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Expanding your interests: AKASA case study – Part 1

In this video, N.G. Kamalawathie introduces learners to AKASA, the Association of Women with Disabilities in Sri Lanka.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. AKASA case study, part 1.
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. 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. 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 Kamala heads an organisation called AKASA, which is located in rural Sri Lanka in the North Central Province, which is just below the Northern Province. And it’s– the war that went on for 30 years primarily took place in the Northern Province and the Eastern Province. So the North Central Province borders both provinces and therefore is actually a very strategic location in terms of reaching out to people affected by the war. Kamala’s work began in the mid-1990s.
And it came out of– one thing was her own personal experience of being treated differently when she moved from the urban to the rural, and the realisation that you need to have an organisation working on women with disability because the disability community was, again, being a bit stereotypical and focusing on the disability issues of men. N.G.
KAMALAWATHIE THROUGH INTERPRETER: I wanted to establish AKASA because of the experience of discrimination that I had in coming out of my community and finding employment, particularly in the urban context. I realised that there was a lack of opportunity and that there was discrimination for persons with disability and especially for women with disability, because women with disability have to deal with the issue of poverty, gender stereotypes, and disability. So these three aspects lead to multiple stressors and result in numerous challenges for women with disability with a rural background. So I realised that this was something that I had to do something about.
It’s also at the very same time that I had the opportunity to travel internationally to participate in sporting events.
And I experienced for myself that, at least in developed countries, they were trying to treat persons with disability as equals. And I thought to myself, even though Sri Lanka is a developing country, that there were things that could be done. And I realised also that one way of making that change was to organise as a lobby group and to ask the government, ask the community, to accept us as equals, and to make the changes that needed to be made so that we could live as equals in our society.
We don’t generally ask for specialised treatment for women with disability. What we are asking for is that we be treated equally along with everyone else. So if everyone else is being offered some sort of opportunity, we would like to have that opportunity as well.

Throughout this course we will use AKASA, an organisation for women with disabilities in Sri Lanka, as a case study for working with disability. This week, AKASA director N.G. Kamalawathie (Kamala) and her Sri Lankan colleague, human rights law academic Dr. Dinesha Samararatne, discuss what motivated the formation of AKASA.

As a background, Dinesha sets the history of armed conflict in Sri Lanka, dating back to the 1970s, which had significant impacts on women with disabilities. AKASA was formed in rural Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s when Kamala realised that women with disabilities in rural areas of Sri Lanka were in particular need of supports.

Dinesha explains that when Kamala moved to a rural community, she encountered different understandings of disability and experienced different treatment as a disabled person than in the urban context. She saw a need to start an organisation that could tackle the unique problems that women with disabilities face in the rural community, and she was able to bring together disabled women with shared experiences of hardship due to the war.

Kamala talks about the importance of equal opportunity in the lives of women with disabilities in rural Sri Lanka. Importantly, she doesn’t seek specialised treatment for women with disabilities, but simply wants women with disabilities to have the same opportunities as everybody else to participate in society.

The story of the formation of AKASA illustrates several key themes from this week:

  • disability as a dimension of human diversity;
  • experiences of disability as dependent on one’s social context;
  • diversity within the disability community itself;
  • the importance of social inclusion and equal opportunity for people with disabilities;
  • and the bringing together of like-minded individual to foster a sense of belonging.

Talking points

  • How does the idea of equal opportunity relate to human diversity and social inclusion?
  • Why might the promotion of social inclusion be particularly important in the lives of rural women with disability in Sri Lanka?
  • In what ways does Kamala’s story weave together the ideas we have been developing this week?

We will pick up on some of these threads in later weeks — in particular, when we discuss human rights and access.

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