Make Your Voice Count

Providing safe spaces for the community - online and offline: Dharini Priscilla, Sri Lanka

By Tharindi Devasurendra – Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Dharini Priscilla is an activist from Sri Lanka, also known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean. She is a 25 year old youth activist who works on issues around cyberbullying, digital violence, and creating safe spaces online. Currently, Dharini works as a Gender Consultant and Researcher and was the Program Manager of The Grassrooted Trust, an organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights in Sri Lanka (2016-2021).

Dharini was also the editor of bakamoono.lk (in Tamil), a comprehensive online education platform that offers scientific and updated information on HIV, sexual health, gender and relationships, and violence prevention (2016-2021)

During COVID-19, she began designing and conducting capacity building programs that had to be implemented online. The programs mainly revolve around online violence and cyberbullying, catering to educational, media, and corporate institutions. Since early 2020, she has also been involved in multiple research studies both in an organizational and personal capacity that touched upon subject matters such as the experiences of the LGBTQ community and gendered online hate speech.

Since the start of the pandemic, Dharini has switched and managed to carry out her work and responsibilities using digital platforms. As someone who travels a lot for work around the country, she has found it incredibly difficult to work from the confines of her own home – especially in the long term. She also found it challenging to establish and maintain her connections with grassroots communities since many of the people she worked with did not have a steady internet connection. She refrained from engaging in any face-to-face interactions until she was fully vaccinated and ceased all work-related travelling. But since Sri Lanka did not start vaccinating youth (ages 19-30) until September 2021, it took her quite a while to get back to her regular work routine. 

Like most activists who have been struggling to balance their work from home and their mental health, Dharini has faced her share of struggles. She has had to utilize creative outlets such as writing to express her emotions, which she believes has helped immensely during the last two years. Still, she could strategically prioritize her mental health by reducing her workload and identifying coping mechanisms to deal with the stress. She mentions that reducing her online time helped greatly since she was growing increasingly tired of interacting with a screen the entire day. She also acknowledges the support she received from her family and friends who kept checking up on her and encouraging her to take it easy.

Dharini has been working primarily with youth, schools, media organizations, corporate organizations, and research institutions. Her work has been chiefly knowledge-based through capacity building in these groups. She has conducted training programs on digital safety, and online security for youth since the prevalence and manifestations of cyber violence dramatically increased during the pandemic. This has been a challenge for all members of the LGBTQ community, especially those most vulnerable within the community itself. Many encounter situations concerning sharing intimate pictures with their partners or engaging in cybersex due to the nature of laws such as Section 365 of the penal code. She highlights that this is discrimination that cannot and should not be taken lightly. “As long as it is consensual, everyone has the right to explore and express their sexuality on digital and physical platforms,” she added.

This access to information and resources has allowed these target groups to be safer and sensible online. Similarly, she has also conducted awareness sessions for corporate organizations to train their employees to shift from a physical working space to a digital working space by emphasising digital etiquette and cyber safety, which she believes has made the transition smoother. Dharini received a small grant in 2020 from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) to carry out her content building and research work on online violence. This funding has been beneficial for her to carry out her current position in the field since she could not pay her partners and other stakeholders involved in the process.

Sri Lanka is a country with diverse ethnic groups, primarily Sinhalese, Tamils, Moors, Malays and Burghers, of which Sinhalese are the majority. As a Tamil queer woman, Dharini emphasises the importance of utilizing an intersectional approach to ensure that we understand the complicated nature of intertwined identities. For example, when working on LGBT advocacy, she primarily focused on working with queer communities outside of Colombo, especially in Tamil-speaking areas – since these communities are often left behind in more significant conversations due to so-called language and geographic barriers. She has also taken an interest in working more with Muslim women to learn more about the challenges and experiences of this group. She expresses her wishes to be more inclusive in the future since she wants to work with communities that go beyond her own identity. Dharini also mentions that the digital approach has not been as efficient as it should be, especially in healthcare, as there was a de-prioritization of sexual and reproductive health needs during the pandemic. Even when accessing sexual and reproductive health products or medication, she has noticed that some communities (such as the transgender community) face more challenges than others.

When concluding our discussion, Dharini says that, instead of figuring out how to help all communities or how not to leave them behind, it is essential that we ask these communities for their opinions. “We have a habit of assuming what kind of help and support these communities need instead of listening to their voices and prioritizing their concerns,” she explained. “I believe that the best approach, simply put, is to listen better,” she added.

Quote: “Even when we identify and work with vulnerable communities, we are often limited to our definition of what we mean by “vulnerable” or “communities”. We should begin by defining these groups and figuring out who goes where – but this process should not be done by one person or one organization. It should be figured out in a holistic manner where people are allowed to define who they are and identify where they belong in this spectrum.”

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JAN GABRIEL CASTAÑEDA

Philippines
He/Him
Board Member

Jan is passionate about seeing through the potential contributions of psychological sciences and human rights advocacy in LGBT people’s lives. He is currently Program Associate of ASEAN SOGIE Caucus and is a member of the LGBT Psychology Special Interest Group of the Psychological Association of the Philippines. He has written for various platforms and publications on a diverse range of topics from gender and sexuality to human rights experiences in different contexts. Jan’s desire is to engage in productive and meaningful work that bridges scholarship with practice rooted in people’s real experiences.

PATRICK JUANICO

Philippines
He/Them
Graphic Designer

Currently, Nico is a college student studying in the Philippines and is simultaneously working for Youth Voices Count as one of the graphic designers for the organization. He lists producing the brand logo and look of HRPlus Asia as one of his significant achievements. His interests in literature and creating films have also honed and continued to improve his skills in graphic designing.

JAN ELLA BRILLANTES

Philippines
She/They
Social Media Officer

Jan Ella is currently taking up her undergraduate studies at the University of the Philippines Visayas and has been a consistent academic awardee since 2019. She is involved in various organizations such as the Catalyst UPV as the Volunteer Director in 2021, former Publications Committee Head for UP Lipad and former member of Iloilo Pride Team.

JE-ANN PALMAIRA

Philippines
She/Her
Project Finance Officer

Je-ann is the current Project Finance Officer under the Finance Department. She graduated from the University of San Agustin with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration major
in Marketing Management.

Her involvement in her University’s Little Theater organization led her to find an interest in theater, films and the arts. Aside from theater arts, she also partakes in the company’s production work including stage management and most notably, heading the organization’s marketing team.

MARION REA CAMEROS

Philippines
She/Her
Accounting Associate

Marion graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Accounting Technology which has made her suitable for being the Accounting Associate of Youth Voices Count. She lists watching movies as one of her hobbies that helps her wind down during her leisure time.

ATTY. RONIFELLE L. BARRIOS

Philippines
She/Her
Legal Counsel

She is a graduate of AB Political Science from West Visayas State University (WVSU), in Iloilo City. In her days in college, she was the founding Prime Minister of WVSU Debate Circle, the ROTC Corps Commander and later a Volunteer Instructor in the Air Force Reserve Command. When she ran for the first time in their University Student Council, she was elected number one councilor. Her interest in leadership grew when she joined the 10th National Youth Parliament, organized by the National Youth Commission in 2014, where she later on became the Regional Convener for Western Visayas.

She then pursued her studies to take up law in San Beda University in Mendiola, Manila. As a law student, she was still active in student organizations: She joined moot court competitions, she served as layout artist in 2 of San Beda Law’s Official Publications: The Barrister and San Beda Law Journal. In her last year in law school, she was the President of San Beda Law Human Rights Advocate (HRA), where she was later conferred Leadership Award by the Association of Law Students of the Philippines (ALSP) and her organization, HRA was awarded top advocacy organization.

She passed the 2019 Bar Examinations and became a full-fledged lawyer by 2020.

She worked as Associate of Javier Santiago Torres & Panghulan Law Offices. She now runs her own RLB Law Office as a solo practitioner and serves as Notary Public for and in Quezon City. She serves as legal consultant to MSMEs and Non-profit organizations. At present, she is the Vice President for Communications of the National Society of Parliamentarians, Inc., the Chief Legislative Staff of Councilor Quin Cruz of Pasig City Council and part-time law instructor in Malayan Colleges Laguna – a Mapua School. Interestingly, she is the creator and blogger of The Young Lawyer PH. Recently, she served as Resident Parliamentarian during the Bangsamoro Youth Parliament held last Nov. 7-11, 2022 at Cotabato City.

A lawyer by profession and an artist by heart.

LOUELA MARIE PRADO

Philippines
He/She/They
Admin Officer

An advocate at heart, Louela is a part of several youth-led organizations in the Philippines with various advocacies ranging from climate justice, environmental protection, gender equality, human rights, SRHR, mental health prioritization, youth empowerment and HIV/AIDS awareness. She is currently the Interim Chairperson of Iloilo Pride Team after serving the organization for 4 years as the Admin Officer, Executive Secretary at Proyekto Philippines, Member of Team Dugong Bughaw, and more.

She graduated as Summa Cum Laude at West Visayas State University majoring in English Language Studies and is currently taking up her Masters in English Language Studies at the same institution. During her stay at the university, she served as the Vice Chairperson at the University Student Council and Federated Student Council where she organized programs and initiatives that advocated for student involvement in societal causes and being the voice of the students that lobbies their concerns to the administration.

In July 2022, she was awarded by JCI Regatta as one of the Top Outstanding Students in Iloilo and a Top Circle Awardee which is the most prestigious recognition given by the award-giving body.

RONAN JAMES B. PENUELA, RN

Philippines
He/Him
Project Officer

Ronan passed the Philippines nursing licensure exam in 2022 immediately after graduating his Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from the University of San Agustin. While juggling his academics, he was elected governor of his college’s student council (Nursing Student Council) in 2021 and board member in 2019 where he was awarded the leadership award and Agustino para sa Tao award due to his excellence in service. He is also a certified Safety Officer (SO1) after completing his training.

He is currently a dialysis nurse in training. He handles the Intersex projects of YVC.

ANFERNEE NENOL KAMINAGA

Marshall Islands
He/Him, They/Them
Project Officer for IGNITE! Empowerment Grants Program

Having done some activism for the Marshall Islands both locally and regionally with climate change, youth empowerment, LGBTQI rights, and nuclear injustice, Nenol takes pride in being an advocate for the causes he is passionate in, being a part of Youth Voices Count and taking a step in amplifying young LGBTQI+ voices. This also inspired him to co-found the first Marshallese LGBTQI Youth Support called Brighten the Rainbow. He is featured in “We Have a Dream” which is a collection of stories from young leaders around the world.

THARINDI DEVASURENDRA

Sri Lanka
They/Them
Project Manager

Tharindi is currently a feminist activist and researcher based in Sri Lanka, and has worked with the Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka (YANSL). They are a trainer on advocating for comprehensive sexuality education and providing knowledge on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) where they actively advocate for safe abortion and bodily autonomy for women.

One of Tharindi’s brainchild initiatives is an Instagram page which mainly focuses on the process of reaching out to queer women in Sri Lanka, a platform that helps in providing them visibility and strategy direction on programming through social media and other means.

They have completed their Bachelors (BA Honors) in English and Linguistics at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka.

JOHNMEL ESTIMAR

Philippines
They/Them
Finance Manager

Johnmel M. Estimar is the founder and senior adviser of La Villa Pride, a grassroots-level organization for LGBTQI in Villa, Iloilo. They are also a member of the Iloilo Pride team, a Community Based Screening motivator for HIV and an LGBTQI Rights Activist. Miles, as they like to be called, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at John B. Lacson Foundation Maritime University-Molo, Inc. They also hold an Associate Degree in Cruise Ship Management in the same University.

They have ample experience in clerk and accounting work for nine years from their previous employer, they are currently employed with Youth Voices Count as Finance Manager since 2019.

ANTHONY DE VICENTE LOPEZ

Philippines
He/Him, They/Them
Deputy Executive Director

Mx. Toni graduated with a bachelor’s degree of secondary education majoring in English at the Capiz State University back in 2021. Aside from this, they sought out other educational opportunities such as Advocacy and Project Management at the Women Deliver Digital University (2015), International Women’s Health and Human Rights at Stanford University (2014), and Global Health and Humanitarianism at the University of Manchester (2013).

An advocate of many causes, they are members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and Y-PEER Pilipinas, founder of the Y-Cap for SRHR, founder of United Colours of CapSU, and Alumnus of Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Back in 2018, they were awarded as the SDG 5 Youth Champion due to the amiable service they have rendered for gender equality.

JUSTIN FRANCIS BIONAT, MA HRD

Philippines
He/His/Him
Executive Director

A learner for life and a seeker of knowledge, Justin graduated his Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Political Science at West Visayas State University, Philippines and took on a Master’s of Arts in Human Rights and Democratisation (International Program) at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University, Thailand under the APMA / European Union Scholarship. At present, Justin is pursuing a Juris Doctor (JD) degree (Law Degree) from the College of Law, University of San Agustin, Philippines.

Justin entered Youth Voices Count, Inc. in 2018 while studying in Thailand. He later took on the role of Executive Director beginning 2019 and successfully set up the legal registration of the organization in the Philippines under the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Since then, he has been leading the organization in various programs and projects centered around LGBTIQ children, adolescents, and youth. Outside Youth Voices Count, Inc., Justin is active in other initiatives in the field of research and law. He was a law student fellow of the Legal Education Advancement Program (LEAP) of the Legal Education Board and the UP Law Center in 2022.

As an aspiring lawyer, he hopes to one day be instrumental in providing legal support for marginalized populations. Justin has also published reports, journal articles, commentaries, and book articles in the fields of law, HIV/AIDS, LGBTIQ, and Human Rights.

In 2018, he was awarded the Young Achiever HERO Award by APCOM Foundation during the HERO Awards reception at the Royal British Embassy in Thailand for his outstanding work on equality and human rights. He is one of the Youth Council members of the Global Fund, an international financing and partnership organization that aims to “attract, leverage and invest additional resources to end the epidemics of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria”, and a Board Member of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia Committee.