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14th March 1999

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You talk, they listen

Are you feeling miserable? Don't wait till it's too late. There are many understanding people, at different counselling centres out there, who will always go that extra mile to help you out of any difficult situation.

By Wathsala Mendis

Life was seemed smooth for Shehana (not her real name), a 17-year-old attending a leading international school in Colombo. Born into a wealthy family she fared well in her studies and successfully got through her O/Ls. Things could not have been any better or so it seemed until she became all aloof, preoccupied with her own thoughts, and worse still, refused to sit for her A/Ls. When referred to Anne Abeysekara of the National Christian Counselling Centre, the girl came out with the startling confession, "I feel like blowing up the world."

Something was seriously wrong somewhere. Although provided with all the material comforts that money could buy, Shehana longed for the love and warmth of her parents who were abroad. She missed them terribly. How could all the wealth in the world give a child as much happiness as a mother's kind, affectionate words or a father's loving hug?

No longer can we be immune to the fact that Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. An average of 20 people take their own lives every day. For each person who dies at least four others fail in their attempt to do so.

It's common to get "the blues" from time to time. Almost all of us sometimes find it hard to cope with life. Difficulties over job lay-offs, divorce, the death of a loved one... these are all part of life. Despair, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide make no racial or class distinctions. It's natural to feel hopeless and helpless when things go wrong and life becomes too much to cope with. A tormented soul needs someone to talk to, someone who's willing to listen and can understand, someone who really cares, to help him through his problem.

A patient, sympathetic listener could help save a life.

Counselling could come in handy in such situations. "Contrary to common belief, one does not have to be 'off one's head' to go to a counsellor," says Dr. Sriani Basnayake, Medical Director of the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka. It's a matter of finding comfort in talking over one's problems and seeking help to sort them out. Counselling is NOT giving advice or criticising. It's a mutual exchange of ideas and opinions which helps a person to come to terms with the situation he or she is caught up in and feel sufficiently confident to cope with it. "A good counsellor will establish a trusting and caring relationship with the person and give and receive relevant, accurate information to help him/her make a decision. A friendly atmosphere which ensures privacy would at once put a person at ease and make it easy for him/her to open up," she says.

Are you worried? Confused? Suicidal? "The sad part of suicide is that it can be prevented. People who do not know how to deal with a problem in a positive way need a calm, reassuring person who's willing to listen and see them through their problem," says Lakshmi Rathnayake of Sumithrayo.

Started in 1974 with the aim of preventing suicide, Sumithrayo is the local representative of 'Befrienders International' based in London. Approximately 200 distressed people contact the eleven Sumithrayo centres in the island every week. A majority of them are not suicidal but find comfort in talking over their problems, fears, or anxieties with a volunteer with whom confidentiality is assured. One can either visit, telephone, or write to the centres. One does not have to be suicidal to talk to Sumithrayo. They also have a rehabilitation programme for drug addicts at 'Mel Medura' at the Colombo centre to help them overcome their addiction.

The National Christian Counselling (NCC) Centre in Wellawatta offers individual counselling for those with personal problems, relationship problems, those who have difficulty in making decisions, those who want to grow and mature into integrated personalities, or for those who have suffered some great loss or trauma.

Their pre-marital counselling and counselling for newly-weds includes a one-day workshop on ways to work towards the goal of a happy and fulfilling marriage.

Prevention and rehabilitation programmes for the psychologically disturbed is an area where little progress has been made in Sri Lanka. A large number of people continue to suffer due to the lack of appropriate services. The Community Mental Health Centre 'Sahanaya' was set up in 1983 with a view to providing a variety of new services to promote mental health in the community.

Mental illnesses range from mild disorders like anxiety states and phobias to more disruptive disorders like schizophrenia or manic-depressive psychosis. When a person develops a mental illness, it can affect that person's thinking, feeling, and perception, thereby leading to changes in the way he/she behaves which could make day-to-day life difficult for them and their families.People suffering from psychological disturbances including mental illness can be helped with treatment and rehabilitation. Early detection and appropriate management could alleviate the suffering of the patient and the family. A dedicated staff of professional clinical psychologists and volunteers at Sahanaya work towards this end.

A daily walk-in clinic is conducted by consultant psychiatrists between 10am and 2 pm. People from all walks of life attend this clinic. Counselling services are available throughout the day. Depending on individual requirements the client is given treatment and followed up, referred for counselling, admitted to the Living Skills Training Programme, referred to hospital for admission, or referred to other services in the community.

Women In Need (WIN) is a non-profit-making voluntary social service organization committed to the elimination of domestic violence and other forms of violence against women such as rape, sexual harassment, and incest. WIN works towards empowering women to be their own decision makers and providing a supportive environment to facilitate their growth towards self-reliance- "which is not as easy as it sounds in a traditional, male-dominated society," according to Savithri Wijesekera, Executive Director of WIN.

Promoting unity, peace, and harmony among individuals, families, races, and cultures is the main objective of the Family Studies and Services Institute, the first counselling centre to be set up in Sri Lanka. Therefore, all its programmes and activities are geared towards helping individuals, families, and groups to achieve the maturity and integrity required for harmonious interaction.

Therapeutic counselling by trained personnel for troubled individuals, couples, and families is available by prior appointment. A full-day seminar for groups of engaged couples on the husband-wife relationship, marriage enrichment programmes to help married people in their relationships, guidance and services for natural family planning to help couples wishing to space or limit pregnancy effectively without drugs, devices, or disadvantages are some of the services and programmes offered at the Institute.

Their Youth Education Programmes deal with such subjects as boy-girl relationships, love and sex, choice of partner, adulthood and maturity, and social responsibility, all of which provide valuable insight and guidance for correct decision-making at this stage. Similarly, the various Parent Education Programmes of the Institute are specially designed to help parents in rearing children which demands much understanding and insight about the process of personality development, the generation gap, and socio-cultural change.

The Family Planning Association (FPA) of Sri Lanka also has a Youth Counselling Centre in Borella ('Alokaya') where two trained counsellors offer help in numerous psychological, inter-personal, sexual, physical/medical, family planning, drug and alcohol abuse, and family problems faced by the youth.

"More centres should be opened throughout the country. These services should be freely available," said both Dr. Sriani Basnayake and Mrs. Lakshmi Rathnayake.

If you need help

National Office
60/7 Horton Place, Colombo 7
Tel: 075-339793/682535

693/4 Peradeniya Road, Mulgampola, Kandy
Tel: 08-23480

96/20 Kitulwatte Road, Colombo 8
Tel: 685960

Women In Need (Win)-
20 Deal Place, Colombo 3
Tel: 575765

From chillies to slippers

UNDP launches operation leather project in war-torn Jaffna

By Feizal Samath

In a small village in the Jaffna peninsula, a group of young people is reviving the manufacture of hand-made leather footwear, an art that died 16 years ago with the birth of the bloody ethnic conflict.

With help from the United Nations Development Programmes (UNDP), young adults from the village of Vathiri in the north are being trained to make leatherwear and in its marketing and distribution.

"This village was famous for making the best hand-made leather products in Jaffna before the war. We want to re-establish these skills and craft in this village," says Richard Gant, a UNDP specialist on small and medium scale enterprises.

The leather project is part of an ambitious UN project, in collaboration with the Sri Lankan government, to revive Jaffna's shattered economy through small and medium sized industries. Another area which the UN is working on in Jaffna is the development of the livestock industry.

Since mid-1998, the UNDP has been helping government authorities to revive micro enterprises in Jaffna and the revival of the leather industry is a key component of this project.

"This is a model scheme unheard of in any other part of the world since we are working in a region which is only partially normal," Mr. Gant, attached to the UNDP's Jaffna Rebhabilitation and Resettlement Programme, said.

State officials say though the area is under government control, the rebels (who operate from the fringes of the city) still enjoy a certain degree of control over the civilian population. Ananth Palakidnar, a senior Colombo journalist and long-time resident of Jaffna, recalled how Vathiri village and its small population of about 100 families became famous for its leather footwear.

"I remember as a kid how we used to buy these flat leather slippers from Vathiri. They are like Indian-made chappals. Most people in Jaffna relied on these slippers, which were hand-made and strong and preferred them to the rubber slippers sold by multinationals," he said.

Palakidnar said that the villagers advanced from hand-made slippers to machine-made ones, importing machinery from India a few years before the war broke out. While the UNDP is quite happy at the success rate of its leather project which is handled in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Red Cross, its efforts with local cooperative societies and local non-governmental organisations in other fields like livestock development and the creation of a number of chicken hatcheries are also meeting with some success. Mr. Gant, who has been working in Jaffna since the inception of the UN project in March last year, said during a brief visit to Colombo that it was necessary to restore the business culture in Jaffna before reviving small enterprises.

"One needs to reshape the mindset of the people. Since Jaffna went off the map as a key supply base for vegetables or fish, things have changed rapidly in the rest of the country. Markets and perceptions have changed. Onions, chillies or fish from Jaffna are not in demand as before since other supply sources have been found in Colombo during the war years. Jaffna producers need to be looking at new items," he said.

Under the UNDP's leather project, 40 people are being trained in leather manufacture and offered financial help to set up their own enterprises. So far a group of 20 young people have received six months training at Vathiri village and they have begun work at a UN-assisted Enterprise Centre that was opened last month in Jaffna.

A second batch of 20 persons is now undergoing training. "While the training is on, the group also produces quality goods which are in turn sold at the local markets," Mr. Gant said. He said some of the older folk who were associated with leather production in the 1980s, and prior to the escalation of the conflict, have returned to the village and are once again involved in this cottage industry. The biggest problem for any industry in Jaffna is raw materials which comes from outside the region. Transportation is a problem and costly, as the road to Colombo, is closed because of fighting between the rebels and government troops. Access to the peninsula is either by sea or air and that too by military planes or via a few military-escorted civilian ships.

The UN supplies the raw leather for the Vathiri village project from Colombo. The training participants also receive a crash course in business techniques to help them in accounting and other management techniques.

With food being scarce in Jaffna, food security is another component of the UNDP programme. With only 10-12 percent of fishing allowed in and around the sea and lagoon areas in Jaffna due to security reasons, UN health experts say the population does not get enough protein.

The poultry industry, once a big enterprise, has been re-activated through UN intervention and a network of breeding farms and hatcheries are being set up, with the ultimate objective of producing enough eggs and meat for the city.Mr. Gant said a giant incubator would be imported from India and production is due to start in August this year, with annual capacity of 27,000 eggs. The parent stock for the incubator is expected to come from India, Germany or Canada. Another 100 small incubators will be provided to small livestock breeders.

Nine chicken feed plants are also being imported from India next month and would be set up in various parts of Jaffna, Gant said. Solar powered refrigerators will also be provided to veterinarians to stock vaccines and other medicines for chickens.

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