Women Empowering Women Through Art and Conversation

“Women are powerful. Women are beautiful and strong. Women are wild, raw and resourceful. We must join together, and we must use our strength and resources to overcome.”

Meet Alice Sinclair and Sophie Gradden, the women empowering other women through an evening of art and conversation on 19th June. Alice, a member of The Circle, and Sophie, a UK-based artist are putting on an incredible event to raise funds for the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre. During the art class, which begins at 6.30pm, you will be able to select a favourite female icon to paint with the aim “go wild on canvas”! As well as having creative fun, you will be connecting with like-minded women and learning more about The Circle’s projects.

This a perfect example of how when women come together and organise, they can be a powerful force for change. We sat down and spoke to them about The Circle, fundraising and feminism …


Photo credit: Fiona Freund

Alice Sinclair works in the healthcare sector and is a member of The Circle.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

I have been based in London for 12 years. I work in the healthcare sector as an NLP therapist and a trainee Psychotherapist. I am also the editor of a local magazine. I have witnessed and experienced gender inequality in many forms throughout my life. I still see it everyday, and with my work as a therapist I see the impacts. Ending violence against women is my passion. It is it very close to my heart (near the cat section). I long for a world one day where the inhabitants are like WTF is inequality? Did that actually exist?

Why did you decide to organise this fundraising event?

This event is the beginning of many. Nothing feels more close to my heart than actively supporting and holding a platform for women to come together and work towards making a difference in the murky environment of gender based inequality. Sophie Gradden is a hoot to hang around with, it will be a memorable evening.

Why do you think the work of Nonceba Family Counselling centre is so important?

As a trainee therapist most of my NHS work has been with women who have experienced violence or abuse in its many guises. It tears you down. It whittles away confidence. The trauma can have a horrifying impact on how you live your life. Abuse can lead to very serious situations such as PTSD, agoraphobia, eating disorders, addictions, self harm and suicide. These can be passed down through generations. Wonderful charities like Nonceba are a vital refuge. They provide hope, and a way forward. For a year they will protect and physically and mentally support victims of domestic abuse. Nonceba gives women a way out. It breaks that generational passing. It de-normalises.

What does Women Empowering Women mean to you?

When I was ten years old, a teacher discovered I could bowl a cricket ball better than the boys in my class. I was invited to play on the boys team as there was no team for girls. As I ran up to bowl the first ball of my first match, both teams jeered. “she’s wearing a skirt” or “get lost you’re a girl”. I crumbled. That was to be my first and last match with that team.

This was my first experience of gender based inequality. My first experience of gender based violence was when I was eight, I am less inclined to discuss this freely. The point I am getting at is, women are powerful. Women are beautiful and strong. Women are wild, raw and resourceful. We must join together, and we must use our strength and resources to overcome every single face and aspect of discrimination, sexism, misogyny and abuse. Women need women.

Sophie Gradden is an artist living and working in the UK and we’re incredibly excited to have her working with The Circle for this event!

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I am a contemporary artist, temporarily living & working in Buckinghamshire. I’ve not always been an artist mind, but always dabbled in the creative industries of furniture & interior design.

In November 2016 I reignited my love for painting and set up a makeshift studio in my home and began creating, whilst working full time. Since then, the art continues. In April 2018 I had a total mental meltdown, suffering with depression and anxiety, I made the decision to take a break, a life sabbatical as I like to label it, and dedicate myself to my art full time, no more 9-5, just painting, painting, painting. Best thing I’ve ever f**king done.

Why did you decide to organise this fundraising event?

Why would we not? Any group of people gathering together to try and do better in this world, no matter how big or small the overall impact it may have…it’s something right! The more we do it, the more we talk about it, the more people will start to realize that these sometimes minute or minor situations to the absolute horrendous (even unimaginable) us wonderful women find ourselves put into is NOT ok!! Things have got to change. This I hope is a small yet mighty step towards that.

Why do you think the work of Nonceba Family Counselling centre is so important?

We must remember even though we are still fighting for gender equality and ending violence against women here in the UK, some countries sadly are still 10 steps behind us, which is frightening. The woman I am and the women I surround myself with, friends, family, colleagues, have all come up against gender equality issues, thankfully never violence, however I speak for a mere spec of the population, in fact the world. Even bigger problem!! What about the women who don’t have a choice and the support, someone to be there for them when the world has unfairly shunned them and continues to kick them, sometimes quite literally, when they are down, Nonceba is that answer. Nonceba is a positive way forward, one of many great projects that the circle supports.

What does Women Empowering Women mean to you?

Simple…My mum, my sister, my nan (sadly no longer with us) my sister in law, my best friend, my friends, my past colleagues…the amazing woman who I didn’t know, who reached out and held my hand on the train, when I was in a state of emotional anxiety, we didn’t even speak, we only exchanged a smile as she handed me a tissue. You saved me in that moment. Thank you.

Book your place for An Evening of Art and Conversation here. We’ll see you there!

#GlobalFeminism #WomenEmpoweringWomen


Widen Your Circle: with The Circle Member Sophia

“I remember in primary school being taken into a separate room along with the rest of the girls to talk about periods whilst the boys did something else. No wonder it is seen as a taboo subject and no wonder men are not at ease talking about it!”

Sophia is a member of The Circle and a GP based in London. She’s been involved in organising our upcoming Menstruation Matters event!

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I am a GP based near London Bridge who also works in Medical Aesthetics and Sports Medicine.

Why did you decide to become a member of The Circle?

The ethos of The Circle fits in with the kind of difference I want to make as a Global Feminist. Initially it was a charity I only donated to but then I was invited to join a group of members with a shared interest in healthcare to set up a new circle. Over the coming weeks, I will be getting involved with the launch of The Healthcare Circle as one of the co- chairs which I am super excited about!

How are you involved with the upcoming Menstruation Matters event and what has that been like?

I am working with a very inspirational group of women in planning the Menstruation Matters event. We are all volunteers on this project and all in full time jobs, so it has been challenging! However it has been great to meet the other members and work together for a common goal and for something we all truly believe in.

Why do you think the work of Irise International is so important?

So many of my young female patients in London don’t know enough about their menstrual cycle, or are worried about their periods and fertility. It is sad that even in the UK, it is not commonly talked about and women are not fully enlightened about something that is normal human physiology.. I remember in primary school being taken into a separate room along with the rest of the girls to talk about periods whilst the boys did something else. No wonder it is seen as a taboo subject and no wonder men are not at ease talking about it! Periods, fertility , childbirth etc are the essence of life- literally! There should be no myths, no stigma and no embarrassment surrounding it. This is why I strongly support and admire the work Irise International do. It is sad to think that women in Uganda are not living normal lives because of misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding their periods. Education is key and the most valuable asset anyone can have.

If you would like to attend our Menstruation Matters event this month then book your ticket here. Events like this just wouldn’t happen without our wonderful members. They are truly the lifeblood of The Circle!

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism #WidenYourCircle #MenstruationMatters


Widen Your Circle: with The Circle Member Brianna

“It’s hard to forget the first time you got your period… it’s scary and uncomfortable enough, even when you have the privilege of knowing what it is and that you’ll be okay.”

Brianna is an Australian trained social worker currently “lucky enough to be working in the community sector around FGM”. She went into social work as she has always been passionate about human rights, social justice and empowerment. Brianna has become specifically drawn to feminist practice approaches and issues surrounding global gender inequalities and gender-based violence.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I moved to the UK 10 months ago, I’m a New Zealand citizen, and I have a social work background, currently working in the charity/community sector around FGM.

Why did you decide to become a member of The Circle?

It seemed such an easy fit with my interests and passions, particularly the notion of Global Feminism and focusing on supporting the amazing work of existing grassroots organisations like Irise.

How are you involved with the upcoming Menstruation Matters event and what has that been like?

I have been lucky to spend time with Sophia and Jasbir planning what we would like the event to look like, who would be involed, where it would be held. It’s definitely been a new experience for me as I’ve never done event planning or fundraising – but I’m certainly learning a lot!

Why do you think the work of Irise International is so important?

It’s hard to forget the first time you got your period… it’s scary and uncomfortable enough, even when you have the privilege of knowing what it is and that you’ll be okay. I can’t imagine that ‘first time’ without access to such knowledge… and the reality is many girls both in the UK and Uganda don’t. Irise is enabling girls to have understanding, choice and control over their bodies and that is an absolute necessity. They are addressing an issue that has a powerful knock-on effect for girls’ education and future – and that’s what we’re all about!

If you would like to attend our Menstruation Matters event this month then book your ticket here. Events like this just wouldn’t happen without our wonderful members. They are truly the lifeblood of The Circle!

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism #WidenYourCircle #MenstruationMatters


The Circle’s Annual Gathering 2019

Our member Rashmi Dubé, Lawyer, Writer and Global Feminist, has written a blog post about our Member’s Annual Gathering last weekend!

The meeting was held at St. James Crypt in London, with speaker’s video calling from Calgary, Beirut and Uganda. This is only my second event with The Circle and I am excited for the day. .

As a lawyer and business owner, I am used to walking into rooms where most people are strangers – a veteran networker – but this feels different. The room is full of women and the energy feels electric. The room seems to vibrate, reverberating with energy as if to almost form a musical note. This is something new and unfamiliar to me, but at the same time it feels welcoming and comfortable. I am immediately at ease and say hello to a few familiar faces. The women are excited, each talking about what they are doing in their circles and wanting to help change. Even with small actions great change can be done. I am already on a high before I sit down.

Sioned opens the programme with a message I take to heart and will carry everyday – “just do it,” no matter how insignificant you think your act is. This very sentiment is later echoed by Eve Ensler.

Annie Lennox takes the stage, joined by Eve Ensler, an American playwright, performer, feminist, and activist best known for her play The Vagina Monologues.

The two speakers delve into conversation, debating the word ‘feminist’ and its connotations. Both have the united goal: to give women and girls a place where they don’t have to be resilient – they can just be, fighting for all women and their rights, equality for women and girls in a fairer world.

Annie pointed out that there are “So many gaps….divides and divisions…” that we need to come together and work together. She acknowledged that it is still “so difficult to use the word feminist…” I could see her point. There is an uneasiness around the word, much like there is around vagina, but should there be? Annie pointed out that the “concept of feminism is [associated] with man hating [and] this is really a big problem. But I genuinely think if men are not brought into the conversation, how we can have a dialogue and change attitudes? …. We must do this. If we don’t we will be in

combat…” . She is right. The more we come together as one community, the better the discussion. From my perspective, we need to empower men to become feminists or, at the very least, allies. The way we use words and “terminology makes things visible”. Annie went to on to say that “feminism must be for everyone” and at the moment “many men feel defensive, they feel attacked [and] you need dialogue [to overcome these issues]”.

Eve Ensler was on a similar message and wants us all to be change-makers, even if only in our small community. She spoke openly about the traumas of her own life and that when we as women effect change. She reminds us that in order to bring about change and make a difference to others you don’t need an army. She refers to the Castro quote “I began the revolution with 82 men. If I had to do it again, I would do it with 10 or 15 and absolute faith. It does not matter how small you are if you have faith and a plan of action.” She continued to say all “you have to [do is] believe, have faith in what you are doing in your circle [and]…don’t minimise it [in your mind]”

She then took me back by saying: “resilience. I don’t like that word why do they [speaking about the women in Congo being used as a tool of war and for control] … have to be resilient” She was questioning how they got into the position of having to be resilient in those circumstances in first place. The very definition of resilience is “1. the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity. 2. ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy.” My mind wondered back briefly to what Annie had said and the importance of terminology.

As the day closed, the take home for me was that I, one human being, can in my circle make a difference as a Global Feminist, have open dialogue with men and revisit the terminology we use with new eyes.

Get in touch with The Circle today to make your difference in a girl or women’s life.

This article was written by Rashmi Dube, who is the Managing Director of Legatus Law, lawyer, author and freelance writer for the Yorkshire Post. She is a Global feminist changing attitudes through the written word and legislation a ripple at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #GlobalFeminism


How I’ll Be a Better Feminist in 2019

Photo Credit: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, 2014.

This month we are opening up our blog to our members. Rosie writes about her feminist New Year’s resolutions for the coming year!

Read more

I think that reading about feminism is the best way to become a better Global Feminist. It allows you to understand the viewpoints of other women from around the world and is also a great way to keep up to date on current discussions surrounding contemporary women’s rights. On my reading list for this year are ‘Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies’ by Scarlett Curtis, ‘Why We Should All Be Feminists’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‎, ‘I am Malala’ Malala Yousafzai and ‘Eve Was Shamed’ by Helena Kennedy. I think that is an important gateway into the experiences of women from different cultures and backgrounds to my own. I believe that these different perspectives further encourage me to become a truly Global Feminist. These texts are written by women who write from a number of different viewpoints, either having experienced different modes sexism or misogyny themselves, or their professions such as journalists have led them to discover the stories of women who may not have the platform to share their own experiences.

Ensure that my feminism is intersectional

All sexism and misogyny is deplorable and all women’s experiences matter. I recognize that my experience does not reflect the whole spectrum of oppression faced by women around the world and I want to be an ally for all women. For those experiencing forced marriage or FGM, for the women that have been trafficked for sex or have been failed by the law after suffering rape or sexual assault, those who are unable to access a safe and legal abortion, and others who have to give birth in dangerous conditions. It is for these women that I vow to support. Global Feminism is about all women coming together and sharing cultures and experience, it encourages us to understand inequalities and oppression on a global scale.

Put my money where my mouth is

I love clothes and I love fashion, but I also plan to find out more about the inequalities rife within the garment sector. I know that 80% of garment workers are women and that they often work in unsafe conditions for long hours with little pay and fewer labour laws. This also puts them at risk of sexual harassment from their bosses and in a lot of instances maternity leave is limited to non-existent. This year, I really want to make sure as many of my clothes as possible are made in an ethical way, even if this means buying less. I will commit to learning more about sweatshop free brands to make sure my purchasing decisions don’t enslave the women making my clothes.

Educate friends and family

This year, I want to educate my friends and family about Global Feminism at every chance I get. I find that many men don’t engage in feminism and are not always aware of their privilege. This mindset also applies to women who are purely interested in Western feminism, to those who will happily wear a ‘Girl Power’ shirt without considering the plight of the woman who made it. Taking the opportunity to talk to these men and women in your life is an opportunity to communicate the values Global Feminism and some of the shocking statistics that quantify the level of inequality across the globe. Speaking to friends and family is also a good way of communicating an accurate definition of feminism and what that entails. I know men who admit that they were hesitant to support the feminist cause because they believed that the movement was rooted in a hatred of men. This year I want to spread the word by inviting my friends to watch feminist films, lending them books and recommending podcasts.

Empower other women

Every day I want to try and take little actions that help other women. This means that I won’t wait until the next big protest or social media hashtag to assert my feminism, but I will support women at every chance I get. I resolve to make space for my female colleagues to speak in work meetings, to back up their ideas and to make sure they get the credit. I will help women who are being harassed in a bar or on the street and call out sexist comments. I already call out everyday sexism in my social circle, but 2019 will be the year that I take this further – to work, to the street and online.

Network with like-minded women

In 2019, I want to connect more with other global feminists. I have a bit of a fear of networking situations, so I also want to take every opportunity to get out of my comfort zone. I also believe that I could learn a lot from the perspectives of others, which in turn will make me a better feminist. Types of networking I would love to take part in includes charity events, social media, feminist book clubs and debates. I would also like to volunteer with charities that support women globally so I can learn more about how I can help other women.

Be kinder to all my sisters

The world is harsh enough on women already so we should all be making the effort to empower each other. We need to support one another to make real change. We don’t need to be complicit in unrealistic beauty standards by judging each other on what we wear or how much we weigh. Nor should we be shaming other women for their sexuality, career or lifestyle choices. Stick up for your sisters in 2019!

This article was written by Rosie Greenfield, member of The Circle.

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #WidenYourCircle #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist


Widen Your Circle: with The Circle member Laura

“We are often led to believe that there is only space and resources for a few of us and that whatever other women get will be taken from us”

This month, as part of Widen Your Circle, we have spoken to a number of our members about their involvement with The Circle and what it means to be a member!

Laura is a set and costume designer with a background in fashion. The inequalities present in the fashion industry are incredibly important to her and she is currently trying to engage more people in the complex matters that surround it.

Why did you decide to become a member?

I had heard about the work of The Lawyers Circle on the Living Wage Report and I was interested in the organization, but what really made up my mind was finding myself at an event in this room full of women who had come together because they wanted to help change things. I left full of inspiration, motivation and energy.

What does The Circle mantra “women empowering women” means to you?

For me, it’s a reminder that we should always try to be other women’s first supporters. We are often led to believe that there is only space and resources for a few of us and that whatever other women get will be taken from us. However, I am convinced that helping others succeed also facilitates our own achievements.

What impact has The Circle had on your life?

It has allowed me to meet women with innovative and exciting ideas that I may have never have done. It has given me a chance to connect with women who work in different industries from mine, have different connections and with whom I have been able to start projects that are important to me. At The Circle I have found a great community that has helped me to become a more active citizen.

Can you tell us what project is important to you and your circle and why?

The Fashion Circle is reshaping at the moment, which I guess is a great opportunity to start exciting new projects. The issue of a Living Wage in the Fashion industry is still very important to me. This is why I organised a Chai Day in December with another member, Lydia, in which we talked about the idea of the Living wage and the difference it could make in the life of female garment workers. We encouraged our guests to be curious, to ask questions about the issues of the fashion industry, and to act to change them.

#WidenYourCircle #WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist


Widen Your Circle: with The Circle member Mabel

We must support and empower each other, otherwise we will constantly be fighting against a system that is designed for us to fail

This month, as part of Widen Your Circle, we have spoken to a number of our members about their involvement with The Circle and what it means to be a member!

Mabel is a documentary film maker who also co-founded The Vavengers, a charity that holds music and poetry nights, exhibitions and plays to raise money for the survivors of Female Genital Mutilation and the clinics and organisations that they run. In 2015 they launched the UK’s first ever anti-FGM billboards. They are now working to engage the creative community to raise awareness and funds, improve data collection and ultimately stop women and girls being cut.

Why did you decide to become a member?

I decided to become a member of The Circle because I don’t think we as Western women take enough time to consider the experience of women globally. Often, we inhabit our own bubble and assume that most women enjoy the privileges we have. The Circle is actively trying to tackle this by supporting grassroots projects globally. That is why I want to be a member.  

What does The Circle’s mantra of #WomenEmpoweringWomen mean to you?

The mantra Women Empowering Women is at the core of my belief system with regards to tackling gender-based violence. We must support and empower each other, otherwise we will constantly be fighting against a system that is designed for us to fail. It’s the women who have infiltrated this system that have the chance to empower those who have been stripped of their voices.

What impact has The Circle had on your life?

The Circle has given me a lot of insight into areas of inequality that I rather embarrassingly had not considered, for example, fast fashion.  Attending The Circle events has really opened my eyes to the problems around fast fashion. The events have been a source of both information and inspiration. I have also connected with many exceptional like-minded women at these events.

#WidenYourCircle #WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist


Widen Your Circle: with The Circle member Katie

Photo credit: Fluid4Sight. Katie with singer Gill Manly at their Chai Day event in November

Women have an amazing capacity to forge immensely nourishing, deep, powerful bonds with each other – and when we harness that it becomes a force for change.

This month, as part of Widen Your Circle, we have spoken to a number of our members about their involvement with The Circle and what it means to be a member!

Katie Rose is a new member of The Circle who has already been involved in our Chai Day fundraising initiative. Katie is a musician who is a ‘daily witness the profound wellbeing benefits of singing in my work. Working with choirs has taught me that we can join our diverse voices together to create a beauty, peace and strength that can change the world’. She leads choirs in community settings including hospitals, hospices, carers centres and co-directs Sing for Water, an annual mass choral fundraiser for WaterAid at Totally Thames.

Why did you decide to become a member of The Circle?
I joined after hearing Annie’s inspiring speech at the Women’s Day March 2018

What does The Circle’s mantra of #WomenEmpoweringWomen mean to you?
Ultimately it means busting through the patriarchal conditioning that oppresses and divides women.  Women have an amazing capacity to forge immensely nourishing, deep, powerful bonds with each other – and when we harness that it becomes a force for change.  I am continually uplifted, inspired and moved by my exchanges, discussions, friendships and collaborations with women.  Cherishing these individual bonds and widening them out to include and collaborate with other women is what we do naturally, when we have space to flourish – so the image of the ever-widening circle is so resonant and for me represents how we can build a non-hierarchical, mutually supportive movement.  We can each bring whatever platform, voice, influence, gifts, talents or resources we have available to support the cause of women worldwide – even just a tiny drop of rain can create a ripple in the ocean.  I want to help smash the glass ceilings of my generation to create freedom for the girls and women of the future.

What impact has The Circle had on your life?
It is that sense of not being alone, of being connected to a wider movement. I was brought up by a feminist and will remain a feminist until women no longer face oppression.  It is so good to be amongst strong, talented, inspiring women who have their own understanding of what being a feminist means and to stand in solidarity, honouring our unique perspectives and the diversity of the needs and issues facing women around the world.

Can you tell us about what project is important to you and your circle, and why?
I’m quite new to The Circle so am still finding out about all the projects and circles. As a singer, I am committed to creating arts events that contribute to raising funds and awareness with leading female artists in my community –  we hosted a Chai Day in November and hope to run a Women’s Day event in March.

Find out more about Katie’s work here!

#WidenYourCircle #WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist


Widen Your Circle: with The Circle member Jo

Member of The Circle, Jo Nevin. 

“I have always been aware that we need to think about intersectionality when we discuss the issues that women face, but The Circle has really challenged me to have that conversation with other people and, perhaps most importantly, challenged me to have that conversation with myself”

This month, as part of Widen Your Circle, we have spoken to a number of our members about their involvement with The Circle and what it means to be a member!

Jodie Nevin is a member of The Lawyer’s Circle, that are currently working on a strategy to allow those within The Circle to be able to undertake more pro bono work. Jodie describes herself as ‘incredibly privileged’ to be a lawyer as she is able to provide free legal advice and representation which is often the only means of obtaining access to justice for those who are unable to pay and are not eligible for public funding. She states that The Lawyers Circle believes that access to legal advice should not be the privilege of the most advantaged in society, and that ‘we are excited to utilise our collective knowledge to provide even more free legal advice to disempowered women and girls across the globe.’

Why did you decide to become a member of The Circle?

I’ve always enjoyed being an active member of groups that aim to promote – and protect – the rights of women, but I felt as though I wanted to join a group that had a more global outlook. I loved the idea that you have this incredible force of women in The Circle, but to make it work you have pockets of passionate women in the smaller Circles who are given the opportunity to work with like-minded individuals to create something effective and meaningful.

What does The Circle’s mantra of #WomenEmpoweringWomen mean to you?

It’s interesting because sometimes you look back at moments in your life and you are able to identify experiences that have shaped who you are as a person. I have absolutely no doubt that the reason I feel so passionate about #WomenEmpoweringWomen is because I was lucky enough to have an absolute powerhouse of a friend at an early age – a friend who supported me, acted as my biggest cheerleader and empowered me to be the person I am today. Without knowing it, we had created our own circle of sisterhood, and that circle protected us from whatever the world was throwing at us. She empowers me, and I empower her – and because of that, we are able to empower others.

For me, #WomenEmpoweringWomen means striving to ensure that every woman experiences that incredible power of sisterhood.

What impact has The Circle had on your life?

It has encouraged me to think about feminism globally. I have always been aware that we need to think about intersectionality when we discuss the issues that women face, but The Circle has really challenged me to have that conversation with other people and, perhaps most importantly, challenged me to have that conversation with myself.

To check out The Lawyers Circle’s current projects on the Living Wage and Maternal Health rights click here!

#WidenYourCircle #WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist


The Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka

Our member Dushy has co-written a blog post about Ashila Dandeniya, an inspiring woman working for the rights of garment sector employees, and The Stand Up Movement in Sri Lanka.

Founder’s story

Ashila Dandeniya’s was first exposed to Katunayake Industrial Zone soon after finishing school. Her first job was as a Quality Checker for a top garment factory. Ashila’s position was unfairly terminated as a result of a conflict, however, with the support of Right 2 Life Human Rights Centre, she represented herself at the Labour Tribunal at the age of 22 and was offered a settlement amount of 1 year’s salary. This was the beginning of her activist journey to fight for the rights of garment workers in Sri Lanka.

Although she returned to work in another garment factory, before long she left to become a part of ALARM, a subsidiary of Oxfam which worked on projects involving labour rights. She worked as a programme coordinator for 5 years on projects concerning living wage, living condition, and freedom of association. By the end of ALARM assignment, Ashila had experience, expertise, and support among fellow workers in the garment industry. So, with just 12 members, Ashila initiated The Standup Movement to continue the work she’s passionate about.

The Stand Up Movement

The purpose of SUM is to educate the workers in the importance of taking initiative and taking on leadership roles in the factories, to be involved in their worker’s rights and to provide a safe space for the workers to discuss their problems.
In the beginning, SUM focused mainly on creating a dialogue with garment sector workers to understand their concerns and expectations. It emerged out of discussions that workers desired to watch films, an activity banned in most boarding houses due to the electricity usage, as an opportunity to engage with one another. SUM began organizing film screenings which gave SUM the chance to build relationships with workers, gain an insight into their lives and further understand the challenges that they faced.

SUM continued to grow and increase its membership by continuing to hold events for the garment sector workers including a cross-factory cricket tournament between 32 teams that went on for 3 months. It was entirely funded by the workers and resulted in SUM welcoming 250 new members. For a small fee, membership entails donations for the funerals of two family members and access to emergency loans.

Man Sandhi

In 2009, SUM, with the support of Rights Now published ‘Man Sandhi’, a book that included 15 case studies (out of 78 case studies conducted) on how the withdrawal of GSP Plus impacted workers with salary cuts, meal reductions, and the limitation of other essential facilities and provisions factories.
SUM launched the book in the presence of factory owners, international media, NGOs, and workers from various factories to great success. The entire event was organized by the members of SUM and the book written by Ashila herself. As the first publication that discussed the issues from the perspective of the workers, this was a huge step for those in the sector. The acclaim that Ashila received from this publication also continues to raise awareness.

The vision

The vision of SUM is to build a new concept trade union that deviate from traditional methods; a trade union that truly stands for the social security of workers.
SUM believes that traditional trade union methods are presently ineffective, from language and colours they use to strategies they employ to communicate to workers. SUM aims to take a fresh approach in order to achieve a higher participation and is proud of its members who have gone on to take leadership in the field of workers’ rights in their respective factories.

Some of the main challenges that workers face as identified by SUM

– Minimum wage not covering the living wage and the factories justifying this with overtime and incentives.
– Sexual harrassment
– ‘Hidden Cost’— workers doing overtime and not having time for social participation resulting in poor social dignity.
– Working without drinking water, not going to the toilet, and not taking full breaks so that they can achieve targets and make more money.
– Poor diet and as a result suffering from nutritional deficiencies such as Anemia.
– Language and communication problems faced by workers recruited from North and East parts of the island.
– Poor condition of the boarding houses without proper facilities.
– Break-ins at boarding houses.
– Being cheated by vendors.
– Workers consider this as a short term job and therefore less commitment to stand up for rights and make a change.
– Society’s negative attitude towards the factory workers and a general lack of respect from the community.

These issues are incredible damaging to garment sector workers.

Recently, a 23 year-old Tamil speaking female worker committed suicide inside a boarding house on 17th of September after just 3 months of working at the zone. No motive has been identified although the matter has been already closed and declared unsuspicious.

SUM believes that it is important to understand how safe the zone is for these workers who leave their families behind to come and survive on their own. Furthermore, it is vital to understand the necessity of providing a solid support system to the workers to overcome both personal as well as work-related challenges.

Ashila will be speaking at a screening of Made in Sri Lanka happening on 4th January in Colombo, at which she will be discussing SUM’s progress and current projects. Get in contact to find out more details of the event!

This article was written by member of The Circle, Dushy Rabinath and Shyama Basnayaka. Dushy lives and works in Colombo and is passionate about the rights of women.

Photo credit: Dushy and her family in Sri Lanka

#WomenEmpoweringWomen #OneReasonWhyImAGlobalFeminist