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Sarah Saska, Uniterra Volunteer in Sri Lanka: Supporting women’s empowerment in the garment industry

November, 24 2016

Sarah Saska is like girl power personified. Sarah’s a researcher, a strategist, entrepreneur and investor focused on gender equality. Sarah is involved with ‘Feminuity’, an international gender equality consulting firm, Wen-Do Women’s Self-Defence charity and the MATCH International Women’s Fund. Ms. Saska has a Bachelor of gender and political studies, a Master of feminist and gender studies, and this summer she successfully defended her PhD in innovation and gender equality. In May 2016, Ms. Saska took on a new challenge, working as a Uniterra volunteer in Sri Lanka for MAS Intimates.

SarahSaska

MAS Intimates journey began in 1987, with 17 sewing machines and 25 employees, when three brothers - Mahesh, Ajay and Sharad Amalean - took on what seemed to be an unconventional product choice at the time, and went on to pioneer the art of lingerie manufacturing. MAS is one of the foremost Design-to-Delivery Solution Providers in the world of Apparel and Textile Manufacturing and has grown to become a USD 1.6 billion organization. It leverages its ecosystem of design offices, apparel manufacturing plants, fabric mills and component manufacturing facilities to provide unique solutions to its customers. The company is headquartered in Sri Lanka with a manufacturing footprint that spans the Asian region and a design presence in key global locations. The 42 state-of-the-art facilities located in 15 countries provide employment to over 82, 000 associates.

MAS is reputed for its ethical and sustainable working environment and continues to be at the forefront of women’s empowerment through its globally recognised and award winning empowerment programme Women Go Beyond program. This unique blend of manufacturing capability, “new thinking” in people, product and process; together with the ethical and sustainable business practices and skill base, continues to attract premium brands, retailers and Uniterra Sri Lanka to partner with MAS. Another reason for Uniterra Sri Lanka to partner with MAS is to having access to a large pool of women, also to respect the program principle of ‘Scale’.

However, there are areas, such as gender and environmental sustainability, where MAS does not have domain experts and this is a platform to bring in Uniterra volunteers to help MAS step up their interventions as well as build organizational capacity. MAS seeks to improve its Women Go Beyond program. “We want to elevate this programme, understand more about gender and the workplace and develop an inclusivity framework. We need to conduct a re-evaluation which maps the gains in women’s workspace empowerment through Women Go Beyond program, and create a roadmap for the future that should also include creating conditions conducive to more systemic change within the organization”.  

With a female employee base of 80% in apparel manufacturing, above needs are critical to MAS’s continued success as a sustainable organization. A volunteer assignment with ‘knowledge and skill in gender issues’ was therefore advertised through the Uniterra program. And Sarah Saska applied for this position.

At MAS, Sarah spoke with as many people as possible, at all levels, to better understand Sri Lankan culture and what the workers’ experiences were like. For many of the employees she needed to use a translator. “Sarah was very affable and friendly and this endeared her to all categories of employees, despite the language barrier” said Ronali Perera, a representative of MAS Intimates.

From her research Sarah was able to make practical recommendations that MAS could use right away. The organization appreciated these recommendations and they were impressed with her discipline, focus, knowledge in the subject matter and her passion for gender equity.

Within her short assignment of one month, Sarah identified the gender blind spots, biases, and ways to improve the organisational culture & their ‘bottom-line’. A policy document was developed too to support procedural shift for Diversity & Inclusion for MAS Holdings (the umbrella organisation). She trained 240 middle management to upper management staff of MAS head office and divisional offices.


The Uniterra program is 600 volunteers, 200 local partners and more than 50 Canadian businesses and organizations who make lasting commitments every year in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It is jointly operated by the World University Service of Canada (WUSC) and the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI) and undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada. For more information about available assignments, go to : WWW.UNITERRA.CA