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Imagine living on an island, where much of your existence depends on the benevolence of the sea. The climate, the food, the economy and sometimes even your own life. It shouldn’t be hard then to imagine the importance of being able to swim for the Sri Lankan population. This is what a farsighted English couple must have thought when they started to develop a simple, but rather intriguing non-profit project based on teaching swimming classes. And what makes the idea even more innovative is its target, girls aged 13 and up. Sri Lanka Women’s Swimming Project was founded in Ahangama, Sri Lanka, after the catastrophic 2004 tsunami, where the majority of those who drowned were women and children. This is indeed one of the many effects of women’s marginalization in Sri Lanka. Swimming, even more than other physical activities, is not considered appropriate for women. The main obstacle is the exposure of the female body in public places like beaches; the few women who dare to swim usually do it fully clothed. Morals and cultural barriers prevent most of the women from learning to swim. However, things have slowly changed in the last years thanks to the Sri Lanka Women’s Swimming Project, which has courageously taken up the challenge: now hundreds of young women can face the water in complete safety and some of them became swimming teachers. Most importantly, they broke their own cultural stereotypes and proved to be brave enough not to be discouraged by detractors of women’s emancipation. What they have learned, more than swimming skills, is that women can actually do what has been culturally earmarked for men so far. The mind shift they are bringing to their families and their friends is undoubtedly a precious lesson for this rapidly developing and yet in some aspects conservative country.
Nevertheless, thinking of Sri Lanka as a women hostile country is misleading and biased. It is enough to remind that Sri Lanka’s modern history boasts the world’s first female Head of Government, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and a female Head of State, Chandrika Kumaratunga, although this is due to the well-known South Asia phenomenon of political power being inherited by the wives and children of political leaders, rather than for personal and professional merit. As outlined by the Gender Gap Report 2014 recently published by the World Economic Forum, Sri Lanka is slowly moving forward towards gender equality, ranking 79 out of 142 analyzed countries. Its strong point is definitely the education system, which guarantees equal access to a wide range of public schools, thus providing free primary, secondary and tertiary education to a very high percentage of young girls. Moreover, the fast growing economy is employing an increasing number of women. Employment should always be regarded as an instrument of women’s emancipation, empowerment and control over households resources. Sri Lankan women have achieved high-ranking positions within public and private institutions. They look confident behind their desks, you can see pride in their slight smiles and the saree they wear just add the right measure of solemnity to their figure. They’ve made it. They have graduated from the best schools and they have become high-status women. Unfortunately, there’s no happy ending for everyone. Especially if you come from a remote village, where there is often no chance to dream a better future and the word opportunity becomes meaningless. Indeed, the disparities and inequality of opportunities between urban and rural areas play a fundamental role in mind shaping and too often determine the future of rural young women, who are traditionally relegated to household roles or, in the best of cases – that is when their husbands give the green light – they are employed in apparel manufacturing factories. However, even in this latter case the road to emancipation is bumpy, as women tend to feel excluded from their community and labeled as “bad women”.
Changing mentality is a long process which requires a multidimensional approach. Social change is usually brought about by institutions and regulations, but primarily by people. People are the first actors of social change and their attitudes have a tremendous impact on the lives of others and, therefore, on the future generations. And if a young woman who chooses to wear a swimsuit and start to swim can be called change, then maybe the goal of Sri Lankan women’s emancipation is getting closer.
(Head image: © Brett Davies)
Michele Bernacchini is a humanitarian aid worker with an academic background rooted in International Cooperation for Development and a keen interest in cross-cultural exchanges. Luckily enough, he got what he wanted and now he finds himself working for a child protection project in Sri Lanka. For the same NGO, Gruppo Umana Solidarietà, he has been previously involved in a refugee and asylum seeker protection programme in Italy, his homeland.