A Voice for the Voiceless: Chamila Thushari
By Shyama Basnayake
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 — Chamila Thushari
Illustration by Piyahasie Sangabo- email@example.com
Chamila Thushari is one of the leading activists from the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (FTZ) and a part of the Dabindu Collective. Established first as a newspaper in 1984, this workers’ collective trains and raises the awareness of women working in the FTZ, where labour rights violations are rampant. Dabindu supports women in labour rights cases against factory management. The collective works primarily with women garment workers and engages in some international advocacy towards clothing brands. This is a woman committed to uplift the lives of one of the most marginalized groups in our country; the women working in our garment factories.
“Once, a woman (worker) wrote a poem called ‘Jeewithaya’ (life) for Dabindu Newspaper. In it, she says that she hasn’t seen the sun because she leaves to work at dawn, returning home only at night. She further declares that one day she just might fall dead at the sewing machine. The worker was fired upon its publication, and Dabindu and other organizations launched a major intervention — and the matter was even recorded in Hansard. The worker got her job back along with the missed salaries!” she recalls.
From childhood to adulthood, Chamila’s life has been an ongoing struggle to secure rights for these workers’ who hardly even know they have any. Her parents were pioneers of the workers’ rights movement in the FTZ (Industrial Park in Ekala) during the late 70s and the 80s. She and her three siblings grew up in a household that doubled as an operation center for workers and activists. Her father was working in the Ja-Ela Commercial and Mercantile Union at the time and later as a counsel in a Legal Advice Centre.
After returning from school, she recalls having to enter the kitchen through the backdoor and wait outdoors, playing, to not disrupt the meeting or the poster-drawing that was taking place inside the house. Her parents were instrumental in organizing significant strikes in the 1980s. It was not an easy childhood. It was a chaotic time in the country, and she remembers how at one point they had to bury all the books on Left politics in their backyard. “I can still feel the fear of getting shot in the back when going on a motorcycle,” she says with a laugh as if it’s utterly acceptable trauma.
In the beginning, Chamila’s mother was just the housewife who cooked for the crowds gathered at their home for meetings and was inevitably swept into frontline activism with time. She co-founded Women’s Centre and later became the founder of Dabindu (meaning beads of sweat) Newspaper in 1984, which has been in publication ever since, reporting issues and injustices faced by the workers, raising awareness, and educating them on their rights and matters of wellbeing. Chamila joined Dabindu in 1994 after her secondary education and worked alongside her mother, eventually taking over the publication and the organization, and has been running a commendable operation. Dabindu newspaper, now available online, continues to raise the issues of garment workers to make these young women’s lives a little less exploited and a little less bleak every day.
Apart from the publication, the Dabindu Collective intervenes in various issues that affect the workers. This includes a living wage, boarding house conditions, facilitating discussions with stakeholders, conducting training and awareness programs for the workers about labour rights, female empowerment, domestic violence, reproductive health, leadership, and more. They have also conducted many studies to portray the situation in the FTZ accurately. Some of their other publications are ‘Living for the Day’ (2017) and ‘Makena Mathaka’ (2008). Chamila is the powerhouse behind all this immense work, and she has lived up to her parent’s legacy, elevating Dabindu to higher ground. Chamila’s work is recognized both locally and internationally, and she was an NPP (National People’s Power) National list candidate for the Parliamentary General Election 2020.
As a girl, Chamila had always been someone who challenged male authority. Dancing was her passion, and though she was appointed as a dancing teacher, circumstances did not allow her to pursue that as a career. However, she has no regrets and speaks with humble pride that she has contributed to society with her chosen path.
When the Minuwangoda Covid Cluster came into play, and thousands of garment workers were infected, Chamila openly voiced her concerns about how the government officials treated the workers. The Dabindu Collective organized a press conference to reveal how workers were forced from their boarding houses like criminals with only 15 minutes’ notice to pack. Not stopping there, Chamila led the Dabindu Collective to launch a massive relief effort providing food and essentials to the workers in quarantine.
The work Chamila has done, the change that she has been able to make, the struggles that she has won over so many years have mostly stayed out of the public eye. Her commitment to ensure the safety and well-being and protect the rights of young girls who lack opportunity and voice shows her courage, tenacity, and, more than anything else, her compassion and empathy that makes her a true leader and an activist of our time.
“This is a fight for fairness and equality. Yet it remains a challenge as the fight itself lacks female representation at the places where decisions are made,” says Chamila.
(Shyama Basnayake is a freelance content writer and strategist with a special interest in political communications, digital activism, and feminism. She is a firm believer in the purposeful use of language and communication to connect with any audience and make a real impact)
Reference Links and Further Reading
No space for women to join the political conversation: NPP candidate Chamila Thushari, EconomyNext, 31st July 2020, https://economynext.com/no-space-for-women-to-join-the-political-conversation-npp-candidate-chamila-thushari-72561/
Live wires of Sri Lanka’s economy are now treated like criminals — Chamila Thushari, Daily Mirror Online, 19th October 2020, http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Live-wires-of-Sri-Lankas-economy-are-now-treated-like-criminals-Chamila-Thushari/172-198172
Sri Lankan Garment workers face difficulties during and after Covid-19 curfew, Praja.lk, 03rd June 2020, http://praja.lk/english/sri-lankan-garment-workers-face-difficulties-during-and-after-covid-19-curfew/
Notes This article is pending support to be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to support us with translations or if you have any questions.