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Expanding your interests: Disability, race and gender in Sri Lanka

In this video, Dinesha Samararatne describes the intersections between race, disability and gender in Sri Lanka.
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MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Disability, Race, and Gender in Sri Lanka.
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DINESHA SAMARARATNE: So Sri Lankan society is made of roughly 70% of Sinhalese and roughly 15% of Tamils, and then Muslims and some other ethnic groups.
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There’s a lot of disagreement as to the causes of the armed conflict and as to when it actually began, but the violent component of the conflict started in the late 1970s. And an armed group, claiming to represent the Tamils, demanded a separate state. Because they claimed that Sri Lankan Tamils were being discriminated against by the state. So that essentially meant violence and armed conflict in the Northern Province and the Eastern Province, but also in other parts of the country.
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The government forces destroyed the LTTE leadership in May 2009. And since then, we have not had an armed conflict in Sri Lanka, but the conflict remains unresolved. So if we are to look at how women have been affected by the war and disability, you have different categories. One is the category of women who had disability that pre-existed the conflict. Then you have women who acquired disability due to the war, and that could be either as civilians or as combatants. And I think it’s important to notice the difference between these three. Over and above this there’s also the idea– and this has been argued by psychiatrists– that the war-affected population is suffering from collective trauma.
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So really, anybody who has been involved in the last stages of the war– as a civilian or a combatant– has this collective trauma as well. But if you look at these three categories, there is a difference in that those who acquired disability due to the war have not yet had the chance to learn how to cope with their disability. If you are a combatant, it becomes even more complex because in certain cases, there’s a stigma attached to being a combatant– even in your own community. So in addition to learning to live with a acquired disability, you also have to navigate that terrain of stigma– both within the community and outside the community.
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Because if people ask you how you became an amputee, it’s very difficult for you to explain why, because you feel that people will look at you differently and marginalise you and ostracise you. So I think we have to observe those differences and be very sensitive to them. Many of the women didn’t see themselves as women with disability first. When I spoke to them, one of my first questions in the list I had was, so what is your disability? In the first few interviews, I would ask them, and there was no response to that. In certain cases there was actually silence. So the first few times I tried to repeat the question and come back.
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But then I realised that even the corresponding Sinhalese term was not something that they were comfortable using. So then I realised, they don’t view themselves as women with disability because they live in a broad context of hardship, and this is yet another hardship that everyone expects them to cope with. Of course, this is just anecdotal. But I think in the urban context, if I spoke to woman with disability, they’d probably talk about their disability first– and speak about it in really negative ways. In the family and in the immediate community, your disability doesn’t ostracise you or marginalise you in a significant way.
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It’s when you step out of that community into the broader community or maybe move to the urban that these women experience it. So they had a strong sense of self-worth. And I think it’s very important to study it, to understand how they cultivate it and nurture it, and then see how we can sort of replicate it in the other spheres.

One reason it is important and useful to understand intersections between disability and other identities is because there are groups of people with disabilities who are more likely to experience disadvantage, oppression and violence.

Women with disabilities are one such group.

In this video, Dinesha Samararatne from the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka describes the Sri Lankan armed conflict of 1983-2009, and the experiences of women with disabilities living in war-affected areas.

Talking points

Throughout the video, Dinesha raises other identity categories that have an impact on the experience of disability in Sri Lanka. These included: religion, caste and rurality in addition to the others that we have explored around gender, race and ethnicity.

  • Does anything surprise you about Dinesha’s description of disability intersectionalities?
  • Reflecting upon your own local community, what are some of the identities that may intersect with disability and how it is experienced?

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