book fair 2022 successfully.

Q: What is the situation like in London pertaining to the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora?

Even though Sri Lankan Tamils have found employment in the financial and medical fields since the 1970s, many Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers look for emotional and practical support from community centres and charities. These centres, which provide financial advice, legal aid, free meals, English lessons and counselling, are funded by donations, volunteers and council grant programmes. 

However, despite growing demand for their services over the past several years there are challenges pertaining to financial support to the centres that steer this work. 

Q: Do you have any friends in the Sinhala diaspora?

I have many Sinhala family friends here in Britain and in other countries like Canada. It is pleasant to share my thoughts with them. Sharing my thoughts and ideas with them, especially on women’s struggles in general, helps both sides get to know each other.

In my experience, unfortunately, despite the differences in race, religion and language, a woman’s personal, social and economic problems remain the same.

Q: Could you describe your work with Tamil and Sinhala diaspora in general in working especially on children and women issues?

As a social activist, I frequently meet women facing various challenges. I try to assist them as much as I can by explaining the services they should seek and directing them to the appropriate departments. Often, I was able to assist them at the right time, thanks to the assistance of social workers and welfare officers in this country, who guided me down the right path and directed me to take them to the appropriate services.

As a teacher, I have been meeting many Diaspora Sri Lankan mothers at school. Recently, I have been working with many women’s organisations through online forums to learn about the challenges for Diaspora women here and women of all races in Sri Lanka. Talking to them and listening to their struggles give them some emotional comfort. Also, through a Tamil community school, I find teaching Tamil to some Sinhala children on zoom who want to speak Tamil very exciting.

Without a doubt, speaking another language enhances understanding the people who speak that language. Therefore, I respect these Sinhalese parents who let their children learn to speak Tamil. There are also Tamils who also encourage their children to learn Sinhala

I had written an article on Facebook about their noble minds and their great thoughts on racial harmony.

Q: Among women migrants from Sri Lanka what are the key vulnerabilities?

Diaspora women are affected in many ways due to their inability to cope with cultural shocks that result in them emerging out of their familiar social structure. Lack of interest in developing adequate language knowledge also seems to be a significant setback for these women.

Many women lifted each other during serious life challenges without losing their self-confidence and have progressed economically and academically but even though many Diaspora women are highly skilled and educated, they face barriers to accessing foreign labour markets.

Not knowing the country’s legal services and the lack of awareness about women’s rights lead these women to many troubles.

Q: There are many government ministries across the world dedicated to women. In your view is this sufficient? 

Women’s economic empowerment seems essential in achieving gender equality and women’s rights. Women’s economic empowerment means the increased voice of women, meaningful participation in financial decision-making at all levels, from their household to international bodies, equal access to and control over productive resources, decent jobs, and management of their own time, healthy lives, and bodies. Of course, in today’s context, what is needed is an organisation that works towards gender equality for women rather than having a women’s ministry.

Q: Nordic countries seem far ahead in women’s equality when compared to other countries. Your comments?

 I agree that gender equality and women’s rights in Nordic countries are higher than in other countries. According to the research, the Nordic region is globally famous for gender equality. Mainly the public sector seems to focus more on what everyone can do instead of looking at the gender differences.

We could also observe significant improvement in the public sector; women now outnumber males in management positions in Sweden. In politics, women account for 46% of parliament members in Sweden, compared to roughly 40% in other Nordic nations (BBC Worklife, September 2019).

However, there is an argument that men in these countries continue to be better paid because of a higher value placed on management positions and in specific sectors, such as technology and science that are “male-gendered,” as opposed to “female-gendered” jobs focused on caregiving. As a result, men who enter “male-gendered” fields such as preschool teaching or nursing typically find it easier to advance in their careers than women who enter “female-gendered” areas. We could see how strong patriarchy is in Nordic countries as well.