JAFFNA, SRI LANKA — On a warm morning in this northern Sri Lankan city, about 10 women move to the 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 come by in Jaffna.
Most fitness centers were owned by men and had male instructors, says Thavarasa, 26, who owns and runs Nithiya’s Active Queens. She attributes this to gender norms in the country, where entrepreneurship and athletics are considered male pursuits. When Thavarasa told her housemates about her plans to open Nithiya’s Active Queens, they disapproved.
“They asked, ‘How can you sustain this? You are a woman. Why are you spending in vain?’” says Thavarasa, who has been involved in sports since childhood.
Her family thought it was a bad investment too. When she asked them for a loan to start the business, they said there was no money for such a venture.
But she had noticed a need for a place like this in Jaffna. There were no fitness centers for women, and women like her who were interested in exercising were hesitant to work with male instructors, the only ones available. Thavarasa applied for a loan from a community center in Jaffna and within a year, Nithiya’s Active Queens was up and running.
In Sri Lanka, stereotypes limit women’s participation in the labor market, but Thavarasa is part of a growing number of women entrepreneurs bucking these odds and opening fitness centers for women. In the process, they provide spaces where females can exercise comfortably and boost women’s lagging economic participation in the country.
Vijayatharsiny Thinesh, GPJ Sri Lanka
Despite the progress Sri Lanka has made in educating women, only 34% of them are economically active, according to the country’s 2020 Labour Force Statistics. The aftermath of the civil war, which displaced hundreds of thousands and ended in 2009, has necessitated efforts to close this gap: More women became income earners for their households after losing a spouse in the war.
Government and nongovernmental organizations have launched post-war self-employment initiatives for women, says Nadarajah Sukirtharajah, coordinator of the Jaffna Social Action Centre, a nonprofit that works with people displaced by the war. With this support, Nadarajah says, more women are opening businesses, including tailoring shops and beauty salons.
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While some owners of women-only fitness centers like Thavarasa received loans from these initiatives, others haven’t been as lucky. Sivasaji Varnakulasingam, who started the only fitness center for women in Kilinochchi district, in Sri Lanka’s Northern province, says she had to choose between setting up a fitness center and having a wedding.
“I started a gym for women with my gold jewelry pawned 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 worry about what their family and friends might think if they see them working with male instructors.
Subajeevana Vimalthas, who lives in Jaffna district, was hesitant to train with a man. Vimalthas says she had been trying to have children for 10 years. Doctors recommended losing weight so she could begin fertility treatments.
“I thought I should have a woman as my instructor because we can talk about our problems without any fear or shyness. Only then can I feel at ease,” says Vimalthas, 32.
Now, she exercises at Nithiya’s Active Queens, which she found through Facebook.
Although more fitness centers are opening in Jaffna and other districts, the coronavirus has made things difficult. Thavarasa, who had to move her 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 also shot up. 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 perceptions of women’s fitness are slowly changing. Sivakumaran Sivasankar, 43, owner of six fitness centers for men and women in Jaffna, says they are a necessity.
“At the male and female gym, a woman may be reluctant to exercise and tell her problems to a male instructor,” he says.
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Others still have reservations. Vasuki Suthakar, who also lives in Jaffna district, sees the need for women’s self-employment initiatives. But he says women didn’t need to go to fitness centers before, since domestic work kept them fit.
The 52-year-old blames electronics, which he says have simplified domestic work for women.
“Now that everything has become so glamorous, women want to go to the gym and think of it as [a] modern fashion,” Suthakar says.
Regardless of motive, the interest is redefining perceived roles for women. Kumaralingam Kokilavany, from northern Sri Lanka’s Vavuniya district, runs a fitness center for boys and girls and has been thinking of expanding.
“I have a desire to buy a piece of land in my native Vavuniya district and set up a gym for women,” she says. “The world has progressed so much. We must change accordingly.”