Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Jaffna’s Women Take a Trishaw Ride To Financial Independence

DushiYanthini Kanagasabapathipillai in Jaffna, North of Sri Lanka

Women are workers and contribute to the national economy

All over South Asia, more and more women are becoming breadwinners, although their contribution is still hardly publicly recognised. Despite the fact that they work as hard as men, they also continue to be paid less.

Take Sri Lanka. Women comprise 50.8 per cent of the country’s total population of 21.3 million and have been part of the workforce for decades. They have worked extremely hard and have made many sacrifices. Today, they continue to contribute to the national economy, which accounts for 52 per cent of Sri Lanka’s exports. There are women working in traditional sectors, like in the tea and rubber plantations, and in non-traditional sectors like garments and domestic work, according to the Shadow Report prepared by the Centre for Women’s Research in 2001.

The latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10 (HIES) estimates reveal that out of five million households in Sri Lanka, 1.1 million households - or 23 per cent – are women-headed ones. The majority of female heads of households are in the age group of 40-59 years, and of them more than 50 per cent are widows while a small percentage (4.5 per cent) reported as ‘never married’.

The reason for the high percentage of widows can be attributed to the war in Sri Lanka, which was officially brought to an end in May 2009. There are more than 40,000 widows in the Northern Province alone, including 26,340 in Jaffna district according to Centre for Women and Development. In the Eastern Province, there are 42,565 war widows, according to the Child Development and Women's Affairs Ministry.

Listen to the story of this young Tamil widow from the Northern Province, and the general picture gets clearer, “I got married early and my husband was killed during the last phase of the war in May 2009. I have three children. The existing social structure within the Tamil community prevents me from remarrying. I am struggling to fulfill the needs of my children single handedly. But every day is a challenge. There are a lot of issues I have to face, including the continuing social stigma of being a widow, and the discrimination that comes with it. There is no support for me.

Women like her are in constant search for a sustainable source of livelihood, and clearly war widows in Sri Lanka can benefit from a structured employment programme tailored to their needs. But so far such a programme has not come into existence.

It is against this background that one should consider a unique initiative, undertaken by the Women Education and Research Centre (WERC) in Colombo, which seeks to open a new avenue of employment for women in Jaffna. Under this project, 10 Tamil women in Jaffna town have already been trained to drive three wheelers.

Explains Dr Selvy Tiruchandran, Executive Director, WERC, “The programme had two parts. The first part entailed training in gender sensitisation, building leadership qualities, personality development, and understanding women’s rights and development. The second part was training in trishaw driving.

Surprisingly, the programme did not meet with any opposition from the local community, despite taxi plying not being a traditional occupation for women in this region. Says Dr.Selvy Tiruchandran, “To the credit of the women we found them very cooperative and forward-looking. They seemed inspired and certainly had a lot of expectations from this new sector. They quickly realised that they will be able to live comfortable, economically empowered lives with dignity and self respect.

Tamil women decide to try different livelihood

The responses from the women drivers have been very encouraging, especially from those who were unmarried. Observes Mary Patricia Pushparajah, "There is nothing wrong with women being three-wheel drivers.

Mary Patricia Pushparajah has five children to take care

Adds an enthusiastic Tharmini Visvavanathan, “I am an unmarried woman. I’m ready to face the challenges of this occupation.

Tharmini Visvavanathan is looking forward to have more hires

Many, like Kavitha Satheeswaran, are just thankful for the livelihood opportunities that it represents. “I lost my husband in war. Now I have decided to be a three wheel driver to feed my children” says Kavitha Satheeswaran.

Kavitha Satheeswaran hails from Puthukkudiyiruppu due to livelihood opportunity lives in Jaffna

Indravathani Rameswaran, whose husband was disabled during the conflict, also welcomes this initiative. She says, “My husband lost his right leg in the Vanni war, so I’ve decided to be a three wheel driver to look after my family.

Indravathani Rameswaran's regular customers are elderly

What is interesting is that male three wheel drivers in the Peninsula don’t see these women as intruding into their territory. In fact, they are coming forward to help them and they even share parking space – difficult to come by in crowded Jaffna town – with them. As one man who calls himself ‘Mathan’, puts it, “It is our responsibility to support these women tuk tuk drivers in Jaffna.

Spiritual blessings for their survival

Getting this project on the road was certainly not easy. Recalls Tiruchandran, “The first major constraint was finding the funds to buy the trishaws. We also had a problem, initially, to get permission from the Presidential Task Force to do this project in Jaffna. At first permission was refused and it was only through the help of some sympathetic ministers we were able to convince the Presidential Task Force to clear the project.

Another constraint, according to Tiruchandran, was the delay in getting the trishaws from Indian High Commission, which agreed to support their acquisition. The Sri Lanka Government was not cooperative about getting this done through a bi-lateral agreement. The Indian High Commission then had to get the process cleared through the Government of India from New Delhi. This delayed things considerably.

Traditional barriers are broken to explore new avenues of livelihood

Meanwhile, the potential trishaw drivers in Jaffna kept waiting, licences in hand, for more than four months, getting increasingly restive and desperate as time when by. “I have to make a special trip to convince them that somehow we will find the money for the trishaws. They were in a state of total despair. So I personally raised funds through friends and relatives from Sri Lanka and abroad and finally succeeded in buying the trishaws, shares Tiruchandran. One trishaw costs approximately LKR 3,85,000/= plus insurance.

This is the beginning of a journey. Although these women trishaw drivers have generally been objects of curiosity, sometimes they face hostility from other drivers. I watched on one of the main streets in Jaffna, as one angry lorry driver, who had taken a wrong turn at a junction, shouted after he noticed that it was a woman driver, “Can’t you stop and turn?

On a longest journey in Jaffna

States Tiruchandran , “We fully realised that once these women were on the road they would face challenges from the community in the form of comments, ridicule, even harassment. We have prepared them to face those challenges and to strategise ways to deal with them. We have also linked them with other civil society organisations and women development officers to give them the moral courage and confidence to carry on. Additionally, our co-ordinator in Jaffna will also deal with any problem that may arise.

Today, the Indian High Commission’s grant for the trishaws received belatedly is being given to the women of the war-affected Eastern Province, in Ampara (seven trishaws) and Batticaloa (eight trishaws). The programme has just been initiated there and it is being overseen by the Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC).

An energetic team is empowered and encouraged

As Trichandran says, this is finally about changing women’s consciousness so that they can empower themselves and transform their lives and those of others.

(Courtesy ~ Women's Feature Service)

Saturday, August 04, 2012

"Remain Alive is the first job of a journalist"

Crackdown was the word of the year in 2011. Never has freedom of information been so closely associated with democracy. Never have journalists, through their reporting, vexed the enemies of freedom so much. Never have acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists seemed so numerous. The equation is simple: the absence or suppression of civil liberties leads necessarily to the suppression of media freedom. Dictatorships fear and ban information, especially when it may undermine them” ~ Reporters Without Borders.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF)10th annual (2011 ~ 2012) World Press Freedom Index, the 8 South Asian countries are placed:~

Afghanistan 150, Bangladesh 129, Bhutan 70, India 131, Nepal 106, Maldives 73, Pakistan 151 and Sri Lanka 163. The survey consists of 179 countries.

Remain Alive is the first job of a journalist" says Kanak Mani Dixit, Editor of Himal Southasian and publisher of Himal Khabarpatrika a fortnightly from Kathmandu, Nepal. He delivered a lecture on “Media Freedom in South Asia in the Light of Self Censorship” at the Press Club of Sri Lanka Press Institute recently.

Kanak Mani Dixit addresses the gathering at the Press Club of Sri Lanka Press Institute

Kanak Mani Dixit in his address, “What we have gone through in Nepal doesn't hold a candle to what you have gone through in Sri Lanka."Candle of Memory"~ Sri Lankan journalists Richard de Zoysa (1990) and Lasantha Wickrematunge (2009) were killed in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has been in continuous turmoil. But the fight for press freedom continues. Sri Lankan activists and journalists give courage to the fight for media freedom.

The larger arena where the public do not get the journalism they deserve is through self censorship. The issue of self censorship, which does a greater harm, has not been discussed much as obvious issues of attacks on press freedom. When one lacks the courage, rigor or self confidence to challenge the authority, or when one keeps to the easy path of pointing the finger at the demagogue and going silent, there I believe occurs self censorship. We are forced to look at the mirror of self censorship. Self censorship is a pain!

The volume of timidity among journalists, their support group and civil society commentators is high, and the threat of the demagogue, populism and in-house problems within media houses have contributed towards the timidity among journalists. No country is exemplary, on the other extreme when talking of press freedom everywhere there is intimidation, timidity and self censorship.

It is difficult for people to go against the flow. The issue of self censorship affects strongly when it comes to vernacular and local level journalism. Local level journalists are more vulnerable than the national level journalists.

Anna Hazare's activism against corruption got more publicity than Irom Sharmila's more than a decade long hunger strike!. Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike demanding the repeal of the security forces act Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.
Saleem Shahzad was killed in Pakistan. Journalists in Pakistan cannot write about the army or intelligence. If they do, they get “Press Advice”, a note to warn the journalists to be careful.

Media in Afghanistan is squeezed between the Taliban, international forces and government. Journalists in Afghanistan cannot write about religion or women’s rights. If they journalists write about these issues, they get “Night Letter”, a note which is slipped under the door at night to warn the journalists.

Former Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal invited the Secretary General of the United Nations Organisation, Ban Ki Moon to visit the “Treasure House” of Nepal, Lumbini. Pushpa Kamal Dahal and the rest of the Maoists killed 13,000 – 14,000 people during the insurgency (1996 – 2006) in Nepal. We did our research and published stories. As a result the Secretary General of the United Nations Organisation, Ban Ki Moon cancelled his visit to Lumbini. Journalists should be able to do research.

“Radio Revolution” is taking place in Nepal. There are 300 radio stations broadcast news and current affairs in Nepal. Uma Singh was a courageous Nepali journalist. Her father and brother disappeared and she was killed in 2009. After the killing of Uma Singh, the families of women journalists put fear on them. Maoists used their power through intimidation, then humiliation, if both didn't work, then they killed the journalists!. Number of deaths of journalists increased during the insurgency in Nepal.

Threat of Populism is so called a deadly romance!” he added.

Captured during a casual conversation

"Many media paid dearly for their coverage of democratic aspirations or opposition movements ~ Reporters Without Borders

Dr.A.T.Ariyaratne,Founder of Savodaya Movement is in conversation with Sam Wijesinghe, Chairman of Dispute Resolution Committee of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka

Audience at the event

Dr.A.T.Ariyaratne,Founder of Savodaya Movement is in conversation with Kanak Mani Dixit

Kanak Mani Dixit at the Press Club of Sri Lanka Press Institute

Audience at the event