As Sri Lanka navigates a historic economic crisis, we spoke with Nadee Gunaratne of WILPF Sri Lanka to learn more about the situation and how the Group is advocating for a better future for a country in turmoil.
In the wake of decades of financial mismanagement by successive Sri Lankan governments, the country is now in the grips of a historic economic crisis.
For the first time since Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, it has defaulted on an estimated $50 billion in foreign loans. The crisis has led to cascading impacts across society, including record inflation and unemployment, power outages, and lack of access to basic necessities like food, fuel, and medicine.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now seeking emergency funds from the IMF, World Bank, and other lenders. He has also recently agreed to appoint a council made up of all parties in Parliament to lead the formation of a new interim government – a move that will dismantle the Rajapaska family’s long-time authoritarian-style control over the country.
To better understand how the crisis is impacting Sri Lankans, we spoke with Nadee Gunaratne of WILPF Sri Lanka – a Group that first formed in 1953 and was revived in 2018. As Nadee shares, WILPF Sri Lanka is actively working to engage Sri Lankans in activism and bring forward solutions for reform – all while revisiting their priorities to advance feminist peace in a rapidly changing context.
Q: How is Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis impacting the lives and livelihoods of Sri Lankans?
A: It’s important to know that this economic crisis did not begin just two or three years ago in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a direct result of 35 years of ineffective governments failing to address the needs of the people and not acting on time, which has led to the crisis we’re experiencing today.
Now, everyone’s day-to-day life has been interrupted. People cannot afford basic necessities, including food or gas to drive their cars; electricity is constantly cutting out; and those with any sort of debt are struggling tremendously to make payments. People are losing their jobs and children are going hungry and cannot sleep.
Ironically, the crisis is impacting many people’s ability to take action for change. Community members who would normally be interested in volunteering with action groups like WILPF Sri Lanka are instead focused on finding work and surviving.
Q: How is WILPF Sri Lanka working to address the impacts of the crisis?
A: We have a constitutional reform committee which is working on various advocacy projects, including helping the public become better informed about the changes that need to be made at the constitutional level.
We are also working to encourage people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds to take action by speaking out and getting involved with protests. We’ve noticed that many people impacted by poverty, as well as young people, are not participating as much as others – either due to lack of awareness or because they are busy working – so we are hoping to change that.
We’re also considering launching a project examining Sri Lanka’s economy and current crisis through a feminist lens to see if we can establish evidence-based recommendations for moving forward.
Q: How has the crisis changed WILPF Sri Lanka’s priorities? How is the Group adjusting its focus areas and work strategies in the face of this crisis, if at all?
A: Previously, we were very focused on priorities like women’s empowerment, preventing hate speech and sexual harassment, and conducting research into issues like small arms and domestic violence.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we also focused heavily on providing psychological support to people whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19 – particularly school children, casual workers such as domestic helpers, and employees within the tourism industry, as well as people living in rural and remote communities.
Now, as the economic crisis worsens, we need to reassess our priorities and decide how our focus areas need to change. We know that we want to pursue a project on economic analysis, as I mentioned earlier, and enhance public participation in action and advocacy around constitutional reform.
We are also developing new strategies for conducting effective advocacy and raising awareness about democracy, the rule of law, and other issues that directly impact people’s lives and futures.
Q: What can people within and outside of Sri Lanka do to help the situation?
A: The government needs to hear people’s voices. It’s not enough to simply protest; we must offer sustainable, strategy-driven solutions that will address people’s needs and hold the government accountable for the damage they have caused through years of neglect and failure to act.
One powerful way to do this is to use social media. People inside and outside Sri Lanka can put pressure on the government by speaking out about the impacts of the crisis and advocating for solutions.
And for people inside Sri Lanka, finding ways to get involved with protests – whether that means showing up to protests or simply raising awareness of protests taking place – will help make a difference by letting the government know we won’t back down until changes are made.
Q: WILPF Sri Lanka just started up again in 2018. Can you share some of the projects or impacts you’re most proud of from the past few years?
A: We have been really active over the past few years and our work has been very strategic and methodical. As I mentioned earlier, much of our work during the pandemic has focused on community healing and care, but we’ve also been actively engaged in projects raising awareness of human trafficking and engaging young people in the cause of feminist peace.
On the research side, we have conducted studies exploring the role men can play in advancing feminist peace and the connection between small arms and domestic violence. And since the majority of our members are lawyers, we also regularly offer free legal advice and services to community members experiencing financial challenges.
We have also contributed to WILPF’s strategic work at the global level by engaging in the Future WILPF process and presenting at events and conferences.
Q: What’s next for WILPF Sri Lanka?
A: We hope to continue building on the work we have been doing over the past few years, but we also need to re-strategise and re-prioritise given the challenges presented by the economic crisis.
Everything has changed, so we will be reorienting ourselves to figure out how we can create the greatest impact for Sri Lankans and the future of our country going forward. That will likely include a focus on more economic empowerment work and constitutional reform advocacy, among other priorities.
We see that one of the main priorities is to advocate for authorities to include women and marginalised communities in economic crisis recovery strategies, and to encourage engagement of these groups in larger-scale export market-oriented economies to recover from the economic crisis.
Q: Do you feel hopeful for Sri Lanka’s future?
A: Despite all of the challenges we are facing, I truly believe there is nothing in life you cannot do.
I still believe the Sri Lankan people will be free if we respect each other and work together toward a better future. It will take time and strength, but there is always hope.