Words Ellie Wainwright

Whilst I was in Sri Lanka I volunteered and photographed for a day at a surf and swimming lesson for local women and girls run by SeaSisters in Weligama.

I’d heard about the Abay Girls Surf Club and was in awe of the women who were pushing this movement and driving change in their communities. It was amazing to meet Martina, one of the co-founders of SeaSisters and who has helped and supported the Abay Girls Surf Club in Arugam Bay from the very beginning. Spending time with these enthusiastic young girls and women has truly inspired me and the work of Martina and the other incredible volunteers needs to be talked about.

Like lots of countries around the world, women in Sri Lanka face challenges in daily life due to cultural expectations and societal norms. In Sri Lanka, these expectations have prevented many women from taking part in sports such as surfing and swimming and local women are hardly ever seen in the ocean. Particularly in rural areas, Sri Lankan men are free to participate in public life, while women are expected to be inside their homes, taking care of the household and family.

Sri Lanka is lined with beautiful beaches and surrounded by an ocean filled with incredible marine life, warm water and year round good surf. Despite this, according to some studies, Sri Lanka has one of the highest drowning rates in the world with more than three deaths a day.

Many young girls in Sri Lanka naturally feel a desire to enter the ocean and learn how to surf and swim like their brothers, uncles and fathers do and have done before them.

However, this has never really been an option for women who live on the coasts of Sri Lanka and, apart from a few exceptions, surfing has remained a man’s sport for decades. In reality, it is essential for these women and girls to learn how to swim and be safe around the water, being able to enjoy sports as personally fulfilling as surfing.

Arugam Bay on the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka is a surfing community and where Tiffany Carothers from Surfing The Nations started weekly Girls Make Waves surf lessons for local girls and women in 2015. Supervised by female surf instructors and equipped with surfboards, these women now had the chance to learn how to surf and swim in a safe place for the first time.

This brought a new source of happiness for the girls and women in the community, but it was still met with some resilience. There were expectations from society, their community and families which meant the girls couldn’t go surfing on a regular basis and meant that some stopped all together. But others kept going.

In 2017 Martina Burtscher came to Arugam Bay conducting her Master’s thesis on the potential of surfing for women’s empowerment. After facing resilience in their community the girls didn’t surf regularly anymore, but by sharing their experiences and hearing about other female surfers in Sri Lanka they were inspired to try and push women’s surfing in their country.

While there was already a thriving boys surf club in Arugam Bay, there seemed to be a need for a women’s only club, which would create an environment that women could feel safe and supported by other women, all whom had undoubtedly faced certain challenges in their communities. Three local women who surfed in Arugam Bay came up with the idea and with the encouragement and help from Tiffany and Martina the Arugam Bay Girls Surf Club was officially founded on the 10th August 2018.

By October 2018 the club was already making history as the Surfing Federation of Sri Lanka (SFSL) officially registered the club as Sri Lanka’s first female surf club, a HUGE step forward for gender equality in the country. Today the club is run by local women, for local women with the support of Tiffany Carothers, Martina Burtscher and Amanda Prifti. 

This club is paving the way for women across the country to enter the surfing scene and enabling the next generation of local surfer girls.

Sea Sisters Sri Lanka is a nonprofit organisation running as a swim and surf program for Sri Lankan Women, like a sister to the Abay Girls Surf Club. The idea is to run free surf and swim lessons in Weligama and Arugam Bay to show that the ocean is for everyone. The Co-founders Amanda and Martina believe that every woman deserves the same opportunities as men and that swimming and surfing can serve as powerful tools for social change.

By teaching life-saving swimming skills, spreading the joy of surfing and educating about environmental challenges SeaSisters Sri Lanka seeks to restore the ocean as a safe space and empower Sri Lankan women, in turn empowering women all over the world who may have faced similar challenges.

To support the program head to the Abay Girls Surf Club website here. You can also find SeaSisters on Instagram here.

This is just the beginning.