If one visits an elementary school anywhere in the rural areas between Ampara and Batticaloa Districts, one is first of all struck by the amicability and high spirits of the students. Every class welcomes visitors with a cheerful “Good morning, sir!” delivered in unison, while the more self-confident students, invariably grinning, prefer to greet strangers with a loud “Hi, how are you?” Looking past the unaffected good nature of the children, however, one sees in every classroom and hallway, and on the exterior of every school building, poignant reminders of the terrible social problems in these communities and the dangers which many young people face within their own homes. Hand-drawn posters and large painted murals – simple and forceful, they are unmistakably the work of children – depict club-wielding men standing over their wives and children. Others show groups of men, either clambering up cocoanut trees or just sitting dully around a bottle. On top of the wholesale destruction caused by natural disasters and civil war, many communities in eastern Sri Lanka are currently being devastated by endemic rates of alcoholism, domestic violence, and child abuse.
Rape and violence against women are almost never reported to the police in these areas and only the most horrific incidents receive any notice outside of the villages in which they actually occur. There is, however, sufficient evidence to show how widespread these problems are and what a paralyzing effect they have on village life and hopes for development. On April 3rd, at the Rose office in Kalmunai city, there was a graduation ceremony for young women who had recently completed a three month vocational training course in shoe-making. These women are all between the ages of 18 and 26 and live in the isolated, rural community of Selvapuram. They brought with them a large collection of beautifully-made ladies’ sandals, in a variety of attractive styles, which they had produced during the course of the program. After the ceremony was concluded, the graduates all registered with Rose Microcredit but, when the group was asked whether they would like to begin taking loans in order to start their own shoe-making business, fewer than half of the young women expressed a desire to do so. When pressed, they explained to us that in their community it is simply not safe for a young woman to walk the country roads alone and none of them have access to any form of transportation which can convey them safely to and from their homes and wherever the shoe-making would take place. Without basic security in their community, it is difficult for these young women to even leave their homes unescorted and absolutely impossible for them to improve their livelihoods through entrepreneurship.
Rose Charities Sri Lanka has committed itself to addressing the root causes of this intolerable state of affairs and, working closely with the Assistant Superintendant of Police for Vellavely and Kaluwanchikudy Divisions, the Divisional Secretary’s Office, and the regional Office of the Ministry of Health, Rose has formulated a model Awareness Program which has been staged twice so far this year.
The first Awareness program was held in Kovilporathivu D.S. Division and approximately 90 local people, including widows and young women as well as men, participated. The second was held at Sinnawattai. This was a special program and over 350 people were in attendance. In one of the most moving parts of the day, young children took the stage and read short testimonials which they had prepared about how alcohol affected their home lives. One can only imagine how a father might feel, sitting in the audience, when his son or daughter tells the assembled crowd that it is impossible to study at home in the evenings when their father comes home drunk. During the course of the event a considerable number of families were identified as being involved in producing homemade alcohol. Many of these came forward voluntarily and asked for outreach and assistance in order to be able to abandon this business.
There was also a mobile health service camp set up outside of the meeting which offered dental cleanings, eye tests, and a medical clinic for people who cannot access these services normally.
We are very proud to be working closely with the Police Force to try and improve the security situation in rural villages. The police, more often than not, do not have the resources necessary to adequately patrol rural area and the people have no confidence in the police because they are unable to enforce the law in their communities. Compounding this problem is the fact that there is a language barrier between the Sinhalese police officers and the Tamil civilians whom they protect. The Community Policing model is, however, being introduced into this area under the direction of the Assistant Superintendant of Police and the trust which Rose Sri Lanka has earned during eight years of work in this area is considered an important asset in helping restore the people’s faith in the police. This is a vital step in the reconciliation process. On Monday, April 16th, the national, Tamil language newspaper Virakesari carried a story about these Awareness Programs in which a police spokesman formally thanked Rose Charities for the valuable assistance we have given them in combating alcoholism and violence in rural communities.
There are four more Awareness programs scheduled for the coming months.