How women changed their dreary lives by coming together to help themselves.


D ayangami Magura, a woman who once had no money to speak of, sits in the shade of a humble community building and tries to explain how, almost overnight, she and other women in tiny Baduraliya turned a male-dominated culture on its head and wound up with money in their pockets and a brighter future for their children.

She pauses, squints at an unrelenting sun, and her eyes suddenly light up. This is important, so she speaks slowly, to make sure you get it.

“If you take a bucket and if there are holes in the bucket, no matter how much you try to put water in it, it will never retain,” she said. “The most important thing is to plug the leaking points, then start pouring.”

The women of Baduraliya plugged so well and poured to much that their women’s association now has 3 million rupees in the bank.

Women like Magura have lived their lives surrounded by prosperous tea plantations and rubber estates on the hillsides of Sri Lanka’s “wet zone,” about 75 miles south of Colombo, always surrounded by money but never having any. Middlemen ate up their profits when they tried to sell tea from their small farms or tried to arrange loans from banks. Their men buried their frustration in strong drink, leaving the women to raise the children, tend the garden, and try to keep the family together.

Then came the women’s association, founded with the help of anti-poverty crusader Nimal Martinus.

At first, it was tough to get anything done. The men were skeptical. This is a heavily Buddhist country where males traditionally rule the roost, both in terms of faith and family. But the women kept at it. And suddenly, something extraordinary happened.

They discovered they could change their futures all by themselves.

Magura said the women’s association helped them figure out where the village’s resources were leaking out, like the bucket.

Once they began patching things up, the community flourished. It all started when five women, including Magura, joined the local chapter of the organization.

“We didn’t have a single cent or penny when we joined but we started,” she said. “We realized this was a good program and it was useful for us, especially poor people.”

When the women met, they discussed their problems as  individuals and as a community. Before then, they hadn’t really had a forum to talk about the problems plaguing them.

“We realized when we’re discussing problems, we need to find solutions by ourselves,” Magura said.

And they have.

Whenever someone’s child got sick or they couldn’t afford something, people would go to the moneylender, who would eventually exploit them, Magura said.

We realized when we’re discussing problems, we need to find solutions by ourselves.

-Dyangami Magura

Now, the villagers don’t have to do that because of the emergency fund the women’s group created by pooling their pennies.

“We started doing some savings because we didn’t have much or good money habits,” Magura said. “I proudly want to tell you when we joined in 2008 we didn’t have a single penny but today, we are very happy to say that all the people managed to have about 3 million rupees (about $20,000) in our small women’s organization.”

Now people are able to borrow from the community bank and invest on productive purposes like house building, farming, and other income-generating activities. This gives the association the power to build up each community member so they can stand on their own.

Some of the problems hit closer to home, though. Magura said many husbands spent excessive amounts of money on drinking and smoking. The women had their reluctant  husbands put the money they would be spending on alcohol or cigarettes into a tin to show how much and how fast it added up. The visuals – stacks of bills overflowing little containers — made something click in the minds of the men. They quickly climbed on board and became supportive.

“In Sri Lanka most of the work is done by the women because we work and bring the resources to the family. We also have a right to show the men when they do the wrong thing,” Magura said.

As women living in a male-dominated nation, it was intimidating at first to lead these efforts. Magura said the training they received finally made the women believe it was possible.

“At the beginning, we were worried. We were shy. We were scared,” Magura said. “But through our education programs we were given that confidence that we are equal.”

Gradually, the founding five members convinced other mothers and women like them to join. It continues to grow, and today there are 43 similar groups around Sri Lanka.

“When we are together we have power,” Magura said, a proud smile on her face and confidence welling in her voice. “We were able to solve a lot of problems within the families: family disputes, domestic violence, children issues. As a group of mothers we get together, educate, and have a dialogue in order to find the best way to fix things.”

Magura said everything is done as a group. That way, they help each other. As an example, she said if one member has a harvesting issue, everyone does what they can to help get the crop in and that person in return interns with the association.

“There is a lot of unity and collaboration, which is also a big value for our society,” Magura said. “In the past it had been lost because of modern development but we want to build that back because that is our strength for the future.”

The association changed Magura’s life, and her daughter, son, and husband have all benefited.

They built a house of their own, her husband has a steady job, and her children are doing well in some of the best schools in the area.

“All of this happened because of this organization,” Magura said. “We thought we were marginalized and that we were not recognized, but through this we are recognized. We have power and we have rights.”

She wants to help others experience the same joy her family has found.

“I realized that when we do some good things for the other people it comes back to you and your family,” Magura said. “We strongly believe that and I can testify that it is happening. I feel that when I leave this world one day I have left something important,” she said.

In old days, poor families could be overcome by the obstacles they encountered. Now, more and more, families have begun welcoming and overpowering challenges, Magura said.

“I am expecting in the future that we will accomplish bigger things,” she said.

Author Lana Ferguson

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