You are here

Hi everybody. Good afternoon. There you go.

Now where I'm from in the, in the southern part of the United States, it would be typical to say good afternoon back to me, so we can say take two?

Just like in the movies, we get a second take.

Good afternoon! Now, that's a very Sri Lankan welcome.

I've enjoyed your hospitality so far, thank you very much for all of the kindness that's been shown to me.


Now I get shy.


It’s as if I have something to say.

Thank you all so much for choosing to spend some time with us this afternoon.

I know that there is a lot going on in Sri Lanka at the moment. You've got some upcoming elections and always interesting things to cover. So UNFPA and I are very grateful that you would choose to spend some time with us to talk about our work here in Sri Lanka.


I have been hosted so graciously by UNFPA, and I'm going to give a very special thanks to the country staff for inviting me, in the first place, and for organizing such a dynamic and, interesting, and really sweet visit.


And I think sweet is a word that comes to mind when I think about Sri Lanka. As Ritsu mentioned, I've had the opportunity to travel so far in my capacity as goodwill ambassador for UNFPA, to Jordan - a country of course that has an enormous influx of refugees from nearby Syria. I visited with refugees both in host communities and in the two camps in Syria, and it's a very different kind of work that UNFPA is doing there.


It's still about making sure that every pregnancy is intended and wanted, that every childbirth is safe, and that all youth have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and that everyone should live free from violence.


But the context is very different in Jordan, as it is in eastern Ukraine, in a place where there's an active and ongoing conflict, and of course you are a post-conflict society emerging after 28

years of really brutal and savage civil war, the likes of which I can't even imagine, and my condolences, continue to go out to those of you who have and continue to suffer.


I've also been to Turkey and India.


And what's so different about Sri Lanka, is that you represent what can happen when a country is able to empower people through universal access to education, universal healthcare, to reduce maternal mortality and to have capacity building and partnership with the government in such a way that strengthens your local institutions.


So many of the places I visited so far, UNFPA is engaged in service delivery.


But here, your service delivery is so outstanding that we're more consulting on the government level about identifying the subnational gaps, as Ritsu mentioned in maternal mortality and understanding that we can be allies and advisors in improving your status from a lower middle income country to a high income country.


Now, all that being said, there are ongoing challenges. I want to make sure that I mention I am an American, and I don't swoop in here as if my country is good, right and perfect because obviously there is tremendous ongoing gender violence, intimate partner violence and sexual harassment and discrimination in the United States.


Something that I mentioned often is an egregious example of ongoing gender violence in the United States, is that rapists have paternity rights in 22 states in the U.S. So I always try to make sure that we understand we're speaking from a very level playing field here and, that I come to you as a global citizen, and not a high and mighty American.


Some of the things that have definitely stood out to me, where I hope UNFPA can continue to be helpful to Sri Lanka, and where I hopefully can help do some good as well, some of the harassment that I've been startled to learn about includes in your public transport, that 90 percent of females who use public transportation experience gender based harassment, which is really just, deeply unfortunate, and that you have very low female participation in the labour

force, and although 16 percent of your university students are female, your labour forces is only

36 percent female, and of course that doesn't include the informal sector, but women in the informal sector have a lot of vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.


Also, 50 percent of young people don't have a basic understanding of how the opposite sex’s reproductive system works, and that really speaks to my passion for sexual and reproductive health and comprehensive age and culturally-appropriate sex education.


Those are just some of my observations so far, but what I'd really love to do is open it up for questions, and get to know you a little bit better and hopefully by doing that, you can also get to know me a little bit better.


We can talk about the work that we've done so far since I arrived in Sri Lanka, for example, over at the University in Kandy, engaging with students, using art and theater.


We can talk about my visit today to the maternity hospital, visiting a gender-based violence counselor who works with women and with couples who have violence in their relationships. And that's just for starters.


So who would like to be brave and ask the first question?


Media Q & A


Question 1

Name: Jordana Narin

Organization: Daily News


Jordana: I’m wondering if after your visit to Sri lanka, if you know ways that GBV can be tackled

from a non-policy perspective? In the U.S and other countries, it has been tackled through social media, and based on your experience with the forum theatre play, if you could share some?


Ashley:  Sure. It's a wonderful question about non-policy based solutions to gender-based violence, and I will give some examples from the pretty remarkable art experience that I had at the University over in Kandy, which is a lovely place, and the botanical gardens are completely divine. I could live in the orchid house in particular.


The students were invited to represent what violence looks and feels like in five sectors: on social media, at home, at university and in the workplace and in public transport. In particular on social media.


They used the #MeToo Hashtag talking about the hyper sexualization of girls and women, and I say girls and women because they included children, and what they represented and how the Internet needs to be a free and safe place where everyone can participate free from bullying and from misogyny, and some of their solutions to that were really just talking about it.


And being able to stand up to other people and continuing to demand our place in social media, so it's not just a block on the trolls or to get off Whatsapp. It's the bullies and boys and men who engage in that behavior, who need to change.


It's not reducing our participation. That is the solution and the depiction of intimate partner violence and family violence at home.


It was so powerful.


The kids drew a guy whose mouth is open and what was coming out of his mouth was a fist and he was showing how he expressed his violence with his words and his hand had a wedding ring on it to show that he was a spouse and the other hand had a bouquet of flowers with the card that said:

To my dear wife, I love you. I hate you. I'm sorry. I'll never do it again”


And oh my gosh, doing it again.


And I'm giving some pretty dramatic and vivid examples, but the point is that the kids were talking about it in a non shamed, in a non-shaming way that was very safe and really open, and it's that kind of awareness that creates advocacy and courage. Courage really being the operative word.

And then the play, which is what I really want to emphasize, was absolutely phenomenal. I love doing art and theater, with people all over the world. That's been a part of my

humanitarian work since I started this in 2004. But the play that they did was really long. It was almost 40 minutes long and it had about 12 characters in it and they showed a couple of university girls who are taking public transport home and they get cat called and haggled.


Then they go to a kiosk to top up their mobile. And this guy who had done the cat calling was all hip, slick and cool and managed to finagle the phone number of the girl who he had cat called from the kiosk. And from then he goes on to start calling her and harassing her and saying, “Oh, you're so cute and I want to get together with you”. And then it leads eventually to, him taking pictures and threatening to post them on social media, so she feels like she has to comply with his demands because of sexual bribery. And then it culminates in a rape.


So the play shows the full spectrum of gender-based violence and discrimination that is very typical for Sri Lankan girls and women, not all girls and women experience all of that.


That all Sri Lankan girls and women experience some of that, which is also the American experience, that I think #MeToo has demonstrated so amply.


This is really where the non-policy based solution comes in because the kids went back to the very beginning of the play and they redid it with the audience, with claps, stopping the play at pivotal moments to show how girls and women can empower their own behavior to create different outcomes.


They had so many ideas, so many more ideas than even I had. And some of them were commercial and entrepreneurial- based, like those kiosks folks should have a different system so that phone numbers can't be copied,  to boys standing up to other boys and saying: “No, I'm not going to give you that girl's phone number. You don't know her. That's not right, and that's not appropriate”,  to when the girl is being called for having voice and courage, and it being OK for women and girls to become angry and say, “Stop it, don't call me, this is inappropriate and unwelcome”,  and hanging up as many times as it takes.


Of course being able to block a number is always helpful.


All those communication and behavior changes that can disrupt cycles of micro-aggression and outright violence. The play was something very special, and the kids paid such close attention, were incredibly inventive with their responses, and I was really impressed.


Question 2

Name: Lourdes Abeyeratne

Organization: LMD


Q: India is a country with high mortality rate with of children especially young  girls. In a  county of over 1 billion people, how do you go about changing extreme cultural and religious beliefs, where they believe that girls are abonimable burdens?


Ashley: I understand here in Sri Lanka the birth of a girl is considered lucky. I was delighted to hear that. The sex ratio is 52 percent female, 40 percent male and, frankly I was concerned when I learned that, I thought it had to do with female infanticide, but I was delighted to learn that's not the case here in Sri Lanka.


It has more to do with the ageing population, than with a son preference, and UNFPA wants to empower girls and boys and prevent and change these harmful practices. So ending child marriage, ending female genital mutilation and cutting, and making sure that girls have equal access to sanitation and hygiene, which is seemingly not so much an issue here in Sri Lanka (which is absolutely wonderful). Making sure that every woman can have her dignity regarding her menses and that girls go to school - when an educated girl is more valued, and when a girl is educated, she becomes a more powerful economic actor. And that economic acting has

positive impacts on families.


At first it can require social negotiation because a woman with money can be startling in a household, as we learned through our garment factory visit yesterday at MAS, so that is in part my answer. I think that as broad and troubling as the facts are that you present in your question, there are an equal number of opportunities for change and progress.


Question 3

Name: Nalaka Gunawardana / Blogger


Q: Did you meet any of the sexual minorities in Sri Lanka, the LGBT community, which is discriminated against institutionally and legally? And what are your views on ensuring equality for them, because that should be part of the larger sexual and reproductive rights goals that we should pursue.


Ashley:  Thank you so much for the question. It's really important that you brought up our friends and family, and the LGBTQI community, and so far my work in Sri Lanka has not introduced me to any sexual minorities as you said, but I am aware that there are organizations here in the country that do specifically work with particularly vulnerable groups.


I'm going to meet with the folks from Women in Need and also Act Form. I'm here specifically in my capacity as UNFPA goodwill ambassador and again, our mandate is to protect and empower the sexual and reproductive health of all folks, everywhere and that definitely includes sexual minorities.


Were my trip longer, I would definitely try to hang out with some of those folks because they have so much to teach me, so much to teach me about dignity, about resilience, about determination, and the depth of the human experience and how much we can suffer when we are discriminated against. You know, we're all just folks, we're all just people and it's important to include our brothers and sisters and our progress. Thanks so much for the question.


Our policies have to be intersectional, and that's part of the invitation that Sri Lanka has, as a lower middle income country, is making sure that no one is left behind because you've already brought so many of your folks with you through universal access to education, universal access to healthcare. Let's gather up those who are still left behind and make sure that we bring them into the prosperity and progress that Sri Lanka promises.


Question 4

Name: Tarini Pilapitiya

Organization: The Sunday Times


Q: In a country where the LGBTQI community has little to no rights, there’s lack of sanitation, lack of contraception - what is your overall message to women who are more silent, especially within more patriarchal communities?

Ashley:  It's such a good question talking about family planning, access and prevalence. Family planning prevalence is quite high in Sri Lanka, with of course the gaps and the sub

national and minority population differences, to which were referred in the opening statement. What UNFPA advocates is voluntary human rights-based individual empowerment regarding one's reproductive health, the opportunity and the dignity of deciding if and when and whether and how many children to have. And that requires making all different kinds of modern family planning methods available.


Today I was at the maternity health clinic and women had a variety of methods that they were using, whether it was long lasting reversibles, like IUDs. there were patches, there are folks who prefer the pill. I understand that condom use is quite low and confined to specific kinds of relationships. Correct and consistent condom use is very important, particularly in preventing STDs and HIV and we just have to keep making family planning available and do the advocacy and the awareness, that it's a rights-based fact of life, and that it's for individuals to have that autonomy and agency and dignity of choice.


About voice, you know, that's why I'm very excited to be visiting the Women in Need shelter and why when I was visiting today, the gender-based violence counseling office at the Maternity Hospital because those of us who have experienced violence. And I certainly have, I was molested for the first time when I was seven years old. And I've experienced three rapes and of course a survivor of sexual harassment, which I've been talking about a lot lately in the United States. We need safe spaces where we can talk to one another to find our voices and continue to have the courage and the resilience to speak our truth with dignity and respect.


Follow up question: In low income groups in the North and the South, there's a lot more maternal deaths in these places, how do low income countries make available these services to these areas. If middle-income learners aren't using things like contraception, then how do we create that space for other income groups do to so?


Ashley: Well, I can answer some and I'll also ask Ritsu if she would have something additional to offer. Part of the great news about Sri Lanka is 99.9 percent of all births have a skilled attendant present. And when you've got that kind of skilled maternity care delivery, that's a wonderful opportunity to talk about family planning methods, you know, before delivery and after

delivery and postpartum IUD insertion, patches, going away with the pill and condoms, that's


really the low hanging fruit for family planning delivery to poor folks who want it for themselves.


Ritsu do you have something further to add?


Ritsu: In Sri Lanka, the universal access to family planning services is there. I think what you're referring to is probably the implementation of the policies and I also understand that in some cases, in some families, it’s not an open topic, so that the women may feel a little hesitant to tell their husband for example, "I'm going to this clinic to get family planning services", so that might be preventing some families to have access, but this is why UNFPA really advocates for the use of voluntary family planning services and increased quality of services. That's part of our mission.


Ashley: It's so important that we women talk to one another because that's where we get so much of our information. We girls have to group up and talk about our sexual and reproductive health, and mothers in law have a lot of power. Sisters in law have a lot of power and I mean I've seen some pretty remarkable gatekeeper projects.


For example, in India, with UNFPA and another organizations with whom I work, PSI, where when we educate and sensitize the mother in law, you can really unlock access to scores, dozens of other girls and women.


And of course Sri Lanka is signatory to family planning 2020. So the implementation is everything.


Question 5

Name: Shehan Ranatunga

Organization: News First


Q: I don't know about your experience with women's representation in government, were you able to meet anyone in government or from the local government, and what was it like, and what do you think of the importance of women as decision makers in this country?


Ashley: In a general way, female participation in the political space here in Sri Lanka as was noted, your population is 52 percent female. However, your political participation at the National level of women is only 5.3 percent, which is really, really low. It's even lower than the United States Congress, which is really saying something folks. At the local level, the female participation is only 1.9 percent. And thank God for this new quota of 25 percent women in elected positions because it's going to be a boom to use a wonderful spiritual term.


Women in the political space is always a good thing for elevating the voices and the status of girls and women. So I'm excited for you and your upcoming elections. That will be interesting to see what comes with them.


Obviously harassment of female candidates is a terrible problem. There was a prevalent survey that was done that talks about everything from slander or defamation to sexual coercion and bribery to physical attacks and rape, and this fear of girls and women assuming our rightful place as peers is really something I think boys and men are just going to have to live through and just give us a chance and you'll see that it's good for everybody.

With regard to meeting with officials, I had a wonderful breakfast yesterday with members of the diplomatic community and UNFPA is especially grateful to the government of Canada for its support of UNFPA here. And what we're able to do for Sri Lankans.


We're also with Canada going to be doing a gender based violence prevalence study because data matters and when we've got that data, then policies and advocacy and implementation can be data driven.


We had a really good conversation with representative from the High Commission from Australia. And there were lots of other folks there who were big supporters of both the Sri Lankan community and UNFPA's work here.

Question 6

Name: Nushka Nafeel

Organization: Daily News


Q: What is the solution to sexism that use religion as a cover, for example: child marriage?


Ashley: So the question is about using religion as a cover for sexism. Boy, I wish I had a silver bullet answer to that one. Well, I can, take off my UNFPA hat and speaking just as, Ashley, I am a faith based person. I was raised Christian, I like to say I was baptized a couple times to make sure it worked and I have a very ecumenical faith today.


We were in a beautiful Buddhist temple and really excited to visit the Hindu temple. I've been to the temple of the tooth, which was a really special experience and we made sure to go

during the months procession because I wanted to get some of that good stuff on me, and what I was taught, and what I believe is that we're all created equal in the image and likeness of a loving creator.


And so my faith teaches me that that is exactly where gender equality begins and how can have

- Yeah, I don't really know what to say beyond that. I mean, I understand that there are pockets of you know, and it's very difficult and sensitive to single out a specific community, and so I'm careful to add, you know, that even within Christianity in the United States, there can be a lot of asymmetry of power between men and women, but some of the divorce laws amongst specific religious communities in Sri Lanka are very problematic and very unequal. It's not, it's not good for families and it's not good for children. So I think that to me, spirituality and faith are about equity and dignity and balance.


Question 7

Name: Himal Kotelawala



Q: Some gender-based activists, myself included in Sri Lanka, and in the world, struggle with countering the criticism that the #MeToo movement trivialises “real problems” faced by women by needlessly emphasizing and highlighting what the critics perceive to be trivial problems. Any advice on that?


Ashley: Thank you for your work. Boys and men are integral to the movement and you are our allies and we have to do this together. It's not an asymmetrical movement. It has to be interdependent and inclusive.


I think my answer is a personal one, and that everyone is different and everyone experiences microaggression and oppression and violence according to their particular set point. And it's important that we value everyone's individual experiences and we don't have a, um, what am I trying to say? It's not a contest.


It's not a competition of who is more hard done by. And what we're looking for is a world where gentleness and tenderness and kindness are as valued as the norms of toxic masculinity that are so celebrated right now.


You know, and is it actually OK to use those words? Oh my gosh. And in public, at a press conference? that we're looking for a world that has tenderness in it. I don't know if I'm answering your question particularly well, but I can say for myself that, what I know about the brain, we all experience trauma in the brain stem and that experience is the same for everybody.


And, that's what we're trying to cope with is that ancient adrenaline, cortisol, stress response. And, we can't trivialize other people's experiences, we need to listen to them with dignity and respect and yes, there is a spectrum of behavior, and there is a gradient, and we need the vocabulary to be able to describe what is a micro aggression, what is harassment, what is assault, and what is more severe violence, and that's part of the movement and part of the growth.


I know that the International Labor Organization (ILO) is creating sexual harassment standards and they will be establishing this international floor onto which we can all be signatory so that we understand what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. And I think that will help normalize our vocabulary very significantly.


Question 8

Name: Dhara Gunawardana / Blogger


Q: In a country where sex and sexuality is considered a taboo subject to talk about, especially among parents and children, what do you think my generation could do to change the mindset? I know there are lots of people who want to discuss contraception methods with parents but because of religion and culture they are scared to bring it out.


Ashley: UNFPA really advocates comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education and one of the ways that we do that is an online tool called Road to Adulthood.


Anybody can go onto the website and learn about his or her reproductive health. And I think that once an individual is empowered with medically accurate sex education and a fundamental understanding of the way our bodies work -- and God designed us and our bodies work the way they work because that's the way God made us -- and you know, there's everything in the world right with that. Nothing in the world wrong with it.


Then we can have that conversation with our friends and we can spread correct information as opposed to living in the old culture of silence and chains. It's just important to have frank and open medically accurate based conversations about sex education and having a curriculum that's online can hopefully then reach into dynamic personal teaching in the classroom. And all of it, of course, needs to be done within a sensitive and local context.


Question 9

Name: Sinduri Sappanipillai

Organization: Sri Lankan Development Journalist Forum


Q: Do you intend to visit the North, there are lots o of war widows undergoing sexual harassment in the North?


Ashley: I understand that a quarter of households in Sri Lanka are female headed and a lot of those are because of the war. And unfortunately I'm not going to the north. There wasn't time for me to do so, but it's important to me to be with the most vulnerable, and post-traumatic stress disorder is I think something that's intergenerational and can become imprinted upon a culture.


I wish I had time to go and if UNFPA would be so kind as to have me back maybe on another visit I could. And I can't really fathom what y'all have been through.

You know, my country had a civil war in the 1860s and I am from what used to be a slave state. And I know the controversy and the ongoing sort of footprint of that, all these years later and it's still so fresh for you and you really have my empathy and compassion.


Ashley: Is there anything else before we close? Have we left any stone unturned?

I could tell you just a little bit about my visit to the garment factory yesterday.


The garment factories of MAS holdings and in particular what MAS asked UNFPA to do was identify on a corporate level any gaps in gender sensitivity and gender advocacy. And the garment factory in and of itself is doing a really good job of providing gainful employment and access. There was a little saying, I'll just share with you that I picked up from them.


They create pathways so the women can qualify themselves and they do everything from allow girls and women to go back to school and complete secondary education if they hadn't, to have flexible work hours if they're an athlete and need to do their fitness training.


They help folks get their driving licenses. It's a crazy good place, but what can happens when a woman is financially empowered and is finding her voice is when she goes home, that can be a little disruptive to the previous way that things worked in the spousal relationship and so, UNFPA was helping directly with the factory workers and the staff there respond to gender based violence, intimate partner violence and interpersonal and negotiation to create greater safety.


Question 10

Name: Nalaka Gunawardana (follow up)


Q: The Time magazine called you a Silence Breaker. In our part of the world, its taken lot more time and courage for women to speak out, for example in our film industry these acts of harassment are happening all the time, but there has been very little public open discussion until very recently.


Whats your words of advice and encouragement to others in film and television communities? For women in these communities, how do they become silence breakers?


Ashley: Well, your questions is the perfect question to end our time together because from here I'm going to meet with members of the Sri Lankan film community to talk about exactly that.


My advice is professional, it's political, and it's personal, and it's and it's just my advice and that is do the right thing and for me it was clearly the right thing to speak up. Now, I can't guarantee that the response will be the watershed reckoning that's happened in the United States around sexual harassment, but I know that it's the right thing to speak up and you know it's totally valid and appropriate to fear retaliation, so it's important to take measures to stay safe.


Breaking the silence is the first step towards the enormous change and societal shift that can and must happen.


Thank you all so much for your time today. It was really kind of you to come out. We appreciate it a lot.