The friends of a PhD student from Wellington who was killed in Sri Lanka are fundraising to help rural students in the country receive an education. Apsara Wimalasiri, who was studying at Victoria University of Wellington, was murdered by her ex-husband while on a trip home in April 2019. With the anniversary of her death approaching, some of Wimalasiri’s colleagues and friends have created a Givealittle page to raise funds for school equipment for children living in rural communities. The university is also establishing a memorial scholarship in her name for Sri Lankan students wishing to study subjects relevant to social justice and human rights.
Dr Corrine Seals, Wimalasiri’s PhD supervisor and friend, said the student had been passionate about helping to ensure children in impoverished areas had access to education. Her doctoral thesis concerned multilingual learning both in Sri Lanka and in New Zealand. One teacher in the country has said NZ$30 could support one student by providing a backpack, a calculator, shoes, pencils and books. Seals hopes to raise NZ$3,150 through the Givealittle page, which would be sufficient to provide 100 rural Sri Lankan children with educational supplies.
Seals said the fundraiser was a positive way of celebrating Wimalasiri’s memory, but also emphasised the ongoing anguish felt by the murdered student’s family and friends, who are still awaiting justice through the Sri Lankan courts. Wimalasiri’s ex-husband has failed to attend two court dates and is currently remanded in a mental health institution. Until he is tried through the legal system, Wimalasiri’s death certificate cannot be issued, meaning that she can’t posthumously receive her degree.
Wimalasiri’s friends established a memorial lecture in her honour in September 2019. During the event, she was remembered as “brave” and “inspirational” by those who had worked alongside her in the field of multilingual education. The planned scholarship in her name will be awarded based on academic achievement.
Sri Lanka is a relatively poor country that has long struggled to provide quality education across its population. According to World Bank data, only 2.2% of the country’s GDP is allocated to education, with teacher training identified as a particular area of concern. Some 15% of Sri Lankan children do not complete their primary education, rising to nearly 32% in rural areas, according to Unicef. The World Bank has suggested that many of the country’s poorest families do not see the value of education or the possibilities it could bring, contributing to low enrolment rates among girls and boys.
In November 2019, the Sri Lankan government announced that it would increase funding for the education sector by 6% in the 2020 budget, although the majority of the additional funding would be allocated to schools in urban areas. Speaking to Al Jazeera, the country’s Education Minister, Dullas Alahapperuma, said that the government was increasing resources to improve teacher salaries and teacher training. The government has also introduced policies designed to introduce technical and vocational education, with a view to reducing youth unemployment.
Wimalasiri’s murder came at a time of intense scrutiny of violence against women in Sri Lanka. A report by UN Women found that around one-third of the country’s women had been sexually harassed on public transport. The organisation’s Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, told the BBC that Sri Lanka suffered badly from a “deep social norm” of male ownership of, and dominance over, women. She argued that changing this would require both legal interventions and social norms adjusting to increase women’s access to decision-making roles.
Officials in Sri Lanka have made some efforts at reform. In 2016, the government passed legislation designed to prevent men from avoiding rape prosecutions by marrying their victims. However, campaigners argue that strict enforcement of laws is impeded by a lack of adequate funding for the justice system.
Mlambo-Ngcuka argues that, as well as funding, policymakers need to pay increased attention to principles of gender equality in their planning. Citing examples of how investment in women can benefit society, she said that greater inclusion of women in the labour force could boost the country’s economy. Participating in a skills training programme or gaining a university degree can also help women build self-confidence and increase their ability to protect themselves from violence.
However, recent scholarship suggests that women in Sri Lanka still struggle to overcome powerful social attitudes. According to Laurence Waeber of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), education can help women navigate these and gain greater independence. He adds, though, that limited access to education faced by rural women in particular has also been found to contribute to early marriage and reliance on men.
Campaigners say that additional support like the scholarship established in Wimalasiri’s name is important in achieving progress towards better gender equality.