The tsunami destroyed all hope. Then the women got together. And everything changed.
T ears slowly crept down her cheeks as P. Pigawathi Silva told how she and the other women of this humble village overcame tragedy and male bias to create a better life for themselves, their children and their community.
Silva, one of the community’s leaders, has received awards from the Western Province government for courage and dedication to her family after weathering a 2004 tsunami that killed more than 35,000 on Sri Lanka’s southwest coasts.
After her home was inundated by the towering waves, she and her family fled to higher ground, lucky to be alive.
“I lost everything,” Silva said. “I was psychologically very disturbed. It is only my three children and husband left. I lost direction in life. Then I got to know about this (women’s) society and I decided to join [it]. My tears are for happiness, joy. My past was full of misery … But today I am happy.”
The tsunami that struck Silva and thousands of others shook the region to its core. But it wasn’t the last tragedy that would strike this already poor place. Earlier this year, the village was devastated by vast mudslides that destroyed houses and claimed dozens of lives. To top it all off, the heavily male workforce was beaten down, discouraged, in need of motivation. After all those losses, the village desperately needed hope, desperately needed a plan for resurgence.
My tears are for happiness, joy. My past was full of misery … But today I am happy.”P. Pigawathi Silva
That is when Silva and many women like her stepped up to the challenge. With help from Norway’s Strømme Foundation, they discovered that together, they could use their combined knowledge and skills to better the community through self-help programs and committees. The women were taught practical skills that they could use to make money, boost the local economy and improve the education of their children. The women, many with little more than an elementary school education, learned to plan, to dream big, to work together to help each other and the whole community. Suddenly, where despair reigned, ambition was born.
“I started doing some farming, started half an acre of tea … but I invested my income for my children’s education. That was my priority,” Silva said.
She said that when the women began to work, they had to deal with backlash from men in the village who did not approve of women participating in village leadership or usurping the role of breadwinner. Yet, when the women showed how their work benefited the local economy, when money started to appear, the men took notice. They got with the program, a major shift in this male-dominated society.
“At the beginning we had challenges with the men,” Silva said with a smile. “Of course when we do good things, they like it and they support it, but in the past it was a different story.”
But, even with everything she has done for her family and for the village, Silva said that she has received more in return than she ever could have hoped for.
“My dreams were rebuilt without being dependent upon others. I wanted to rebuild my family, wanted to educate my three children, wanted to have my house and wanted to have some income for us to live,” she said. “I started building self-confidence after meeting these women in these groups. Listening with them, working with them, I realized that I have a future.”