The Life of A Sri Lankan Change maker: Dr. Premala Sivaprakasapillai Sivasegaram
Updated: Jan 24
By Sharanya Sekaram & Abilesha Segar
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 — Dr. Premala Sivaprakasapillai Sivasegaram
When Dr. Premala Sivaprakasapillai Sivasegaram entered the University of Ceylon’s Engineering Faculty in 1960, she was the first female to join the Faculty. When she graduated in 1964, she became the first female civil engineer in the country. However, she never thought that in 2019 she would be celebrated by the Sri Lankan Parliament as one of the country’s change-makers in Sri Lanka. Reflecting on her journey, she says, “I started it for fun then realized it was too serious, and I can’t take it that lightly, but I got more and more interested in the subject. In fact, I used to spend a lot of time updating myself, studying more, so I got really interested in what I was doing. I was very happy doing it.” Almost downplaying the magnitude of her achievements, she says with a gentle smile, “part of being the first to graduate… all that never struck me”. Her dedication and clear vision brought success during her career while forging a path for other women.
Dr. Sivasegaram describes her relationship with an object that seems simple at first glance but has an inseparable connection with her life journey — the pencil. “A pencil that we start using in infancy to adulthood for writing and drawing. For engineering, you need a lot of drawing. However, the pencil, pen, slide rule, drawing board, and drawing implements have been replaced by the computer”, she explains.
Born in Jaffna Fort in her maternal granduncle’s District Judge quarters, after women and children were evacuated from Colombo following the bombing by the Japanese in 1942, Dr. Sivasegaram’s family moved back to Colombo (where her father had remained, working in the Colombo harbour). She attended CMS Ladies College, Colombo throughout. In 1960 she broke the norms of Engineering being for men alone and entered the Faculty of Engineering of the (then) University of Ceylon. She describes how this was possible for her because of the support she got from her family — in particular her father, a renowned engineer himself. The negative comments she had to hear around her were centered not on her capabilities but her gender. Naysayers argued that Engineering “will be rather messy for women” and advised her to do architecture instead. Her mother was told that her daughter would not have any “modesty” left spending the day with 60 boys. Despite this, Dr. Sivasegaram and her immediate family were determined in the choice she had made, and she acknowledges the supportiveness of her male peers at the university. Following her undergraduate degree, Dr. Sivasegaram received a Ceylon Government University scholarship in 1965 and entered Somerville College, Oxford enabling her to gain a structural engineering doctorate. Dr. Sivasegaram’s father valued the importance of completing her studies and insisted that she complete her studies (and later the Ph.D.) before marriage to Sivasegaram, who was in the same batch at the Faculty and who had been appointed as an Assistant lecturer in Mechanical Engineering. Her father had watched many talented women in his family held back from realizing their potential due to not completing their degrees due to marriage and did not want his daughter to have the same fate.
She joined the Women’s Engineering Society, UK. She took part in their activities, including promoting engineering study among schoolgirls and attending the International Conference for Women Engineers and Scientists in 1967. While living in the United Kingdom, she got married to Sivasegaram, reading for a Ph.D. at Imperial College, London. Following their son’s birth, they returned to complete their 5-year compulsory Public service and live in Sri Lanka. In 1978 Dr. Sivasegaram was appointed as the first female Chief Structural Engineer in Sri Lanka. While her career was soaring, she also struggled with the choice many working mothers know all too well — the balance between family and work. As a mother, she says, “I would have liked to have stayed at home with the baby until he was about six months old, but the compulsory public service [we had at that time] carried a fine,” expressing thankfulness for supportive parents helping her manage her tasks. Her journey to find a balance between personal and professional life during that time showcased women’s strength in their need to multitask without compromising any of their responsibilities.
Dr. Sivasegaram’s passion for Engineering reflects in her words as she says, “I really enjoyed what I was doing, and I was totally immersed in it.” She recalls, “I never said no if I had to do something that normally women don’t have to do; like climbing a high ladder for the first time, I did it without a murmur because you know otherwise they would have said that’s a reason why women should not take up engineering.” Her determination to succeed reflects in the advice she gives young girls who speak to her about career prospects saying, “I say do engineering only if you’re interested. Unless you’re interested and ready to face whatever it is on the field, don’t do it”.
The saying, “There is a child in all of us,” was revealed in Dr. Sivasegaram when the first time one of the buildings she worked on was completed. She says with a laugh, “I was so happy that I could do that. I’d played with the Meccano as a child”, and the feeling of watching your work come to fruition.
Dr. Sivasegaram’s journey has inevitably influenced scores of female students in their choice of career. Still shying away from this praise, she says, “I can’t say I set out to change anything. It just happened, but I suppose [it did] once I entered”. Her experience has deepened her conviction that women’s participation should be included from the planning stage of any project and should also be there in the higher rungs in government. She articulately points out that “women have a different point of view, the way they use the roads, the public transport and even women’s reaction to drugs, medicines, the way the symptoms show. It is usually quite different, so you need to include women in all activities”. With Sri Lanka being a country that elected the first female prime minister to the world, she feels that it is a loss for the country that we do not have enough women in the Parliament. She feels the country could do better with women engineers at responsible levels. Engineers are very conscious of conserving resources, reducing pollution, putting up sustainable buildings and the UN target, net-zero carbon…all these are extremely important, and we have to be proactive and take part in all these activities and help to really improve conditions for the future generations.
Speaking about what she never expected would change so much during her lifetime, she says technology is some of it. She is a little nervous about it, especially artificial intelligence. But the practical side of her comes through as she says, “we have to hold the reins tight..but that’s not going to happen, so we may have to go through a few disasters before we learn how to manage it”.
(Sharanya Sekaram is the co-founder of Everystory Sri Lanka and identifies (for now) as a Sri Lankan feminist activist, researcher, and writer — working as a consultant in the gender space. She is currently reading for a Post-Graduate Diploma in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Colombo and you can find her on Twitter @sharasekaram and on her blog “Writing from That Sekaram Girl”)
(Abilesha Segar is currently a Program Manager at Everystory Sri Lanka and the Project Manager for the Stories of Sri Lankan Women. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree from the University of Colombo and moonlights as a Tamil compere, moderator, and voice artist. Most importantly to her, she is the mother of a wonderful toddler who has yet to miss any Everystory meeting she attends.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
Premala Sivaprakasapillai Sivasegaram, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Premala_Sivaprakasapillai_Sivasegaram
Dr. Premala Sivaprakasapillai Sivasegaram: The First Female Engineer In Sri Lanka, Roarmedia, 20th July 2019, https://roar.media/english/life/identities/dr-premila-sivaprakasapillai-sivasegaram-the-first-female-engineer-in-sri-lank
Sri Lankan Herstory: Dr. Premala Sivasegaram, rotaractacts.com, 30th December 2020, http://rotaractarts.com/sri-lankan-herstory-dr-premala-sivasegaram/
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.