2019 Mar 8
Sri Lanka is home to a multitude of inspirational, influential, and iconic women. From entrepreneurs to artists to sportswomen and innovators, here is a rundown of some of our nation’s trailblazing women who have shattered glass ceilings and made us proud through the years.
1. Susanthika Jayasinghe
Olympic medalist and the first Asian to win a world championship medal in a sprint event
Her victory and immense popularity gained her the nickname “Asian Black Mare.” Jayasinghe has also achieved remarkable feats in other international track and field championships, including the Commonwealth Games, IAAF World Cup, and the Asian Championship.
2. Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
First Sri Lankan to summit Mount Everest
Apart from being best known for her agility and love for mountaineering, she is also a graduate of Gender Studies from the University of Sussex and has been very outspoken on women’s rights through the platform she earned through her impressive accomplishment.
3. Anusha Koddithuwakku
First ever female boxer from Sri Lanka to qualify for the semi-finals at the Commonwealth Games
Having achieved several medals in Women’s Boxing, Kodithuwakku garnered popularity both at home and internationally when she took part in the 2016 South Asian Games, securing a silver medal in the women’s 48kg fly lightweight event. She brought home a bronze medal in boxing after 68 years at the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
4. Parami Wasanthi Maristela
First ever Sri Lankan to win a Youth Olympic Medal
She returned home with a Bronze medal from the Women’s 2000m Steeple chase. Having excelled in sporting events at her school Kuliyapitiya Central College, she went on to qualify for several regional and international championships before her impressive win at the 3rd Youth Olympics in 2018.
5. Agnes de Silva
An activist who was influential in establishing the Women’s Franchise Union of Sri Lanka in the 1930s
Hailing from a liberal and progressive family, Agnes worked tirelessly towards the women’s suffrage movement in Sri Lanka. Her advocacy also included fighting for the rights of Indian Tamil women and granting franchise to women who were above thirty years of age. Agnes is notably the mother of prominent architect Minnette de Silva (also on this list!).
6. Jezima Ismail
Remarkable educator, broadcaster and human rights activist
In 1989, Ismail was awarded the title of Deshabandu by the Government of Sri Lanka; the third highest national honour in the country. She has been very forthright in issues pertaining to women’s rights, the youth as well as peace and democracy in Sri Lanka. Jezima is also the founder of the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum, and the President of the Sri Lanka Muslim Women’s Conference. She has been an exemplary figure among the Islamic community and the nation as a whole for her services and advocacy.
7. Sunila Abeysekara
Presented with the highly distinguished United Nations Human Rights Award in 1999 by UN Secretary-General at the time, Kofi Annan
As a prominent human rights campaigner, she was also honoured for her services by Human Rights Watch. She was also the founder of the Women and Media Collective. She focused primarily on increasing women’s political participation and ending violence against women.
8. Princy Mangalika
Activist and founder of Positive Women’s Network
In 2003, Mangalika was diagnosed with HIV but this did not stop her from advocating to curb the stigma surrounding the illness. She made it her goal in life to help others cope with the social stigma, seek treatment, and banish the sense of shame associated with the disease. She is the proud founder of Positive Women’s Network, an NGO that takes care of people with HIV/AIDS. As of now, the network helps over 300 people, including 32 children who are HIV positive.
9. Anoka Primrose Abeyrathne
Conservationist, social entrepreneur, environmental expert, and youth activist
At age 27, Anoka Primrose Abeyrathne is the first Sri Lankan appointed from the Asia-Pacific region to the UN Habitat Global Youth Advisory Board. She is also the Policy and Advocacy representative to the Commonwealth Climate Leadership Team. She is the youngest Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum and is the first female New Champion of the World Economic Forum in Sri Lanka. Abeyrathna also received the World Youth Award in 2017 and is a founding member of the Commonwealth Gender and Equality Network that works on linking gender equality, education, entrepreneurship and sustainable development.
10. Minnette de Silva
The pioneer of Sri Lankan modernist architecture
Minnette de Silva was the second woman in the world to start an architecture business in her own name. She is also the first woman and Asian to be elected an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1948. Educated in India and England, she made close contacts with prominent designers like Le Corbusier and Pablo Picasso. Her designs have ranged from villas to cottages and apartments in Sri Lanka, but sadly only a few them stand tall today.
11. Otara Gunawardene
Founder of Odel, Embark and the Otara Foundation
Recognized as one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the Sri Lanka, Otara is a leading fashion icon, businesswoman, and philanthropist who was awarded Best Female Entrepreneur at the 7th US Stevie Awards for Women in Business. She decided to dedicate more time at Embark owing to her passion for animal welfare and sold her shares in Odel PLC in 2014. She continues to serve as an inspiration to many women and girls across the country.
12. Captain Anusha Siriratne
Sri Lanka Airlines’ first female captain
Anusha Siriratne contributed to an important milestone in our nation’s aviation history. Having dreamt of being a pilot since childhood, Anusha became a cadet pilot in 1998 and served as a second officer on the Lockheed L1011 Tristar fleet and was promoted to first officer in 1991 before her present capacity as Airline Captain. She was the first to lead an all-female crew in the airline.
13. Hiranya Peiris
Best known for her work on cosmic microwave background radiation, Hiranya was one of 27 scientists who received the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2018 and is presently a Professor of Astrophysics at UCL and Director of the Oskar Klein Centre for Cosmoparticle Physics in Stockholm. In 2018, she was also awarded the Hoyle Medal and Prize of the UK Institute of Physics for “her leading contributions to understanding the origin and evolution of cosmic structure”.
14. Asha de Vos
Marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research
Asha de Vos is a Senior TED fellow and was a recipient of the BBC 100 Women award in 2018. In 2008, she founded the Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project and also collaborates with the Sri Lankan government on whale ship-strikes together with a team of international researchers. Not only is she a Duke University Global Fellow in Marine Conservation but also served as a panelist at the Rio+20 summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 and is a recipient of several distinguished awards.
15. Sirimavo Bandaranaike
World’s first female Prime Minister – 1960
Having served three terms as Prime Minister, she created what would eventually be the Sri Lankan Ministry of Women and Child Affairs and also appointed the first woman to serve in the Sri Lankan Cabinet. She was a key player in reducing tensions between India and China in 1962 and was known for her ability to diplomatically balance East-West relations.
16. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga
Fifth President of Sri Lanka and our nation’s only female President up to date
Under her leadership, Sri Lanka gained considerable recognition on the international stage. At present, she a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, the Global Leadership Foundation and is a frequent panelist and member of the Clinton Global Initiative.
17. Shirani Bandaranayake
Sri Lanka’s first female Supreme Court Judge and 43rd Chief Justice of Sri Lanka
She has held several senior positions including Associate Professor and the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo and also served on the Judicial Service Commission of Sri Lanka.
18. Rosy Senanayake
Mayoress of Colombo, Prime Minister’s Spokesperson, and the Deputy Head of the Prime Minister’s Office
Senanayake is also a former beauty queen and has also served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund. As an activist she has made several efforts to promote reproductive health services for young people and for migrant women workers in Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zone. Her television programme Eliya also became a platform for raising issues faced by women and children.
19. Rukmani Devi
Renowned singer and actress; the “The Nightingale of Sri Lanka”
Rukmani Devi has acted in over 100 films and is lauded as one of Sri Lanka’s most talented singers in the gramophone era. She was posthumously awarded the Sarasaviya ‘Rana Thisara’ – Life Time Achievement Award in 1979.
20. Maureen Hingert
Only Ceylonese representative to win an award at a Miss Universe pageant
Dancer, model, and actress, Maureen was crowned “Miss Ceylon” on 25th June 1955. Following the recognition she gained there, Hingert was recruited by Universal International Studios and 20th Century Fox and appeared in movies such as The King and I, Gun Fever, The Adventures of Hiram Holiday, Moroccan Halk Moth and Pillars of the Sky. She has also performed at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and other prominent venues.
21. Nanda Malini
One of the most honoured singers of the country; emotions that emerge out of human realities are often the premise of most of her songs. She has been credited as someone who started a new era of classical music in Sri Lanka and has also won eleven Sarasaviya Awards and eight Presidential Awards for Best Female Singer, so far.
22. Malini Fonseka
The “Queen of Sinhalese Cinema”
Malini Fonseka is a renowned actress and former Member of Parliament. Nidhanaya, Siripala Saha Ranmenika, Eya Den Loku Lamayek and Bambaru Ewith are some of her most popular films. She has also directed three films and is the first female teledrama director in Sri Lankan history. Fonseka was also awarded the Sarasaviya Best Actress Awards for Hingana Kolla in 1980, Aradhana in 1982, and Yasa Isuru in 1983 and was named one of Asia’s 25 greatest film actors of all time by CNN.