Together, we rise

Dr Easkey Britton, surfer and founder of Like Water, is a marine social scientist at the National University of Ireland Galway. The work of Easkey explores the relationship between people and the sea, using her passion for the ocean to create social change and connection across cultures. Currently resides in Donegal, Ireland.

Words & photograph by Dr Easkey Britton

Worldwide there is growing recognition of the wellbeing benefits of accessing and engaging with healthy blue spaces, especially seas, coasts and beaches. However, vast gender inequalities persist that impact the ability of women and girls to safely access these spaces for recreational and health benefits. Globally, the relationship between women and the sea has long been underrepresented and poorly understood. This is even more pronounced in the context of emerging surf cultures in regions such as Southeast Asia. 

In Sri Lanka, a popular surfing destination for tourists, surfing happens in an element that is often feared. Sri Lanka has one of the highest drowning rates in the world and most people grow up disconnected from the ocean, perceiving it as a place of extraction rather than of recreation. The beaches and the sea are a male’s domain, who often work as fishermen, surf coaches, lifeguards or at the navy. The ocean is regarded as a dangerous place; this internalised fear partly stems from the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in December 2004 and killed more than 31,000 people in the country. Surviving men outnumbered women by almost 3:1. All of this contributes to establishing the ocean as a dangerous, risky and unsafe space for women and girls. 

Despite these barriers, women’s surfing is on the rise. Sri Lankan female surfing is being pioneered by the women behind some remarkable all-female surfing programmes aimed at restoring the ocean as a safe and playful space for women and girls to enjoy the benefits of the ocean. On the east coast of Arugam Bay, these include ‘Girls Make Waves’ and the ‘Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club’, the first all-female surf club in the country. On the south coast, ‘SeaSisters’ is a social enterprise integrating female-led swimming and surfing lessons with ocean stewardship and micro-enterprise. 

A newly published peer-reviewed study explores how these initiatives transformed unsafe spaces of exclusion and fear into safe spaces of inclusion, healing and empowerment for women and girls in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan females are confronted with barriers related to gender norms and societal expectations and many grow up disconnected – and sometimes even traumatised – from the sea, not being able to swim. The study identified key elements to support the creation of safe spaces for local women and girls to enjoy the wellbeing benefits of the ocean such the importance of an all-female environment, culturally appropriate surf apparel, and a playful approach with high safety standards. 

SeaSisters have developed a playful, rather than performance-oriented, teaching methodology, reconnecting the women and girls to the water step by step. When participants start building their swimming skills, they gradually feel more comfortable in the water. After catching their first waves, participants often got hooked, not wanting to stop anymore. As one surfer, Sanu, shared: “I got the surfing bug. Now I want to surf every day.” Most participants reported that they were afraid of waves before learning how to surf – and that through surfing, they overcame their fears. They even started to feel more confident back on land, as surfer Dayani points out: “Before, I was so afraid. When I started surfing, I learned things which made me so afraid, like standing on a board or paddling. This makes me more confident. This makes me less afraid of things.”

Their relationship with the ocean deepened, transforming, from a fearful to a loving one. What is remarkable is that this psychological transformation can even take place in people with trauma. For example, Mona from Arugam Bay lost her mother in the tsunami in 2004, which left her deeply traumatised and she had not gone close to the sea for years. Despite her nervousness at her first session with Girls Make Waves, she didn’t give up and managed to ride her first waves, lying on her belly. After, she shared how, “There was some kind of energy coming into my heart!” Following her first attempt, she kept surfing, wanting to stand up. “Surfing makes me forget the tsunami. Now I want to have fun. Before, I was sad about the ocean. Now, I want more. I want to learn more. I want to surf more. Then I also forget my other things [worries] a little bit. Now, my energy is coming like, I want to learn. […] I want to catch my own wave.” 

Today, Mona goes surfing regularly and even occasionally teaches her two daughters. Also at SeaSisters, similar transformations and positive effects on wellbeing were observed. Sanu, for example, “found herself in the ocean”. And Kalpa, a staff member and translator, shared how SeaSisters taught her how much she missed the ocean even though she lives near it.  She has started to go on beach walks together with her mother, something they have never done before. These numerous stories are exemplary of the healing power of the ocean, and in the power of women lifting up women, rising together. 

Issue 24
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

This feature appears in ISSUE 22: The wild idles of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 24
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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