Once women joined hands, things happened. A culture changed. A community changed. And life got better for everyone.
any months ago, Paliyagataye Nilmini and her family huddled on the roof of their house, watching the water rise and hoping for help. The future, if there was one, looked bleak.
Now, sun-worn hands folded delicately on her lap and a narrow smile painted across her face, a newly energized and optimistic Nilmini recalled the harrowing journey of how she got to where she is today, as a mother and an active community facilitator.
Baduraliya is located in one of the poorest parts of southwest Sri Lanka. In recent years, the region has suffered through a series of mudslides and a tsunami, and the impact has been severe in this poor, agriculture-dominated community.
In the wake of so much trouble, Nilmini counts herself lucky to belong to a self-help group of women who banded together under the banner of the non-profit Strømme Foundation of Norway to better the lives of their families. They have found strength and hope in unity, with each of them devoted to helping each other.
When she first learned of the women’s group, “I was very poor. I barely had land and I did not cultivate it. I owned a very small house, but it wasn’t completed,” Nilmini said.
Nilmini, and many like her, struggled to provide for their families long before the tsunami, rainy season floods and devastating mudslides destroyed broad swaths of their communities. When horrendous flooding and mudslides occurred in May, Nilmini and her family did not lose their lives as some of their friends did. But they were victims nonetheless.
“It was early in the morning. We woke up to so much water in our house. I had a fear, that which I cannot explain,” Nilmini said. “The whole area was underwater, and even though we were on a little bit higher land, the water was rising. We lost electricity and the house went under water. We had to climb onto the roof.”
Early on they opposed [us], they didn’t like this. They didn’t know what we were doing, but gradually when they observed and experienced the work that we are doing they started supporting us. Now almost 100 percent of men are behind us and are giving their full support.Paliyagataye Nilmini
She recounted waiting days for government assistance and rescue boats to arrive, a common problem due to the remote location. Tragedies like this are one of the reasons that the Strømme Foundation teamed up with a local non-profit, the Self-Help Group Resource Centre, in May 2007 to serve poor and vulnerable people in a way that hadn’t been possible before. The group’s goal was to create a self-help platform, a place where people could gather to discuss problems and brainstorm ways to solve them. The idea was for them to get it done themselves, together, rather than have Strømme, the government or someone else do it or mandate something from outside the community.
When the project first began, there seemed little hope of success. The SHGRC could not get the men to participate, usually a death knell for projects in the island’s male-dominated culture. As Strømme and SHGRC representatives cast about for solutions, they turned to an unlikely group: the women.
In Sri Lanka, especially in rural areas, this was unheard of.
But when the women started to find success and make their lives better, things changed.
“Early on they opposed [us]; they didn’t like this,” Nilmini said of the men in the village. “They didn’t know what we were doing, but gradually when they observed and experienced the work that we are doing, they started supporting us. Now almost 100 percent of men are behind us and are giving their full support.”
With the dedication and influence of a group of women and mothers just like Nilmini, the village has begun its journey to finding ways to escape poverty and marginalization.
“As women and as families we had a lot of problems in our villages. We didn’t know how to solve those issues. Through this project we were able to come together and discuss as a small group,” Nilmini said.
“I have managed to learn so many things. I have managed to learn from the other group members and cultivate my land and I get a good income now. I have been able to build my house, educate my children … We are empowered and we know what to do when a crisis comes.”
Nilmini says that being able to be a part of decision-making in the community has not only given her the opportunity to provide for her family, but also show her children that women can be leaders.
“We have been able to give knowledge to our children. We have been able to create children and youth clubs where we discuss about child protection, and about educating them,” she said. “We have been able to develop a mechanism within the village where all the mothers get together and do concrete work for the welfare of the children.”
The whole community watched as the women got results. And now, at the hands of a group that had been largely marginalized and cut off from any societal leadership, a community has come together for change.
“The most important thing is that we were united, and we are united,” Nilmini said. “We can do many things together as a force.”