London Connection Q&A: Bhagya Ratnayake

The Sri Lankan graduate talks to Lisa Pierre about working for the UN, challenging gender roles and One Hundred Years of Solitude
Bhagya Ratnayake
Bhagya Ratnayake: "I still continue to challenge gender roles and expectations"
In addition to the vast socio-legal exposure, the amount of knowledge I gathered on research, social policy and development was extremely helpful to develop my career

After completing the Diploma in Economics, you went on to do the BSc in Sociology with Law. You described this as being truly tailor made for you. Why was that?
I enrolled in the UoL Diploma in Economics right after I finished my Advance Level examinations. However, at that point I was debating over my degree options, whether to continue in Sociology or with the LLB. That was a choice I had to make at the end of the Diploma. During that summer vacation I got an opportunity to do an internship at the UNDP Regional Centre in Colombo where I was a part of the team that put together a women’s court on HIV and property rights at the Eighth ICAAP in Colombo.

This was a real eye opener for me as it portrayed the extent of socio-legal dynamics in accessing justice. It was when I decided that neither the mere knowledge on sociological theories nor legal practices in itself will get me to where I wanted to go. I needed to learn both disciplines. At that point I had made up my mind to buckle up and do two degrees if the University allowed me to do so. You cannot imagine how thrilled I was to hear that UoL was going to introduce Sociology with Law that year, which offered the perfect combination of subjects I was dying to do! At first it was scary to find out that no one else had opted for that degree and I was the first in Sri Lanka to take it up. It was a challenging degree (especially when you have to manage such diverse disciplines) but was worth the time.

You said you fell madly in love with Criminology, especially Feminist Criminology. What particularly attracted you to this?
Ever since I watched Chicago as a teen, I was hooked on female criminality! Well, that was a start. Then I read about the Panopticon and the work of Bentham and Foucault in my first year, which led me to complete all the reading material on Criminology in my first year. I know this sounds super nerdy but it was actually quite fun! What really got me interested in Feminist Criminology is the work of Carol Smart. How she addressed the male-oriented criminological thinking, female criminality, study of rape and prostitution and drawing the relationship between female criminality and mental illness was mind boggling!

What I love about criminology is how it looks beyond crime and punishment. It looks at the individuals (offenders, victims, key players in the criminal justice system etc.), systems, laws, society, nature of crime, causes and consequences of crime and criminal behaviour. The interdisciplinary nature of criminology was what appealed to me the most. This subject provided me a good foundation to better understand key issues we address at work such as GBV, human trafficking, child abuse and protection, juvenile justice etc. At first it was difficult for me to explain criminology to my close friends who had no idea what it was about. Then I broke it down to their super heroes, super villains and (at times) Disney princesses. This made studying criminology even more fascinating for me.    

Bhagya RatnayakeHow influential was what you learnt on the degree?
It was extremely influential. In addition to the vast socio-legal exposure, the amount of knowledge I gathered on research, social policy and development was extremely helpful to develop my career. Most importantly, it made me a critical thinker, not to be a parrot or take things on face value. It taught me to become more analytical when dealing with literature, evidence, data, policy etc.   

You went on to study for a Masters in Development Studies at the University of Colombo. How different was this educational experience?
This Masters programme was quite a change from our UoL experience. At UoC I missed the structured nature of the subjects we had at UoL – knowing the expectations, learning outcomes and required reading material. However, I got to attend some lectures conducted by some of the greatest minds in Sri Lanka.    

You have been involved with the United Nations since 2007 in various guises. More recently you worked with UNICEF Sri Lanka as its Knowledge Management Officer.  Tell us about that role.
Working at UNICEF is definitely one of the highlights of my career. I was the youngest national programme officer in the office and I got to work on some great projects and partnerships through the communications and partnerships section. My work included knowledge management functions for the office, youth and adolescent engagement for CRC, innovations, social media management and work on online safety for children and young people. Knowing that all your work will, in one way or another, help to serve children was gratifying.    

What projects are you particularly proud off during this role?
When I look back on my time at UNICEF, three things clearly stand out for me. First is on innovations, when I worked to put together a partnership to carry out Sri Lanka’s first ever ‘Children’s Hackathon’. This landmark partnership included UNICEF, Microsoft, Google, ICTA and the Ministry of Education. The idea behind this project was to get children to identify issues faced by them or their community and come up with a tech-based solution to address it. A lot of thinking, planning and preparation went in to pull this off. The best part of the ‘Children’s Hackathon’ was meeting the children face-to-face at semi-finals and finals to hear how they have conceptualized and envisioned a solution for children like themselves. It was refreshing and thought provoking. It was quite incredible to see children’s approach to innovate for child rights when we provide them the platform to do so.

The second standout for me was the work I was able to do on online safety for children and young people in Sri Lanka. With the momentum built around that subject, we were able to embark on a study in partnership with Harvard and UNICEF’s Voices of Youth on ‘Sri Lanka’s digital landscape for children and young people’ looking at risks, opportunities and threats.

Third standout of course is managing all social media outlets for UNICEF Sri Lanka. I got to work with some trailblazers and movers and shakers of the online world. These achievements are some of the proudest of my career.             

You have just been appointed United Nations’ International Labour Organisation (ILO) Youth Employment Officer. What do you hope to achieve in this new job?
I am excited about this new job! It will be somewhat different to most of my previous job roles. I look forward to more high-level policy and advocacy work. Fingers crossed!   

" I believe I started challenging gender stereotypes when the societal expectations of being a girl became apparent to me. I did not like it. Not one bit."

You say since you were a child you have been challenging stereotypes and speaking up about issues related to gender and inequalities. Where did this passion come from?
I am from a relatively conservative Sinhala-Buddhist family. I believe I started challenging gender stereotypes when the societal expectations of being a girl became apparent to me. I did not like it. Not one bit. Simply put, I did not like the idea of double standards for boys and girls. At the age of 13 I wrote a script and directed our school play for ‘English day drama competition’ called ‘The mother who doesn’t understand’. Of course it was not about my mother but I tried to depict different roles and expectations of girls and boys, starting with simple household chores to identity. We made it through the Zonal, District and Provincial levels and went up to the National level. I think the play gave a loud and clear message to my teachers, family and friends not to expect anything ordinary from me. I suppose that is why they gave me their blessings to take this career path I chose.

I still continue to challenge gender roles and expectations, especially in relation to issues faced by young people; employment, relationships, marriage, sexual and reproductive health, to name a few. After my school days, I was involved and at times initiated projects using theatre (forum theatre and street theatre), photography and videography to create platforms for young people to express themselves and build awareness on these subjects.              

Do you think there is still inequality in Sri Lanka?
For this question I will stick to my area of interest – gender inequalities. The answer is, of course, yes, in some areas more than others. It stems from the patriarchal structure which we can see across the multicultural landscape in Sri Lanka. The way I see it, sexism is camouflaged in different tiers of our lives and at times has become the inherent nature doing business. It becomes a barrier for girls and women to reach their full potential and enjoy equal opportunities. However, on a positive note, we can see civil society movements and women’s rights activists advocating for equality and rights.   

I first came to Sri Lanka when the war was still on. I personally have seen it change in many ways in a short time. What do you think the biggest changes have been
For me, it has to be the sense of security. During the war, we looked at people who took public transport with us through a mutual distrust. We were constantly told to be vigilant and observe the bags carried by other people to see if they are leaving any bags behind (because it could be a bomb).

I had friends whose parents used public transport to get to work. They made sure they used different buses or trains to get to their offices and back. This was just in case a bomb went off, the children wouldn’t lose both parents. My parents refused to send me to a school in Colombo because they did not want to take a risk of daily travel from home to Colombo and back. So I went to a school which is only five minutes away from home. This sense of security is important for people to rebuild trust, friendships and the country.     

What hopes do you have for the future of Sri Lanka?
Children! When I worked on the ‘Children’s Hackathon’ through UNICEF, I got to see how innovative and forward thinking they could be if they are given the correct guidance and support. We should not forget the young people of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka should take advantage of the current youth bulge and stop/reduce the brain drain of bright young minds. We must also appreciate the work done by young activists, but I do hope that they will do less conference hopping and focus more on walking their talk.   

Bhagya RatnayakeYou are very active outside of your working life. You are affiliated with Rotaract and Kosala Dullewa Foundation (KDF) for children with special needs. Tell us about the projects you have worked on.
I am a Founding Member and a Past President (2011-12) of the Rotaract Club of Panadura. Rotaract was like my second home. Rotaract Shutterbug is probably one of my proudest achievements. It was my brainchild which went on to win many Rotary and Rotaract awards. The idea behind it was simple: to create innovative platforms for photographers, especially amateur photographers, to tell stories with their pictures and promote various causes (ie. child rights, volunteerism). We were able to find innovative approaches and partnerships to implement the project components from 2011 to date.

I was also a former member of the Rotaract District Committee (District 3220 – Sri Lanka) in 2010-11 where I was the Director for Community Services. I initiated a campaign called HIV & YOUth which carried out targeted awareness workshops on HIV, SRH and young people in urban and suburban areas. I believe the campaign continued for three consecutive years. As the Rotaract District Community Services Director and also as a volunteer for KDF, I brought the two organisations together to carry out the World Down Syndrome Day (WDSD) Celebrations. This partnership has been continuing successfully since 2011 to date. For the WDSD we usually organize a health camp for children with special needs, variety show and an awareness walk.

You are an avid reader, from Jane Austen to calling yourself part of the ‘Harry Potter Generation'. You recently reread One Hundred Years of Solitude. Do you think as you go through life books change to the reader on a second reading?
Reading Harry Potter books are an adventure in itself. We grew up with it. The first reading is what is most exciting because you block out all spoiler alerts and you try to read it before your friends and cousins who are eager to spoil the excitement for you. This meant sleepless nights and Harry Potter Books hidden inside textbooks in schools. I read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire one day while observing sil at schools hidden inside a dhamma book! As far as Harry Potter is concerned, the first reading gives the thrill of knowing the storyline and second/third readings help to relive the story and better visualise the storyline. I don’t always read the same book twice, only the books I absolutely adore. I recently reread One Hundred Years of Solitude after I reread Love in the Time of Cholera, both written by the late Gabriel García Márquez. I enjoy his style of storytelling and each reading makes me feel like I am reading it for the first time.  

If you were cast away on a desert island and could only take one book, what would it be and why?
Can I opt for an edible book which could probably buy me a few extra days of survival? Ok, I’m guessing that is not the answer you are looking for. I probably would not want to read any novels in a desert island. I will need entertainment to keep me sane. Then it has to be any of the Calvin and Hobbes books. I love that kid. He will probably rationalize my existence away from civilisation.    

You say Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I would totally agree.  What is the one thing you would say is a must do or see there?
If I had to pick one place, I would say visit Kandy. I always feel refreshed every time I visit the temple of tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa). Afterwards, take a walk around the Kandy lake.  

Now on to the real love of your life: cricket! Tell someone like me who has no idea about it why it’s so great.
Cricket is a sport that clearly knows the importance of taking regular breaks for tea and stops play when confronted with rain. That itself accounts for a lot. Ok, jokes aside, because we take our cricket very seriously. For us, it is civil religion. If an important match is on, it is somewhat understood among our employers about their employees leaving early, found missing, suspiciously gathered around one computer to watch the match or hearing frequent score updates and cheers. Simply put, it is a beautiful sport that keeps bringing everyone together. I can’t tell you why it is so great. You need to live it to love it! 

Have you cleaned your phone since Alistair Cook touched it?
Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara AND Mahela Jayawardene touched it. So why would I even dream of cleaning it – ever! I met them at a UNICEF event in Colombo where we had a coaching camp for underprivileged children highlighting children’s right to play. Cook was absolutely fabulous! He is probably the most polite, friendly and charming (let’s not forget drop dead handsome!) cricketer I have ever met. We need more gentlemen like him playing this sport. England is lucky to have a test captain like him.

Do you think Sri Lanka can win the World Cup in 2015?
We will! We won the World Cup in 1996 and the T20 World Cup last year. It is time for another win. Most importantly, two of our cricket legends, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, will retire from ODIs after the World Cup. They deserve a win! We hope for a win. We have one of the best captains (Angelo Mathews) Sri Lanka has ever produced to lead us to victory. A World Cup victory will be the most fitting send off for them!

Please note all views expressed are Bhagya’s own and do not reflect the views of any organizations she has been affiliated with.