The International Network of Engaged Buddhists (INEB) and a group of Sri Lankan women peacebuilders organized a gathering for female activists in Colombo, Sri Lanka from January 29-31, 2023. Twenty Sri Lankan women with various ethnic and religious backgrounds, ranging in age from 22-55, participated in discussions on marginalization, exclusion, and gender-based violence.
The event was a continuation of INEB and the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice (IWP) efforts to support women peacebuilders and improve their networking skills.
The gathering was a response to the need for increased engagement among women peace builders and activists at the national level in Sri Lanka, which was identified at a regional workshop held in Chiang Mai, Thailand in December 2022.
This need was clearly demonstrated by the 93 applicants which submitted their desire to join the workshop just days after registration was opened. Though the team only had capacity for 20 attendees, this high demand for capacity building is an encouraging sign for the future of female-led civil society in Sri Lanka.
Recognizing the Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka, equal space was intentionally created by the organizers for members of Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities. Similarly, to ensure meaningful participation the workshop was simultaneously translated into both Singhala and Tamil.
During the workshop attendees learned about self-defense as a tool for empowerment, shared their experiences as activists and discussed the need to reinforce efforts in their communities to prevent sexual and gender-based violence. Despite regular power cuts at night due to the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, workshop activities carried on enthusiastically by candle light which contributed to a palpable sense of resilience and determination.
The workshop curriculum focused on alignment of head, heart and hands by building in time for self care and experiential learning with artwork and community building exercises. Feminist leadership principles and skills were integrated throughout the workshop allowing flexibility and power sharing between the facilitators and participants.
The first day of the workshop was intended to help participants relax into the new learning community that was forming with a series of art based activities. In the “I Logo” activity participants were given instructions to create an image collage that they felt represented their energy and power in pictorial form. After one hour of creative work the finished products were shared with each participant given the chance to describe the image they created. Next the participants rearranged their works into an organic mandala shape, highlighting the ways in which each individual’s strengths contributed and supported the whole. This shift in perspective from “me” to “we” was a salient way in which the workshop helped the participants understand the connection between their work and the larger peacebuilding community in Sri Lanka.
On the second day of the workshop participants were more comfortable and ready to fully absorb deeper conceptual elements of the curriculum which included sessions on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), and gender based violence (GBV). In the afternoon a practical empowerment through self-defense (ESD) session was run which proved very popular with the participants.
Progressing gradually from the heart to head, the final day of the workshop sought to integrate these two dimensions with a hands-on activity titled Art for Revolution. Participants were given plain tote bags and paint with the instruction to create an image they felt best represented the learning they experience during the workshop. Many of the final pieces included the word ‘NO’, a key step in peacebuilding for setting boundaries and a central skill developed in the empowerment self-defense training.
Reflecting on their experience, the participants appreciated the safe space and the chance to reflect on their own power and well-being, which are key factors in becoming strong peacebuilding leaders. They were also enthusiastic about the self-defense training they received and hope to bring this knowledge to their communities. Attendees are also currently considering action that can be taken moving forward, including creating a more formal network to address gender-based violence. Plans for art exhibitions and street theater productions are also in development for communicating messages of empowerment and peacebuilding to the wider public. INEB plans to hold a virtual gathering in March 2023 to follow up on the participants’ plans.