A Q&A with Sarah Ashaya Soysa, Asia Safe Abortion Partnership (ASAP) Youth Champion

Sarah Ashaya Soysa is a passionate, young activist from Colombo, Sri Lanka. At 26 years old, she’s already built an impressive career as a bold and progressive advocate for sexual and reproductive health and rights and gender equality. In addition to her role as a Youth Champion for the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership, Sarah has worked with a number of national and regional organizations, including the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka, South Asia Regional Youth Network, and the Young Women’s Christian Association. She has also participated in two IWHC Advocacy in Practice workshops and played a key advocacy role at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in March, 2015.

The following is a recent interview with Sarah conducted by IWHC Program Officer Jessie Clyde.

How did you become involved in advocating for sexual and reproductive rights for young people? What drew you to the movement?

While pursuing my bachelor’s degree in social work, I got the opportunity to volunteer with the Youth Advisory Committee of the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka. This was a turning point in my life. We did many projects on sexual and reproductive health and rights, peer education, and programs for kids living with and affected by HIV. The trainings I received there made me more passionate towards gender inequality issues and stereotypes, and I related this to the harassment I used to experience on public transport.

I remember how hard it was for us as young people to access information about our bodies and sexuality. Speaking and sharing experiences with other youth from different areas of the country made me stick with the Family Planning Association and then later become the chairperson of the committee initiating several projects on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This gave me opportunities to interact with and learn about the violation of women’s rights, nationally and regionally, how grave it is, and how it affects development. Now I am passionately, happily, working in the movement as a proud feminist.

Can you tell us a bit about the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership?

I volunteer for Asia Safe Abortion Partnership as a Youth Champion from Sri Lanka and also as a steering committee member. ASAP gives opportunities, motivation, and support to young activists. They support us with small grants so we can lead advocacy activities in our own countries.

Asia Safe Abortion Partnership is the only regional network in Asia that works directly and openly on safe abortion issues with a diverse group of stakeholders including providers, researchers, activists, and others from among 18 member countries: Bangladesh, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam.

In many of these countries, conservative religious leaders and fundamentalists are often the biggest barrier to access. In addition, laws are not interpreted and implemented to the fullest extent possible.

Tell us about your new project that came out of the Youth Champion workshop. Specifically, what are you hoping to accomplish or change?

We made an advocacy video on safe abortion with real stories of women who have experienced unsafe abortions from different areas of Sri Lanka. This video was shared widely—nationally, regionally, and globally. The video was created as a follow-up advocacy tool for the “It’s Her Right” campaign, where we sent postcards and messages to the president of Sri Lanka urging him to change and relax the laws related to abortion. Abortion in Sri Lanka is restricted and criminalized; a woman can only access an abortion if her life is in danger. Yet there are more than 750 unsafe abortions happening every day in the country.

The newest project we have started is a medical abortion and contraceptive hotline, providing accurate information on contraceptives and medical abortion methods, according to WHO guidelines. We have counselors for this hotline who are able to refer women to experts or reliable organizations if there are cases of violence, rape, or any other concerns. Next we will create a database of safe and legal abortion-friendly organizations and pharmacies where women can access medical abortion pills in Colombo.

Who or what most inspires you in the work you’re doing?  

Young women leaders who tirelessly advocate on women’s and young girls’ rights and stigmatized topics such as safe abortion keep me motivated and remind me why we need to advocate so hard every day to achieve gender equality. I see a lot of new faces, young women who are passionate about the issues women and girls face, the rights violations, the injustices and the urgent need to take action. Not to mention the older, supportive mentors and feminists who are always ready to provide opportunities to learn and spaces to share our concerns and experiences. They are living examples how intergenerational feminism and support can work well!

What is the biggest challenge you face in your work?

The biggest challenge is the law. Religious fundamentalism plays a huge role in keeping the law in place even though we have a progressive government and those willing to change it. This restricts us in a way from publicizing our work and openly advocating for safe and legal abortion rights, further reducing the resources and funding we could expect at the national level. It even stops big and international NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] from speaking out or working on safe abortion as they do not want to deal with controversial topics, in order to maintain their work and acceptance in the country.

What is your greatest dream for your  country?

I would like Sri Lanka to implement all the treaties and programs of actions that we have adopted and signed in order to achieve gender equality and justice. I would like to see the existing policies such as the National Youth Policy, with comprehensive sexuality education and the adolescent health strategy, implemented and strengthened. It would also be amazing if a policy on young people’s health gets approved, with progressive language on the sexual and reproductive health and rights of youth and adolescents.

Moreover, I am hoping for a country with liberal laws on safe abortion—creating access to affordable high quality abortion services in the country.

What are some encouraging signs or changes you’ve seen?

It is very encouraging to see more and more young people advocating and being passionate about the right to safe abortion, and joining the movement. There is more resistance towards gender inequality in the younger generation and young women and men are more willing to identify as feminists.

There is also support and positive vibes from some of the government bodies and ministries to legalize abortion in cases of rape, incest, or  fetal abnormality. This is an advancement and paves the way for us to reach conservative religious groups and focus our advocacy on them; as they are the major barrier to changing the law at the moment.

Meet more ASAP Youth Champions