Making the world’s largest women’s movement relevant

Shaleeka Abeygunasekera, only the fourth Sri Lankan to be appointed to the Board of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, discusses the Association’s relevance to women’s lives today, with Ramya Chamalie Jirasinghe

“We had three minutes to introduce ourselves. And I chose to use that time to focus on the future of the Guide movement,” says Shaleeka Abeygunasekera. Shaleeka, who has just been elected to the World Board of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) at its 34th world conference in Edinburgh, is describing the election process to me. “Canvassing is not allowed,” she adds. “All the delegates from the full member countries who are present vote at the conference. The voting depends on how well you impress the delegates during your three-minute introduction, and during the first four days of the conference. And they wanted the voters to look at the skills of the candidates.” Shaleeka will sit on this Board for the next six years.

Shaleeka Abeygunasekera

In the 95 years of Guiding in Sri Lanka, only three other Sri Lankans have sat on the Association’s World Board, and Shaleeka’s candidacy came 24 years after a Sri Lankan was last elected to the World Board. These three Sri Lankans, Sita Rajasuriya, Mukta Wijesinha and Venetia Gamage, were elected to the Board after they had each held the post of Chief Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Girl Guides Association. They brought to their nomination to the World Board, years of experience as Guiders and were known worldwide because of their post as the national Chief Commissioner.

Shaleeka, on the other hand, is in her mid thirties. She is one of the youngest to sit on the World Board and is the youngest from Sri Lanka by several years. The Guide movement has over 10 million members worldwide. It is the largest and oldest existing voluntary movement dedicated to girls and young women in the world and has members from over 145 countries. “We were around long before women had the right to vote,” Shaleeka says. “But,” she adds, “needs of women are very different today. Young women have other choices, so we have to repackage the way we present the movement to prospective members.” Her three-minute introduction emphasized the need to repackage Guiding when she said: “Today, we get to celebrate 100 years as a movement because ours is a programme that continues to be relevant to girls and young women.

However, the girls and young women of today like a little “glitz” and “bling”, and we need to repackage the service we offer so that it is seen in a more glamorous light. Marketing and branding is therefore paramount for WAGGGS, going forwards.”

Lord Baden-Powell, an English Army General, began the Guide movement in 1910 as the sister movement to the Scouts. Baden-Powell served in the British Army from 1876-1910 and returned to England a war hero after he commandeered the defence of Mafeking from a 217-day Boer siege. Baden-Powell’s experiences in the Second Boer War, especially the skills and strategies he used to survive the months-long siege, formed the basis for a series of articles in which he outlined the activities and values that he felt should mould the lives of young people.

The survival of Baden-Powell’s garrison in Mafeking had depended on courage, loyalty and resourcefulness, where Baden-Powell had been successful in garnering even the loyalty of many South Africans in Mafeking. He based the Scout and Guide movements on four principles: character, handicraft, health and service. The training methods that he promoted in the army, of working with small patrols headed by individuals and rewarding individual achievement are standard today, but were unconventional at the turn of the last century. He structured the Scout and Guide movements on the same methods that he had used in the Army, and as a result, a Guide or a Scout progresses through a series of life skills - winning badges for each skill that has been mastered - that focus on character, handicraft, health and service.

Shaleeka tells me that even the approach to winning badges has changed today, reflecting the inordinately competitive environment that children grow up in. “I had to have a word with a parent recently because the child was focusing on winning badges,” she says. The parent had answered that none of the teachers in school had an issue with that. Shaleeka’s derision is unmistakable when she says, “of course none of the teachers have a problem with it, because they don’t worry about the character. Guiding builds character. Winning badges is not the point of it.”

Shaleeka herself, however, has an impressive track record both academically and as a Guide. She holds a First Class Honours Degree in Pure Mathematics from Queen Mary’s, London and a Masters Degree in Decision Sciences from the London School of Economics (LSE). On top of these, there is also a professional accountancy qualification, and a specialization in strategic planning and resource optimization. She is a partner of a management consultancy firm and has worked within the Strategic Finance division of Ernst & Young in London. As a Guide, she won the highest award possible; the President’s Guide Award, and has since been active both nationally and regionally in the movement. All this is while juggling a career as a teacher at Wycherley International School, heading the Guide Company at Ladies’ College her, alma mater, and bringing up two young children. “The most important thing I learnt from Guiding,” she says, “was to be able to take on challenges and think on the spot. As Guides we had to get on with it!”

Shaleeka tells me, that despite having a mother who was a Guide Captain at Visakha Vidyalaya, (Shanta Jayalath is the Chief Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Girl Guides Association), that her mentor was Mrs. Mukta Wijesinha, who was the second Sri Lankan to sit on the World Board (then known as the World Committee). “When I was doing my patrol camp permit, I had to pick another 5 Guides and camp with them. Usually you picked friends on whom you could rely. I wasn’t given a chance! Mrs W. -- that’s what we called her -- picked three of the laziest girls and told me to take them with me. I remember I started to say ‘no’. She gave me one look, and that was it. I just went ‘OK, miss. Whatever you say, miss.’ You just took up the challenge, and did it. Saying no to her would have been like saying no to the queen – you just didn’t do it.”

It is possibly the enormous value of Shaleeka’s varied academic and professional backgrounds, and the mentoring she had received that the other members of the Guide Association recognized most. Immediately on appointment to the World Board, Shaleeka was assigned to focus on Fund Development, and Marketing & Brand Promotion. “Marketing and branding will be paramount for the Guide Association’s success,” she says, “but we have to keep in mind that given today’s strained economic setting, funding is restricted.” She tells me that the Association needs to make Guiding attractive to new members. In the past just camping and hiking had been considered a treat, and while they remain the key attractions, the movement has added adventure sports and a range of new extracurricular activities to attract and retain members. Shaleeka says, “we run an annual all island adventure sports festival.”

“Strategy!” she says, “we need to re-set strategy.” She talks about making the movement relevant to issues that women face today and mentions discrimination, domestic violence and abuse as some of them. In the course of our conversation we touch on Sri Lanka and she tells me how the Guide companies in the North and the East had continued to function during the war. She adds that there is a characteristic of the movement that will be relevant to post war Sri Lanka, its key principle that everyone belongs to one family – the family of Guides.

Listening to Shaleeka brought back memories of my time as a Guide in the 1980s when we had the opportunity to camp with Guides from the North and the East at islandwide camps. These were rare events for us when Guides from areas that many of us had not travelled to before, shared camp with us, thrown together into patrols to take care of the activities of running a campsite ranging from the camp mess (kitchen) to camp colours. I remember singing Ging Gang Gooli, one of those unforgettable campfire songs, seated around a roaring fire with Guides who had travelled from around the country, who by the end of the camp had become good friends with us. It was only later, during my research for this article, that I found out that Ging Gang Gooli had been written by Baden-Powell -- in gibberish script, its words deliberately not meant to make sense in any language -- for the World Scout Jamboree in 1920 because the jamboree had scouts from different countries, speaking different languages. I could immediately understand Shaleeka’s passionate appeal for the need to tell the world about Guides and about Guiding; her intuitive understanding that the world needs to be “re-told” about this one century old movement.

Guiding has grown into the largest women’s movement in the world during the last 100 years because it is founded on a set of values that will remain relevant. If at all, the values of loyalty, duty, character and service that Baden-Powell recognized as essential for personal growth, are probably most important today than at any other time in history. Guiding offers a character training programme similar to that which the Ministry of Higher Education recently initiated in the army camps for Sri Lankan undergraduates. Under the guidance of the Guide movement, a Guide builds her character and skills over several years, developing a wider, more holistic range of skills, starting from an age as young as eight years. Therefore the programme is able to make a more lasting mark on the girl’s character than any short-term programme could.

In Sri Lanka, the movement works closely with the Ministry of Education and is structured to match the administrative structure of the education system. The Sri Lanka Girl Guides Association has over 30,000 members in companies, based primarily in schools, spread throughout the island. “The movement is open to girls from all walks of life irrespective of ethnicity, religion or economic status. We run the movement in a way that it is affordable to every child. We have our outreach programmes with differently-abled girls, and girls in prisons and rehabilitant centres. We even have former LTTE child soldiers now enrolled as Guides as part of their rehabilitation programme. This is the way forward in a post war country that is working at creating opportunities for everyone,” Shaleeka says.

The goals of the Guides Association in Sri Lanka reflect the themes set by the World Association, which is focusing on identifying key concerns such as violence against women. The Association has recognized the fact that six out of every ten women and girls will experience violence or sexual abuse at some point in their lives, and it is focusing on giving women in the movement the skills and means to address those issues in their lives as well as through service projects in their communities. The Association launched this campaign to end violence against women at the Conference in Edinburgh. It underscored the fact that while many ad hoc campaigns have focused on specific forms of violence in a specific area (such as infanticide in India), that there has never been a major, unified campaign worldwide to end all forms of violence against girls and women. The Association’s campaign is the only global campaign of its kind.

As Shaleeka points out, the world’s largest women’s movement has an untapped resource in its membership of over 10 million to reach the farthest corners of the world to connect with families and people who would normally be outside the reach of a single organization. This makes the Guides one of the most important organizations of the 21st century. It is the one movement that works on building the lives of individuals as well as being advocates for campaigns for social change. It is the only movement that works with women almost all their lives. By doing so it contributes to immeasurable communal development. Yet, Shaleeka says, “we have been quiet about our work. It is about time we let the world know what we are and what we are doing.”

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