In the words of Nadesan Suresh: “Overturning conventional attitudes can transform future generations”
Interviewed by Sakina Aliakbar
Nadesan Suresh is the CEO of the Uva Shakti Foundation, a non-governmental organization in Badulla, Uva province, Sri Lanka. The foundation, which he started 25 years ago, focuses on reconciliation and gender equality. In October 2021 Suresh attended a series of “multi-party dialogues” that UN Women hosted as part of its project, funded by the government of Japan, on Implementing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Sri Lanka.
Right from the beginning of the Foundation, in the early 1990s, Badulla has been a multi-ethnic community. We have noticed that people in this community are very close-knit. However, during tragic situations such as the three-decade- long conflict and Easter attacks in 2019, we could see tension among the people. This reflected a deeper, unspoken issue which needed open and transparent dialogue. Through the Foundation, we work with multi-ethnic groups to build trust within the community.
Through our surveys, we have found that young people do not interact much with people outside of their communities. If we are to change attitudes and perspectives, and build peace in Sri Lanka, this interaction is important, because it will enable them to empathize and understand different cultures. To make this happen, we carry out trainings to promote social cohesion and leadership among youths from different ethnicities.
At present, our work is centred on strengthening local governance. Firstly, we are trying to bridge the language gap at the local government level. We have been able, to some extent make a change on this front. For example, in government offices, people are now able to make enquiries and complaints in all three local languages.
We are also lobbying to ensure there is equal representation of women, because local and national councils are heavily male-dominated. This blocks women’s voices and concerns from being heard.
Based on international standards, many policies have been put forward to ensure the safety of women and to address inequalities. However, implementation is lacking. If a woman goes to the police station to make a complaint, the system is such that they don’t often feel safe and protected.
There is also a lack of funds for gender equality. It’s important to have a gender-responsive budget in place to ensure women’s needs and rights are taken into consideration.
The multiparty dialogues conducted by UN Women helped me rethink the way we provide opportunities for women in our workplaces and communities, and the importance of engaging women in peacebuilding processes. At the Foundation, we now maintain a percentage of female representation and have made changes to accommodate these practices. It also shed light on the urgent need for policy reform to help all segments of society including migrant and domestic workers, and women in the plantation sector.
Change must start at the government level. However, as citizens we are equally responsible to proliferate the rate at which change happens. Changing perspectives and overturning conventional attitudes can transform future generations and contribute to a peaceful and harmonious Sri Lanka.”