March, 27, 2020
We all have the power to change things. We’re all responsible for building a more just and equitable world and in 2020 challenging the stereotypes and being #EachforEqual is what International Women’s Day reminds us. Here’s a story of someone breaking barriers, changing perceptions, and transforming lives.
Women account for the majority of the global tourism workforce but tend to work in low-paying, informal and low-status positions. But Lathika Lakmali is an impressive woman who challenges the status-quo - while defying cultural boundaries and social norms - to lead and make a name for herself as a Surf Instructor and harnessing tourism as a tool for empowering women in her community.
Traditionally, especially in conservative localities such as Arugambay, women are expected to assume the role of a daughter, sister, wife, mother and care giver. Although Arugambay continues to grow as one of the popular surfing hubs in the East of Sri Lanka, there exist many misguided perceptions with regard to surfing and the tourism industry as a whole. Villagers hold the stereotypical impression that surfers are skimpily clad and party hard brining disrespect to traditional values. It was acceptable for tourists to indulge in the sport, but it definitely didn’t fit with the communities beliefs on what a career was supposed to be and definitely didn’t fit with the role of a woman who are most traditionally limited to the activities in the domestic sphere.
However, Lakmali and her husband who’s the President of the Arugambay Surf Club and one of the 28 ISA certified coaches in Arugambay recognize the opportunities for growth in the industry. And what began as a hobby displayed a possibility of turning into a career, especially with the increase in solo female travelers or women being more comfortable learning how to surf from other women. They believe that they can find a balance with their personal life, the professional life and their interest in surfing in Arugambay. They realized how women were often uncomfortable taking lessons from male instructors. Yet, offering services without a formal license to international travelers remained a concern as tourists want to be sure they will be safe in the water and be able to really learn how to surf a wave from an expert.
A pathway for informal surfers to be formally recognized by the industry with S4IG support
To address this concern, the Skills for Inclusive Growth (S4IG) program funded by the Australian Government’s Aid program in partnership with the Ministry of Skills Development, Employment and Labour Relations extended support towards managing visitor expectations by offering tailored programs to strengthen local Surf Clubs to manage and improve their service standards.
It allowed Lakmali to confidently march on and be recognized as an instructor doing something she loves. She can still support her family and support her community and earn an income from her business – surfing. Such initiatives by S4IG encourage more women to enter the tourism industry, seek income opportunities and mentor the next generation of female leaders. It also created a pathway for informal surfers to become internationally recognized, and for more women in the area to consider not only pursuing surfing as a career but to simply be brave enough to indulge in the joy of surfing. Since her participation in the program by S4IG and licensing as an instructor, the Arugambay Surf Club has seen an increase in membership and interest by girls. Tourism gives women many opportunities that allow a blending of roles and responsibilities. Enabling women to engage in paid employment in many different ways and pursue the things they enjoy.
Inspiring generations of surfer girls
For Lakmali, surfing has now become a family affair. She often takes her daughter - aged 6- with her when she surfs and her husband who is also an ardent surf lover and an S4IG participant as well. He is extremely proud of his wife pursuing her passion and celebrates her success – a truly modern Sri Lankan family. She proves that women can offer something new and exciting to a traditionally male-dominated industry and experience.
She has inspired an entire generation of girls who dream of riding waves of their own one day in the future in surfing and other pursuits. Lakmali aims to extend personalized and deeper travel experiences via female surf lessons that showcase the potential for a career professionally. She is a fine example that women are more than capable of building a new business ecosystem around women in tourism while defying cultural norms and the traditional labour market.
Along with her supportive husband, she plays a strong role in mentoring the next generation of females, like her own daughter, and in the process, is actually changing the face of tourism in Arugambay for the better.