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A Global Icon: Melanie Janine Kanaka

By Hansathi Pallewatte

Everystory Sri Lanka presents the first thirty stories from our ongoing work to create a compendium of Sri Lankan women’s stories — featuring those whose lives, work, and experiences have shaped and are shaped by Sri Lanka’s social, political, and cultural contexts.


From the Stories of Sri Lankan Women Archive — Melanie Janine Kanaka




Determined. Passionate. Committed. Three words that Ms. Kanaka uses to describe herself that captures her personality perfectly. The first female outside of Europe elected Global Vice President of CIMA an Institute with a history of over a hundred years. Ms.Melanie Janine Kanaka, is a woman with a passion and an inspiration to all Sri Lankans in management accounting. Effective June 2021, she holds the prestigious office of Deputy President of The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.


Lesser known is that Mrs. Kanaka was a national swimmer during her youth, representing Sri Lanka in the 100 and 200-meter dolphin butterfly stroke. Here, she had the rare honor of officiating the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, USA. Born a twin with a congenital dysfunction, she started swimming only at the age of 9 but, at 12 years of age, broke expectations by becoming the first girl to swim the Ambalangoda two-mile sea swim — a notoriously all-male event. ‘Before I could go even 50 meters into the water’, she laughs, ‘the boys all overtook me.’ She remembers ‘the media photographers who had come to capture the event — took photographs of the lone female at the event and many write-ups were splashed in the Sinhala newspapers; Melanie Kanaka, the first female to swim the Ambalangoda sea swim.’


Her accolades in the water were acknowledged and appreciated by the selectors at Emory University- a top Business School in the USA — when as a Fulbroght Scholar she placed her application for a Masters before their esteem panel of selectors.. She was surprised when they pointed out to her that ‘[she] had agreed to swim a gruelling event in the unfamiliar seas of a far off rural town for which [she] did not expect any recognition, any accolades, nor any certificate.’ ‘They actually gave me a certificate with the ‘men’s event title cut off and written in pen ‘women,’ she recalls with a smile.


When asked to look back at her childhood, it is with a fond smile that Ms. Kanaka recalls her carefree and energetic childhood, which included ‘Brownie activities, elocution classes, the swimming lessons, climbing trees with my sibling, my brother, and the neighbors and riding bikes across the garden.’ Her experience doing sports at Bishop’s College, Colombo, taught her how to take a win and a loss — a lesson she finds invaluable through her career. ‘I think who you are today is actually a reflection of the experiences, exposure, and the circumstances you’ve gone through in the past, she says. She shares that her maternal grandma played a big role in her life growing up. ‘I remember lots of stories with her, playing Ludo or playing cards, or trying to cheat while playing cards and getting caught,’ she laughs, saying. Ms. . Kanaka does not fail to mention her Principal while at Bishop’s College, Ms. Jayasuriya, a spirited lady with a salt and pepper look and sporting a natural streak like that of the late Indira Gandhi. . I had the good fortune of studying Divinity with her in our school chapel and the stories that she shared were so practial that she made the Bibile come alive ‘She’d make the [divinity] class so interesting that some of those reflections are quite vivid even today.


She recalls her entrance into the world of Management Accounting (CIMA) as a university student when she was reading for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. ‘The four years [of university] actually ended up to be six years, she says, because of the JVP activities and the student unrest in 1987 and in 1989. . Nevertheless, she had finished her CIMA exams and subsequently secured a job as a management trainee at DFCC in 1989, all while being an undergraduate student. When asked if she would have done anything differently, Mrs. Kanaka is pragmatic in her reply that ‘in the context of the environment in Sri Lanka, in the mid 80’s and early 90’s , I doubt I would have done anything different. Because of the situation options were limited, and the avenues of opportunity and options were extremely limited’.


Ms. Kanaka’s journey within the CIMA is a long one, and one that consisted of highs and lows, but through it all she is most convinced that t ‘the comeback will always be greater than the setback’ as she describes her three decades of service. She was on the Vice President’s seat of the CIMA Sri Lanka Divisional Council in 2008 but faced a setback when the governance structures were changed. . Subsequently, with her elected entry to the newly formulated CIMA Sri Lanka Board s she soon realized the politicizing of the Board and opted to divert her energy and passion at a more global level. This was a natural transition since she had already been at CIMA for over two decades at the time and was already serving the profession as a Global Membership Accessor. Ms . Kanaka was elected to CIMA Council in 2013 from f South Asia. She was subsequently co-opted to the CIMA Council for her second term, given her contributions at numerous CIMA policy committees and her undoubted passion for the profession. . Before her second three-year term on Council was up, her peers on the Council identified her to be their Vice President nominee and she was subsequently elected to the position by the global membership of the Institute. . ‘Honest professionals will always recognize committed hard work, coupled with passion and patient perseverance, leaning on ethics and doing the right thing is fundamental,’ she advises, speaking from her experience.


Her pride in becoming the first Asian female Vice President of CIMA is apparent as she displays the badge of Office she received as Vice President — crafted and designed by the Queen’s jewelers themselves. ‘I’m the third female Vice President, but the very first outside of Europe, of the Chartered Institute of Global Management Accountants, she says, ‘and It with pride, and honour that I say that I brought this badge for the very first time to Sri Lanka, to my motherland.’


When asked about any resistance she faced from her peers while working at an international platform like CIMA global, primarily due to her cultural identification as a South Asian, Ms . Kanaka is quick to point out that internationally, people are more attuned to the diversity. of work. Diversity y and inclusion is a big piece and internationally it is something that is encouraged and appreciated. ‘Internationally, for any female, I can only say that boundaries are endless,’ she says, encouraging women to work towards their goals ‘without compromising your standards, values, and ethics.’


Ms Kanaka’s work ethic is admirable. A fearless advocate against bias, favoritism, and unfairness, she is proud to stand in solidarity with like-minded people who have stood against politicizing areas that never should be politicized. ‘That’s the lesson I have learned throughout my career, she says, is that ‘nothing is impossible’ and encourages young girls in Sri Lanka to ‘start putting your efforts no matter how small, because your commitment, your passion, your drive, and for doing the right thing; you will be recognized.’ She hopes for a future where gender disparity is erased, true diversity and inclusion are embraced, with people given their rightful place based on merit and society has the required strength and ability to oppose biasness and favoritism. Her mantra for success? Be determined. Be Passionate. Be Committed.




(Hansathi Pallewatte is an eighteen-year-old student on a gap year and is one of the youngest members of the Everystory Sri Lanka team. An avid speaker, reader, and debater, her loud opinions and unwavering dedication to proving her haters wrong often land her in a spot of trouble with her elders. She hopes to further her knowledge of women’s rights advocacy and international relations and pursue a degree in Law at the University of Cambridge come September 2021.)



Research Links:

  1. Melanie Kanaka — First Asian woman as Vice President of CIMA I Daily Mirror

  2. CIMA Global Council’s first Asian woman invited to serve a second term I Daily FT

  3. Sri Lankan Woman Creates History in Global Management Accounting Profession (lankabusinessnews.com)

Notes

This article is pending support to be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. Please email storiesofslwomen@everystorysl.org if you would like to support us with translations or if you have any questions.

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