The Sunday Leader

Helping Working Class Women – Ashila Niroshini Dandeniya

by Rose Wanigasooriya

The working class women of Sri Lanka have always been frowned upon by those of a higher class. These women, who don’t have good educational backgrounds join the Free Trade Zone and is given work that is sometimes not suitable for them. These women suffer greatly as the pay is not high, the work conditions are poor, and they face great difficulty when it comes to providing for their families as the wages are insufficient, some of these women have been forced to look in to other occupations, sex-work being the most popular one. But with the Turn of the century women have been given a voice: women’s rights activists. Today we will be featuring one such activist, Ms. Ashila Niroshini Dandeniya.

As a person who had previously worked in the free trade zone, Dandeniya has had first-hand experience when it comes to the subject of women who have suffered in the free trade zone. As a person who has always felt as though the world has room for improvement she tried to work toward workers rights in the company that she was working for but unfortunately she had received her notice of resignation instead.  Later on she joined a NGO organisation as a employee but when the project she was working on came to a close she left that organisation and started her own. “After leaving the company I realised that I needed to give a voice to the workers who were unable to speak for themselves.  I started my own organisation “the stand up movement” we mainly work for women’s rights and free trade zone workers rights. 90% of our members are women,” she added.

She went on to say that most of her staff member who volunteered to work for her organisation also come from a background similar to hers.

Workers in a garment factory

“Many of the members in my staff have started out as workers in the free trade zone and have faced similar problems with their superiors so they have all volunteered to make the lives of the free trade zone workers better. All members contribute funds towards the organisation, that donation goes into a workers fund that we have created in order to be of help to the free trade workers. For instance, we ask a worker to write down the names of two family members if they suddenly pass on we arrange the funeral and provide allowances, we also provide legal help ,loan services and education on what the workers can do after retirement,” she added.

She also said that three years ago they expanded the organisation and divided it in to three sectors – the cleaning sector, these are the janitors and cleaning staff who work in the free trade zone; migrant sector, this is to help workers who choose to work abroad and a new section that they  have formed: sex workers sector. This section was found to help workers that work two jobs. Formally during the day they would work as free trade zone workers and informally in the night they would work as sex-workers. True, it cannot be considered an overall link to the free trade zone but it needs to be addressed. Under the stand they have created a social security network through which thay have created a center for sex-worker rights.”

When asked about the volunteers that help her organisation she said “almost all the staff members are still serving in the Free Trade Zone after they finish their work for the day they come and help out with whatever project we have. Otherwise they come on the weekends to help out. However, in the sex workers rights center we have a team of lawyers and other staff members serving  on a full-time basis. We have four trained officials working together with labourers as well,” she said.

When asked about her personal life she had this to say: “I lost my father during the ’83 riots. I was very young then and my mother somehow managed to educate me all the way up to my A/L years . Thereafter, when I started working in the free trade zone there was a committee formed to discuss workers issues, I joined it almost immediately and became very actively involved but then later on when I was trying to discuss an issue with the higher- ups I was asked to resign but I knew that was un-called for so that became my inspiration to become an activist.”

“As a woman in this field we have to face many trials personally I had trouble getting workers to trust me. Therefore, in order to gain their trust I used a method called ‘film conversation.’ In these dormitories watching movies or television is not allowed so I prepared an overhead projector and I brought these workers and we used to watch movies while having a conversation. This renewed our relationships and made them stronger. Gradually, we built a sort of rights based mentality in them. Every other problem that we faced we were able to overcome legally. There were some problems that took a toll on my personal life, but with the support of friends and family I stood by my decisions to work as a activist, ”said Dandeniya.

When asked on her plans for the future she said “Our main plan for the future is the expansion of our social security project, to increase the fund and the amount of benefits that workers get, and also while expanding the main social security sector we want to expand the other small sectors as well. We have also created a team to speak on gender discrimination and women’s rights. Next year, we are hoping to help out with small organisations that involve women from rural areas and educate them on the problems that women face and how they can help in the prevention process.”

“My advice to all women is to never look back and move forward and persevere towards your goals. This is  because if I do not take a step forward my daughter will not take a step forward because children always learn from their parents. However, when we are pursuing our goals always remember to do it fairly without letting anyone else feel left out because as women we are strong and able,” she said.


1 Comment for “Helping Working Class Women – Ashila Niroshini Dandeniya”

  1. I Udarath Wanigasekara

    Woman must proceed toward their goals

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