JAFFNA, SRI LANKA – On a warm morning in this northern Sri Lankan city, around 10 women move to music at Nithiya’s Active Queens. Their instructor, Nithiya Thavarasa, is a woman. Until Nithiya’s Active Queens opened in 2019, such a scene was hard to find in Jaffna.
Most of the fitness centers were male-owned and had male trainers, says Thavarasa, 26, who owns and runs Active Queens of Nithiya. He attributes this to gender norms in the country, where entrepreneurship and athletics are considered male activities. When Thavarasa told his roommates about his plans to open Nithiya’s Active Queens, they disapproved.
“They asked, ‘How can you handle this? You are a woman. Why are you spending in vain? ‘”Says Thavarasa, who has been involved in sports since childhood.
His family also thought it was a bad investment. When he asked them for a loan to start the business, they said there was no money for such a business.
But he had noticed the need for a place like this in Jaffna. There were no fitness centers for women, and women like her interested in exercise were reluctant to work with male trainers, the only ones available. Thavarasa applied for a loan from a community center in Jaffna and within a year the Active Queens of Nithiya was up and running.
In Sri Lanka, stereotypes limit women’s participation in the labor market, but Thavarasa is one of a growing number of female entrepreneurs who defy these odds and open fitness centers for women. In the process, they provide spaces for women to comfortably exercise and increase the economic participation of lagging women in the country.
Vijayatharsiny Thinesh, GPJ Sri Lanka
Despite Sri Lanka’s progress in educating women, only 34% of them are economically active, according to the country’s 2020 labor force statistics. The aftermath of the civil war, which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and ended in 2009, required efforts to bridge this gap: more women became income earners for their families after losing a spouse during the war.
The government and non-governmental organizations launched self-employment initiatives for women in the postwar period, says Nadarajah Sukirtharajah, coordinator of the Jaffna Social Action Center, a nonprofit that works with people displaced by war. With this support, Nadarajah says, more and more women are opening businesses, including tailoring shops and beauty salons.
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While some owners of women-only fitness centers such as Thavarasa have received loans from these ventures, others have not been as fortunate. Sivasaji Varnakulasingam, who started the only women’s fitness center in the Kilinochchi district of Sri Lanka’s northern province, says she had to choose between setting up a fitness center and getting married.
“I opened a gym for women with my gold jewelry pledged and the money I had for the wedding,” says the 30-year-old. Her fiancé was supportive.
Although women need a healthier lifestyle in Sri Lanka, Varnakulasingam says, they care what their family and friends might think if they see them working with male instructors.
Subajeevana Vimalthas, who lives in the Jaffna district, was reluctant to train with a man. Vimalthas says he has been trying to have children for 10 years. Doctors recommended losing weight so that fertility treatments could begin.
“I thought I should have a woman as my instructor so that we can talk about our problems without fear or shyness. Only then can I feel comfortable, “says Vimalthas, 32.
He now trains at Nithiya’s Active Queens, which he found via Facebook.
“They asked, ‘How can you handle this? You are a woman. Why are you spending in vain? ‘” entrepreneur
Although more fitness centers are opening in Jaffna and other districts, the coronavirus has made things difficult. Thavarasa, who has had to shift his training sessions online, says the pandemic has slowed the process of getting a bank loan.
The cost of transportation and import duties on fitness items has also increased. Before the pandemic, a fitness station cost 3 million Sri Lankan rupees (about $ 15,000), Varnakulasingam says. Today the same station costs 3.5 million rupees (about $ 17,590).
But the perception of female fitness is slowly changing. Sivakumaran Sivasankar, 43, who owns six fitness centers for men and women in Jaffna, says they are a necessity.
“In the male and female gym, a woman may be reluctant to exercise and tell her problems to a male instructor,” she says.
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Others still have reservations. Vasuki Suthakar, who also lives in the Jaffna district, sees the need for women’s self-employment initiatives. But she says women didn’t need to go to fitness centers before, since housework kept them fit.
The 52-year-old blames electronics, which he says has made housework easier for women.
“Now that everything has gotten so glamorous, women want to go to the gym and think that’s the way it is [a] modern fashion, “says Suthakar.
Regardless of the reason, the interest is in redefining perceived roles for women. Kumaralingam Kokilavany, from the Vavuniya district of northern Sri Lanka, runs a fitness center for boys and girls and has been considering expanding.
“I have a desire to buy a piece of land in my home district of Vavuniya and create a gym for women,” she says. “The world has progressed so much. We have to change accordingly ».
[ https://globalpressjournal.com/asia/sri_lanka/fitness-centers-herald-new-era-women-owned-businesses/ https://d26toa8f6ahusa.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/30214746/a-quiet-place-part-2-bigs-16.pdf