ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, June 03, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 01

Our women of the sea

By Ayesha R. Rafiq

“Don't be afraid, baby, I will look after you,” whispered Naalika, stroking her stomach. The baby was restless and kicking hard, the noises of the war raging outside filtering through to his safe cocoon, loud and fearsome enough to scare the unborn child. Hunkering down in a bunker in Trincomalee with the ground outside trembling under heavy artillery fire, Navy Officer Lieutenant Naalika Perera started crooning a lullaby to her child, and slowly the kicking stopped.

Now eight months old, little Semake laughs at the sound of gunfire, the sound being as familiar as that of a toy rattle to him, as his mother continues with her duties at the Trincomalee naval base as one of 35 women officers of the Sri Lanka Navy. Since the first woman officer joined its ranks over 20 years ago, the SLN Women's Force has come a long way. While the early recruits were tasked with mainly administrative responsibilities, today the women are at the forefront of every aspect of naval duty. As engineers, doctors, architects, lawyers, teachers, sailors and much more, they work alongside the men, forming an integral part of the modern SLN.

Lt. Naalika with husband and baby

Coming from a mixed bag of schools such as St. Bridget’s Convent and Visakha Vidyalaya in Colombo and others from areas such as Haputale and Anuradhapura, the officers and sailors are all well educated. Ninety nine percent of the women officers hold degrees in various fields, and over 75 percent of the more than 800 female sailors are A/L qualified with a majority of them having additional diplomas.

In addition to the educational qualifications necessary for entry, every recruit undergoes an intensive training period during which they become familiar with aspects such as the history of the SLN and the general study of ships, and acquire practical skills such as combat, survival, weapons training and swimming.

Far from shying away from the practical skills, the women are often eager and adept at them, such as Lieutenant Naalika Perera and Exchange Operator Y. Lakshika who were adjudged the best markswomen of their respective batches.

“We don't use firearms in our day-to-day duties, but we have to be able to handle one if we are called upon to do so in an emergency, such as assisting in a counter attack,” says Lakshika. “A lot of people think women carry firearms during parades just for the effect, but every single one of them is able to competently handle a variety of firearms,” adds media officer Lt. Premaweera.

Surgeon Lt. H.

The women have varied reasons for joining the Navy. Many, like Surgeon Lieutenant H. Ratnakeethi, have relatives in the Navy and wish to emulate the proud traditions they associate with the officers and sailors. “My father was in the Navy and I grew up familiar with and enjoying the lifestyle. Plus I loved the attention he used to get,” she laughingly concedes. Others join with a desire to help protect the country, while others are attracted by the glamour of the job.

Although often soft-spoken and feminine, their manner belies an iron will and determination equal to that of any man, as in the case of Lt. Tillekeratne. A shy mannered 28-year-old from Anuradhapura now in her ninth year in the Navy, she holds her own among the otherwise all male engineering corps at the SLNS Rangalla at the Western Naval Command Headquarters, repairing and maintaining radar, communication and telecommunication equipment.

“I did find it a bit hard at first, working with only men, but then I took it up as a challenge. If we maintain our dignity and perform our duties capably, the men begin to respect us. Once we have their respect, working with them is often fun,” she says.

Lt. Commander Mala Lamahewa

While they spend a lot of time on the job and are often short of female company, most of the women find their partners within the Navy. “It's inevitable when you spend so much time among male company. It's also easy because we understand the demands of the job and can support each other. When the kids come along too, we are entitled to several concessions. We have good and safe living quarters within the bases, Montessori and day care facilities, welfare services and when the time comes we can get them into good schools,” says Lt. Commander Sandya Goonesekera, one of the most senior women officers who is now in her 22nd year of service, and is herself married to an officer.

But they all agree that it is no cakewalk, involving hard work and commitment, and giving up a certain amount of freedom, especially the Regular Force cadre who have to sign on for a mandatory 20 years of service. Rigorous mental and physical discipline is also necessary. “As new recruits our training included 5 a.m. swims in the pouring rain and early morning physical training, and we have to pass physical tests once every two years. It's also difficult to have real friendships when you're constantly the only woman among so many men, and always aware of rank and seniority,” points out Lt. Commander Mala Lamahewa, one of the officers in charge of IT systems development at the Navy Headquarters.

Lt. Commander Sandya Goonesekera

Although currently there are no women sailors serving on ships, many are exposed to the fiercer side of the war, such as Lt. Naalika who has her fair share of harrowing tales. “When I first joined I was on North and East duty. Once on my way home on leave, we were travelling by boat before sunrise, when suddenly a battle began. A bomb exploded and there was firing all around us. I remember wondering whether to jump into the water and how I would manage to find my way in the dark,” she recalls.

The hard work and dedication these women bring to the job are unquestionable. One has to admire their courage as they face the demands of a military life, shrugging off danger which often comes too close for comfort with a smile, and always standing by their sworn duty of protecting their motherland as bravely and as ably as their male colleagues.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.