In the airy rooms that serve as the offices of the Women and Media Collective a work day is in full session. On one end of the room, posters from a 1986 creativity workshop are proudly displayed. In one a woman, pet-like, curls up at the end of a leash held by a faceless man; in another a woman, bowed down, is subservient to society’s many rules. The posters made front page news over two decades ago, with the Collective being accused of brainwashing women. While that seems altogether unlikely, what is clear is that WMC gave women a space and platform from which to express themselves without inhibition.
It’s been 25 years since human rights activist Sunila Abeysekera thought it might be a good idea to bring a group of women artists together under the banner of the WMC. The eclectic group included writers, film makers, photographers and painters, and celebrated women in media. It was around that time that Dr. Kumudini Samuel and Dr. Sepali Kottegoda, now directors of WMC, signed up. Kumudini remembers it as a vibrant time for women’s activism, with women taking to the streets, braving tear gas and baton charges to fight for causes they held dear.
|Women with a cause: The WMC team.
“There was a lot of solidarity,” says Kumudini, “We still have pictures of women who would just stand up on a table or chair and address the group.” Circulating translations of feminist literature sparked debates that raged about different kinds of feminism and its role in society.
“WMC got taken over by the politics of that time,” she says talking about how many other groups came together to sue for peace, fight against discrimination and ask for a negotiated political solution to the ethnic problem. In the meantime WMC continued to work with alternate media – learning screen printing and letter press printing. They designed posters and leaflets, took pictures and created slide tape shows, launched a media monitor, then a magazine.
These days, one of the crucial talking points at WMC is their struggle against domestic violence. The first time the organisation took up issues of violence, it was in the context of the conflict. “We worked constantly to bring the women from the different ethnic communities together, to help them see the commonalities of struggle, of discrimination.”
Explaining that they had previously made contact with the Mothers’ Front in Jaffna in the early eighties, Kumudini says WMC began to work closely with them during the 1987–90 period when disappearances became common.
“It’s interesting that we even worked with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mangala Samaraweera, who were then coordinators of the Mothers Front. I remember both of them coming to office...we helped a lot in collecting information about the disappeared and helping the families.”
By the time the nineties came around, the IPKF had been asked to leave Sri Lanka, and the war flared up again. WMC quickly became involved in organisations like the Suriya Women's Development Centre.
Looking back, Kumudini explains that WMC, catalyst like, helped set up organisations and build networks. “A lot of the work we did together with other groups. There was no point when Women and Media could have worked, in fact did work, just by ourselves.” During the same period, WMC began to interact with state institutions like the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the National Committee on Women, in an attempt to shape policy.
Today, the organization remains devoted to supporting peace and encouraging social cohesion. Through legal activism they attempt to influence policy at a national level. Recent studies have helped them identify key issues like exploitation in the work place and domestic violence.
They conduct research, and help coordinate activities among more than 75 women’s groups based all over the island. In particular, WMC attempts to link grass roots initiatives with national level networks such as the Sri Lanka Women’s NGO forum. Throughout, they have kept a focus on media both as a tool of expression and activism, creating radio magazine programmes and dramas, televisions spots and talk shows, and printing magazines in English, Sinhala and Tamil.
Of the dozen or so people who work at WMC today, many have been there for over 10 years, and some since the very beginning. “We’ve all had our babies while we were here,” says Kumudini. All grown up now, the kids can still sometimes be found running around the office. But while they make free with the boards and markers, their mothers are hard at work, campaigning for a better world.
The WMC is celebrating its 25th anniversary and the activism of thousands of Sri Lankan women with four unique exhibitions. These include a presentation chronicling the milestones of women’s activism in Sri Lanka from October 8 – 11.
Also included in the calendar is one exhibition of the works of contemporary women artists and another of photographs on the theme ‘Changing Minds’. Finally, a screening of 1 minute video clips filmed on mobile phones on the same theme has been organized. All events are to be held at the Lionel Wendt.