J. Natasha Gooneratne
(Text of Key Note Address on the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8th 2018 at the Forum on Women in Business & Travel Organized by Air India)
I’d like to thank you for having me here today and giving me this opportunity to share my views with you. I am rarely afforded the occasion to speak to members of the business community, and I think today is fitting, as it is timely for a forum like this to take place. Given that today is women’s day, I have been advised to keep my very brief address apolitical. An instruction that I have unequivocally disregarded.
For those of you who don’t know me, my work has thus far centered around diplomacy and international relations, with a focus on geopolitics, and I continue now in the area of political research. I have been part of civil society as I have also been part of the private sector in this country. But moreover, I, like so many that you must have heard say these words, was born to a Sri Lanka steeped deep in war. A war that often came to visit the perceived safeness of Colombo. When I was 10 years old the Joint Operations Command that stood next door to my school was bombed by the LTTE. It is a memory that stands in vivid starkness to the rest. This was one of the larger attacks in Colombo and the extent of the damage, both human and in terms of infrastructure was immense.
Since that time the questions that I had about why Sri Lanka was at war, was innumerable. I found nothing in my text books at school, nothing. As do I find nothing in text books at present. Nor would my teachers give me answers I was looking for. From the fragments that I could gather as a child, the different stages of the conflict made no sense: ‘How could it have got to that degree of chaos without anyone doing anything about it’. I grew up believing that I could somehow make a difference someday. A sentiment, many in my generation felt. And believed that the path to that difference, was through in-depth knowledge and understanding of mediation, multilateral cooperation with a focus on support and assistance; through the myriad of expertise that the world, and organizations such as the UN showcased for examples such as Sri Lanka. I was soon to find out that this line of thinking was both naïve and counterproductive.
I found that Organizations such as the UN are found wanting in their understanding of context and in their ability to empathize. They are often, no more than repetitive talk shops or political pressure mechanisms. During my studies, I found that all the knowledge and academics in the world could never fully explain what loss in war means to parties on every side, nor can it ever encompass what real authentic reconciliation and peacebuilding looks like, because each of us is too busy telling the story from our own perspective. And that with Western States in particular, this articulation was one of condescending interventionism for their own political interests and not from a genuine interest to resolve Sri Lanka’s issues. I found that Multilateral cooperation often takes a top-down approach, where the larger more powerful states often place conditions on its smaller counterpart forcing its own model of progress upon it, regardless of what future repercussions can be.
Sri Lanka has fallen prey to all these external traps, and I felt that to look outside for answers, was erroneous on my part. So where then lies hope?
But I’m getting ahead of myself and it is necessary to draw back to the forum we are at now, and how all of this relates to each of us personally; amidst anxieties, and concerns, on if Sri Lanka is caught up in a cycle that cannot be broken – A cycle that we’ve seen from independence onwards.
While women’s day fundamentally is a celebration of women’s rights. In the context of Sri Lanka right now, I have no doubt in my mind that each of us are concerned with the rights and wellbeing of the women, men and children in Kandy, Digana and Ampara.
And if we take a moment to dissect the many burning discussions that are rampant – all anyone is asking, is for solutions. We’re all asking‘how do we solve this thing?’
And I feel that true answers lie not at the UN or through the Western powers, that often like to tell us what to do, but in a far greater simplicity of solutions, that the world has long forgotten.
That, of conscience and a true desire for something better, something good.
I’d like to take a moment now for each one of us to simply reflect on each of our comrades around the room. Just take a moment to look at the person next to you.To truly acknowledge one another. We all come from different countries, backgrounds, different histories, cultures, traditions. There’s no doubt that each of us may have had, or are having still, struggles that the other may not understand. And yet somehow what affects the one, affects the collective. And while the separations and differences among us may be great, the similarities are greater still.
One binding similarity may be our ability to process varying situations to the point of arriving at an understanding of numerous outcomes. The slogan ‘women think too much’ has become a sort of gender-stereotype joke. And while I consent that overthinking in relation to our personal lives for instance – may not be the healthiest of choices – Overthinking, in relation to our government, the environment, in relation to future generations, in relation to the future – overthinking here, is necessary – if not essential.
I truly believe that we, as women, are more susceptible to the overall pulse of the collective. Which of you haven’t stepped in to work already knowing what sort of day you were going to have?
Some may say that this stems from our disposition within the cultural or social context from which we are from. But I think it’s something greater than just socialization. I think it’s the way in which we are wired and made as women. A powerful gift through which we are often more attuned and intuitive to the emotions, stories, hurts, joys and overall picture of the society that we live in.
For years’ women’s day has been looked at as a platform from which to explore how we can be empowered, socially, economically, culturally and politically. This has been necessary considering the still unequal footing between men and women. But what I am saying today is that it’s time to change the lens. The potential of women is limitless.
As a segment who historically know too well what marginalization feels like, we carry in us the power to create change. And that power is something we can pass on to our co-workers, to our children, to our families, societies and yes, even to our politicians.
Before we begin a discussion of inter-religious reconciliation, we need to be honest enough to admit that there is a necessity for intra-religious dialogue as well. Before we address the national level, we need to be able to get along at a personal level, to empower our co-workers and those closest to us. We need to be able to get into the thick of the heated social media discussion and provide the voice of the solution – not just another position. Before we tell our politicians to stop making excuses, we need to put our own defenses to rest and try to get along with that one person in our life that makes things impossible.
As a people, we can no longer look to the external, look to the outside, for solutions. Real progress, real change, comes from within. From within the country yes, but moreover, from within each of us. If we can’t build one another up and get along on a one-to-one basis, what hope do we have to expect transformation among 20 million?
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that all of us have the capacity, the tools of conscience and intention, to exert change. The power to empower.
How we do business and how we conduct relationships among our peers and our subordinates, how we treat one another, somehow reflects, affects and spreads, to how a nation in itself conducts relationships.I believe it’s fitting, given that there are so many here from our neighbour-state India, to explain it in the words of Mahatma Gandhi when he said that we ourselves needed to be the change that we hoped to see in the world. So that each day, not simply March 8th, is a day of empowerment and celebration of the victory of the human spirit. The victory that is alive and well in each of you, and I can only hope that we use it, to our fullest potential.
Thank You for your time.