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Don’t let gender define you – Asha de Vos

Marine biologist, ocean educator and Blue Whale Project pioneer Dr. Asha de Vos believes that women should focus on their capacity to define themselves and not let their gender limit their potential.

Delivering the keynote address at the ‘Ring the Bell for Gender Equality’ event, organised by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in partnership with the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) to mark International Women’s Day, de Vos shared a powerful message on the importance of leading a purpose-led life while preserving natural resources.   

“Strive not to be defined by your gender, but by your capacity. At some point, no one will look like you are just a woman, but like the only person who can solve a problem, a skilled person that they have to rely on — that’s where we all want to be and that is so incredibly important. We have to become a necessity to the system. We have to work hard so that the system asks you, calls you, and brings you in, whether you like it or not,” she said.

Narrating her inspiring journey in becoming Sri Lanka’s first and only marine biologist, she stressed that gender equality should start at home and how privileged she was to have parents that never saw her different to her brother.  

“My mother took me to a side when I was about six years old and said you know what? If we can only afford to educate only one child, it will be you. Because your brother is a boy and even if he starts as a garbage collector the system will help to help himself and he will find his way. Therefore you need to stand on your own feet,” she said.

She also said that her dream would not have been possible if it was not for her father, who had assured her a good education.

“My life kick-started where I knew my value. I knew that my family didn’t see me as different just because I was not a boy — that is what I grew up with. As for me, nothing was impossible,” de Vos stressed.

She also noted how judgmental people in our society still are, while calling on everyone to stop thinking that these tasks and jobs need a gender attached and realise that we need to get everyone on board.

“Even when I tell people I am a marine biologist, so many people turn around and say, isn’t that a man’s job? In reply I also say, you know what? Before I started doing that job in this country, it was no one’s job — not a man or a woman,” she pointed out.

Asserting that the society we live in are quick to judge, de Vos insisted on the importance of learning to accept choices and supporting others.

“I love sharing my stories and most people say I have an amazing life. They say I am lucky and I ask them back, lucky? We all had dreams as children — the sun shines on every single one of us, but we also have our choices, and you create your luck by the choices you make every day in your life. So, if you are not happy with your life, don’t put that on anyone else. Accept the choices and decisions that you have made, celebrate the choices that others have made and support them,” she stressed.

Noting that her biggest critics are women, she said it is critical to have control over your life instead of getting carried away with other people’s viewpoints on your life choices.

“They often say I can live this amazing life that I want because I have no kids, family and no responsibilities. First of all, own your life. Don’t judge me, you don’t know me, you don’t know the other person’s story, you don’t know why they are single, why they have no children. Judge your own life — because that’s all you have control of. Live that life you have chosen and let others live the path that they are on,” she said.

Acknowledging that there were many times she wanted to quit on her dream, where she forged the field in a new country that was very male-driven and a job that most people thought only a man can do, de Vos said she created a pathway. “I have dealt with a lot of different things to get to where I am today. I could have given it up many years ago. But at that time I started to think what defines me? Am I defined by the car I drive? Or the house I live in? Or the labels that I wear? Or am I defined by purpose? And realised that I am defined by purpose.”

De Vos said her purpose is to leave this planet a better place than she found it. “You have to remember that my work is for the sake of humanity. I don’t care about your age, your background or your gender — I want to make a difference to everyone,” she stressed.

Reiterating that 70% of our planet is covered by the ocean and is a common resource belongs to all of us, she noted that everyone has a responsibility to look after it. “Most people on this planet are in an abusive relationship with the ocean. And anyone who judges me for not having kids, don’t forget: your children are my children and I am looking after this planet, I am looking after the ocean so that your kids don’t suffer, they will be safe and have healthier life in the future. So, don’t judge; support, understand, have these conversations with each other,” she added.

She also underscored that women have to work harder than the average man, as the system is not built to support them just yet. “We are getting there, but we have a long way to go. What I can tell you is that the system adapts, if you’re forging ahead with that dream. If you stay true to your life, true to your dreams, true to what you believe, the system will adapt and I have seen that in my own life,” she emphasised.

Further, she called on all women to use their gender to empower others. “Let them see themselves in you, because your strength becomes someone else’s inspiration. At the end of the day, I can tell you that life is limitless, and it is what we make of it. Be courageous, believe in yourself, support one another, take time to understand each other – both men and women – unleash your inner warrior, know that you absolutely can and never ever give up!”

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