By Sanjana Ravi
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 Harini Amarasuriya
A name well-known in the field of academia is now seated in Parliament as a breath of fresh feminist air, and raising a voice for Sri Lankan women. Dr Harini Amarasuriya, a former Senior Lecturer of the Department of Social Studies of the Open University of Sri Lanka, made a decision to switch careers and engage in a role that is more in the public eye. This decision, which she refers to as a “leap,” is not one that was made lightly, nor was it one that she foresaw. It eventually led her to become a Member of Parliament upon accepting the Jathika Jana Balawegaya’s National Seat nomination to enter the 16th Parliament of Sri Lanka in August 2020.
Born into a middle-class family, Dr Harini recalls “feeling incredibly lucky and privileged to have had a wonderful childhood.” Dr Harini went to a private school in Colombo and then received scholarships to study firstly in India for her undergraduate education and then in Edinburgh for her doctoral studies. These experiences influenced her strong commitment to the need for access to quality education for all and the importance of a strong public education system.
Growing up as a child with what she describes as “ordinary dreams” for the time, Dr Harini has challenged and resisted the system in more ways than she could ever imagine. Through her activism, she began creating ripples as early as 2011 when she and colleagues from the Federation of University Teachers Association launched a trade action union, which drew national attention. The protest that was launched to demand higher salaries and retain the best minds in the country grew into a broader struggle on education reform.
Their campaign slogan “6% Save Education” reflected UNESCO’s standard criteria on what a government must spend on education. The following year, they began a 100-day strike — the longest strike in Sri Lanka at that time — that developed into a collective struggle joined by other trade unions and civil society. Their collective struggle mobilized a space where people could express some form of resistance, especially amidst a political climate where many people were afraid to speak their minds. A community of people came alongside 4000 academics, who marched for five days from Galle to Colombo in their symbolic orange t-shirt bearing their slogan to create a significant change in the education system. This movement went on to set a precedent for other protests and movements that would eventually take place over the next decade.
Dr Harini doesn’t think of her career change as a leap from activism to politics, as she believes that her activism was political. She also believes that politics isn’t about being aligned with a party, but about resisting power. To her, resistance is about holding those in power accountable and challenging something that is not right.
Her motivation to enter the formal political space was done as an act of solidarity and she describes resistance and politics as a space of great intimacy. Over the years, Dr. Harini has built a great network of allies who have been on a unique journey with her and thus have formed unique relationships. She has held steadfast to the belief of standing together during the good and the bad, and, when the time came for her to act on her belief with regards to women’s participation and representation in politics, she did what she felt was right.
While issues faced by Sri Lankan women were not a popular topic to be raised in Parliament, Dr Harini took the stage to voice for the voiceless. In her maiden speech in Parliament, she left an impact by raising issues concerning women’s economic contribution to the economy, specifically the “unpaid care economy,” referring to women’s contribution in the household. Dr. Harini has also been one of the few Members of Parliament, who have been advocating on the frontlines to demand justice for Sri Lankan migrant workers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
Dr Harini currently is serving as a Member of Parliament and continues to advocate for reforms in education, gender and development.
(Sanjana Ravi is a feminist and Women and Gender Rights advocate. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics, International Studies and Women & Gender Studies from Iowa State University, USA. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Law through the University of London and aims to pursue a legal career to strengthen her advocacy for women and children.)
Reference Links and Further Reading
Maiden Parliament Speech NPP MP Dr. Harini, Newswire, 11th September 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr6dQpaUaQ4&feature=youtu.be&ab_channel=NEWSWIRE
Interview — Harini Amarasuriya, E-International Relations, 25th June 2020, https://www.e-ir.info/2020/06/25/interview-harini-amarasuriya/
Harini Amarasuriya, ResearchGate (Profile), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Harini-Amarasuriya
“Women in Sri Lanka need to change the Masculine, Toxic political space”: Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, BehanBox, 4th August 2020, https://behanbox.com/2020/08/04/women-in-sri-lanka-need-to-change-the-masculine-toxic-political-space-dr-harini-amarasuriya/
The story of the “6% t-shirt”: The hundred day struggle of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association, Sri Lanka, Dileepa Witharana, Core, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/162675403.pdf
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