Australia Awards alumna Sarah Soysa has spearheaded significant changes in sexual and reproductive health and rights for women, girls and young people in the most vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka. As a feminist, she is also passionate about creating awareness through advocacy campaigns on comprehensive sexuality education and eventually creating an open dialogue on the issues faced by women.
Sarah first became aware of disparities in perceptions on women’s rights and gender inequalities when she started as a volunteer at the Family Planning Association in Sri Lanka in 2008. This sparked her passion for the subject. Sarah then went on to complete a Bachelor of Social Work at the National Institute of Social Development in Sri Lanka. After receiving this degree, in 2012 she began working at the grassroots level with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). In this role she was exposed to the numerous issues faced by young girls in conservative and vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka’s north, in the aftermath of the country’s conflict.
Her initial experience with vulnerable communities paved the way towards a Master of Gender and Development Studies at the University of Melbourne in 2015, which she undertook through an Australia Awards Scholarship:
“Not only did I gain substantial knowledge on gender and development during my studies in Australia, but also expertise on civil society, policy advocacy and project management, which [I was able to] put into practice in post-war areas and the tea plantation sector for two years, connecting directly at the policy and advocacy level,” Sarah says.
While studying in Australia, she took on the role of a Research Assistant at the Youth Education division at the University of Melbourne and worked as a Teaching Assistant in collaboration with the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital. This translated into first-hand experience of gender, sexual and reproductive health and rights in Australia.
“On a personal note, I have gained many friends from various countries and cultures. We also meet each other when I travel, and they visit Sri Lanka too. They continue to support me with my work and in building connections for me when needed. I also have several professors and global advocates working on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) and development who are supporting me with my work at the national and global level,” adds Sarah.
Upon her return to Sri Lanka in 2015, Sarah eagerly began work with Doctors of the World, which focused on improving SRHR services and information for women and young people in the plantation sector and post-war areas in the country. Sarah has a great enthusiasm for fieldwork and was awarded an innovation grant through Australia Awards to further her work in this sector.
Presently, as the National Programme Analyst for SRHR at United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sri Lanka, she is responsible for all SRHR and Comprehensive Sexuality Education related work for the organisation. Working closely with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Skills Development and Vocational Training, she works on policy advocacy related to SRHR, improving access to family planning, addressing issues around gender-based violence and improving access to comprehensive sexuality education in Sri Lanka.
Since becoming a young leader, Sarah is proud to have spearheaded a program that trained teachers and created a dialogue among parents and teachers in the Northern and Central provinces on Comprehensive Sexuality Education with the support of the provincial councils. She also received seven grants to work on SRHR, and to train youth advocates on SRHR and gender at the Youth Advocacy Network, an organisation she co-founded.
Sarah is a member of the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, Commonwealth Youth and Gender Equality Network, and FRIDA, The Young Feminist Fund. She is also a core group member of the Women Deliver program, ‘Generation now – our health and rights partnership between International AIDS Society and Women Deliver’.
“My experience in Australia exposed me to a different culture of working. Evidence-based policy making, and evidence-based project design is something I learnt, and I use that approach when planning and implementing my work both at program and policy advocacy level. I learnt to look at issues with various lenses, and that has helped me to comfortably work with different types of communities and improved my negotiation skills, even when dealing with controversial subjects like gender-based violence, unsafe abortion, and sexual and reproductive health,” says Sarah.
“I have become a more adventurous person after my experience in Australia. I have become very independent and feel confident both professionally and personally, and for that I am grateful.”