11th June 2000

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Sheela and her band of men and women

By Feizal Samath

DAMBULLA Sheela Ratnayake and a few women from a community group used to accompany a colleague to courts. The woman had been raped and had filed a private action against her six attackers.

Sheela doesn't go anymore for fear of incurring the wrath of the six men who live in a nearby village. I wanted to continue this moral support to my colleague but friends advised me not to go to courts," she said from her office at Korasagalla, about 20 kilometres off Dambulla.

Now a group of 20 men and women from the Women's Development Centre (WDC), a non-governmental organization helping to empower rural women, makes the once-in-three-months journey to courts to sit along and support Sheela's colleague.

" The police case and the private case have gone on for five years with little action against the perpetrators," lamented Sheela, Coordinator of the Rajarata Women's Foundation. The victim, also a volunteer at the Foundation, was attacked one morning close to her home, while on her way to work, gang-raped and left for dead in the village tank. Even after many, many months of treatment, counselling and support the rape victim still thinks of suicide. We know the men. They move around freely in the village," said Sheela.

Protecting women from violence is one of the objectives of the Foundation apart from other activities like income-generating projects for women, pre-school facilities for children, looking after the community's health and sanitation needs and reducing alcohol consumption in the village.

" Alcoholism is a serious problem and women are the worst off," said Sheela, reflecting a commonly-held view in most villages, where drunken husbands beat up their wives or waste the family income on cheap, adulterated liquor brewed in dirty pans.

Villagers, angered by a drunk's attempts to molest a girl whose mother is working in the Middle East, held a demonstration against alcoholism last year. About 150 women and children, carrying placards and shouting slogans, marched to a nearby police station and carried out a protest against alcoholism and its traders urging police to stop this activity.

We need to continue these efforts," said Sheela whose group is in the forefront of the anti-liquor campaign. Some of the issues confronting the Foundation are common to most villages violence against women, social problems arising out of women going to the Middle East and the ethnic conflict.

More than 60 percent of the one million-odd Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East are unskilled rural women. Their earnings often singularly maintain the entire family but their absence often leads to negative consequences like husbands neglecting the children, living with other women or resorting to incest. Family breakups are common.

The Foundation supports war widows, providing them moral support and training in income generating activities.

Many come by the Foundation's drop-in centre at Korasagalla to chat with volunteers and attend seminars or training sessions.

Women in these impoverished villages are also caught up in the caste conflict and are marginalized. Low-caste families are shunned and women are the worst-affected, often forced to work as labourers on construction sites while their higher caste counterparts would probably work in a garment factory.

They don't have an education and are forced to do demeaning jobs," said Sheela. The Foundation is helping to provide a basic education to these women and uplift them.

A savings and credit scheme and income generating activities provide the key to women's empowerment and the Foundation, like many other women's groups, spends a lot of time in developing these areas.

Sheela's group works in 35 villages covering about 687 women and 500 families. Women, helped by the Foundation, launched their own savings scheme some years ago forming village committees of 20, 30 or 50 depending on the size of the village.

Loans are provided at 24 percent interest. The interest and quantum of loans are worked out by the women themselves. Repayment is much quicker than between them and commercial banks or big companies where repayment levels are often abysmal and lead to seizure of property.

" Rural credit schemes run by the recipients themselves ensure they raise the funds and dole it out amongst themselves instead of letting a big bank make profits," a community worker noted.

The Foundation receives a lot of support from the WDC. We provide matching credit grants to Sheela's group. If for example the Foundation is able to save 5,000 rupees we provide double that amount - 10,000 rupees," said Saman Perera, a community development officer at WDC which is based in Kandy.

WDC is also helping the Foundation, which has several groups in the North Central Province, with legal access for women, crisis-intervention and offices with rent and salaries for these groups.

Sheela and her band of volunteers, who mostly operate from the field or in homes of friends, were blessed with an office and drop-in centre last month. WDC is paying the rent and salaries of staff this year.

The Foundation, which has its head office in Anuradhapura, also receives support from the Sri Lanka Canada Development Fund.

Sheela's group has constructed 50 toilets in the villages and also trained 17 pre-school teachers most of whom donate their services to the community while doing another job.

It is a hard life for women here. They are not only marginalized by society but even by their families," said Sheela, whose many years of work as a field NGO worker for groups like the Norwegian Redd Barna and the National Christian Council have helped her to mobilize women in the area to help themselves.

The key to women's empowerment is to teach women to help themselves instead of waiting for help. Women must ask What can we do? instead of What can others do for us?" she said, adding that the Foundation's role was merely to jump-start such a process.

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