At the time of writing, Colombo has endured more than a month of curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Roads are empty, businesses are shut. But on the Arka Initiative Whatsapp group, a hive of activity is taking place. Proposals are being written, livestream videos on SRH (sexual and reproductive health) are being planned, [...]


Arka: Tackling SRH


Arka session: Offering information and a safe space for questions

At the time of writing, Colombo has endured more than a month of curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Roads are empty, businesses are shut. But on the Arka Initiative Whatsapp group, a hive of activity is taking place. Proposals are being written, livestream videos on SRH (sexual and reproductive health) are being planned, social media queries about the availability of contraception during curfew have to be discussed. The group makes a unanimous decision to donate reusable pads to women who are running out of sanitary products. The lockdown may have forced us all into our homes, but that doesn’t mean life behind closed doors stops.

I came to know of Arka Initiative through its founder, Manisha Dissanayake, an attorney-at-law, who had an idea to start an organisation that provided support and solutions to fill in the SRH gaps in Sri Lanka. “I had experienced first-hand, and heard so many stories about the terrible experiences young men and women have trying to access services and basic products in the sphere of SRH, and wanted to bring together a team of young professionals who would advocate for other young people in Sri Lanka,” Manisha said.

Taking into account SRH involves physical, mental, emotional and social aspects, Arka consists of a dedicated group of psychologists, lawyers, researchers, doctors, and volunteers, of which I am one. Dr. Rashmira Balasuriya’s experience as Head of Mentors for Arka put it into perspective how her primary job informs the other – ‘Working in a neonatology unit meant that I spent a significant amount of time conversing with new mothers and their partners and through this I became very aware of the significant lack of SRH education among them. When I came across Arka Initiative, it was a perfect fit.’

To get a general overview of what’s happening in Sri Lanka, I turned to Tharakie Pahathkumbura (Arka’s resident researcher). Reliable information seems to indicate that 1000 abortions are performed daily, 70% of menstruating women do not use pads or tampons, and only 57% of young people used contraception during their first intercourse. But as Tharakie reiterates, there are huge gaps in the data and no clear figures can be given. So, why are we struggling with SRH in Sri Lanka?

Tarangee Mutucumarana (lawyer and part of operations for Arka) puts it down to stigma, lack of awareness, patriarchy and the inability for men to see women’s issues as equally important – particularly in Parliament where the lack of representation means there is less focus on these problems. For example, sanitary napkins are branded as “luxury items” and are taxed at a current rate of 62.6%.

So, considering the “taboo” nature of what Arka deals with, I asked Manisha whether they experienced any initial setbacks. “We did encounter obstacles, but our approach was to keep going. We were once told that there would be backlash if we tried to provide women outside Colombo with reusable sanitary pads because people in those communities believed it would make them infertile.”

Despite this, Arka has persevered and gained a lot of online traction for itsmultilingual approach and commitment to inclusivity. Talking to Natasha Perera, graphic designer and Head of Creative, I ask whether she always has to be consciousof Arka’s audience when designing. “Design and creativity is one of the most fundamental and effective ways of communication so it is critical to be attentive to our audience – whether it’s to create online engagement for an Arka event or in the case of people living outside the city, making sure they are comfortable enough to attend a session.”

These sessions that Natasha refers to are part of Arka’s most ambitious endeavour yet – The Sustainable Sanitation Project (SSP). Headed by Kemalie Herath and facilitated by Sathyani Wevita, SSP aims to provide women from low income families (who primarily use cloth as their mode of sanitation) with reusable sanitary napkins. The goal is to travel to all 25 districts and organise two-hour sessions with 50 women in each district on menstrual hygiene, contraception, and sexually transmitted diseases, along with how to wash, use and dry the reusable sanitary napkins. Since mid-2019, five districts have been covered but Kemalie mentions it’s been tough finding groups of women in the North and East, so anyone with contacts is welcome to get in touch with Arka.

I’m interested to know what the response was like and Kemalie said, “In terms of Colombo and Matara, which are considered to be developed areas, women were more educated but also reserved and not open to conversation. However, in places like Monaragala (considered one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country) our discussions were nuanced and extensive. Medical access is scarce in this area and they would have to walk a few kilometres to see a doctor or buy pads.”

“Our best session yet has been in Mathugama where women were interactive and well versed on what their contraceptive options were but most seemed reluctant to use them because of their own bizarre beliefs (like using a copper IUD could be dangerous during lightning). However, Tharakie’s follow-up included a testimonial from a woman who attended this session who said, “I feel like we learned a lot of information and corrected many misconceptions.We haven’t spoken this openly before and I feel happy. It seems now like a lie to feel shame about these things.”

Adding to the success of SSP is also the interactive sex education sessions Arka holds in schools for 11-12-year olds and 16 and above headed by biology teacher, Tamara Jayasinghe. “Issues with SRH are constantly being addressed in the classroom but it is very theoretical in nature – it is all just to pass an exam, which I completely disagree with. Children are reluctant to approach me with their questions, but once they realise it’s a safe space, the questions are endless. However, despite my efforts I can only do so much. I believe that it is essential that they are given access to a wide spectrum of help and a safe environment to discuss questions and concerns.”

It seems it takes a village, or rather a country to make something like SRH awareness work but for now, Arka remains optimistic and committed towards its goals. What particularly fascinates me is the community Arka has built within itself -the core organisation voluntarily give up their time and energy despite having hectic full-time jobs. Manisha is full of praise – “I’m always in awe, not only because they’ll be at the cutting edge of their respective professions one day, but also because of their heart to serve. Everyone works so hard, despite their demanding careers, and that’s very humbling.”

These are scary times but the future looks bright for Sri Lanka if these are the leaders propelling our country forward, one step at a time.

 (The writer is a volunteer with Arka Initiative)

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