Three women sow seeds of peace in their communities in Sri Lanka
Author: Abhi Ananth
“Many in our neighbourhood don’t even know what they are fighting about. But awareness about social cohesion can bring clarity to their minds and as a result prevent scuffles. I believe the conflicts around us can be solved if we learn to communicate with understanding and love,” says Yogamathi Yoganathan who lives in Karaitivu, a coastal village in the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka.
As a member of a local women’s association, In July 2022, Yogamathi attended a training on social cohesion conducted by UN Women and local social enterprise Chrysalis. One of the core objectives of the trainings held in Ampara, Monaragala, and Vavuniya was to create awareness about how to co-exist amicably in multicultural communities. The programme culminated in community-based projects that were developed, planned, and executed by participants with the aim to promote social cohesion within their communities.
Yogamathi, with the knowledge she gained from this training, organized a street drama on peacebuilding, during which seven amateur actors took to the streets of Karaitivu, a village with a history of social unrest.
The street drama attracted an audience of some 200 villagers which included people from the Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhala communities. The bilingual play was scripted with all communities in mind and drew attention to the misgivings, unfair stereotypes, and unfound mistrust that each community harbored. The message was clear: Eliminating fear about the “other” and opening avenues of communication are important for building peace, which ultimately leads to better coexistence.
Yogamathi recounts that her training was multifaceted; she learned that peacebuilding begins at home with one’s spouse and that love conquers all, be it within four walls or in the wider community. “Understanding has to begin in the family,” she says.
Yogamathi was already a part of Karaitivu’s Kalaimagal Sangam (Goddess of Arts Association), responsible for enhancing the economic stability of women in the neighbourhood and advocating for women's and children’s rights. She said that she chose to participate in the programme because it would give her the opportunity to share the message of social cohesion with the women she works with.
Her street drama project succeeded in taking the message of social cohesion to over 200 families, 50 of whom were from Nindavur, the neighbouring town with Muslim families. Furthermore, she also hopes it will expand opportunities for enterprise between the two communities. With plans for a community sports meet for children and a symposium to discuss social cohesion, Yogamathi hopes to share and action her knowledge further.
Just over 100km south-west of Yogamathi, Chandani Malkanthi, 30, who followed the Monaragala edition of the same programme, initiated a community awareness project for school children in danger of drug abuse. A member of the Dilana Tharu (Shining Stars) Women’s Association, which works with women in adversity, Chandani participated in UN Women’s programme to be able to bring back the message to the women in her community.
“Women understand the challenges our children face and with the right guidance, can nurture wholesome individuals who will contribute to society and lead healthy lives as they grow,” Chandani says.
But as a mother of two, her first course of action was to address the drug abuse problem at hand. An alarming number of children in her village school, especially those studying in grades three to five, were addicted to drugs. The problem hit close to home as one of Chandani’s children was in grade four. With the support of the police, Chandani’s awareness programme reached more than 80 children and their parents. Thanks to her awareness event, she says, a majority of the children in the Siyamabalanduwa division where she lives are now better aware of the dangers of drug usage and have been educated to stay vigilant. She also hopes to reach at least 60 more families in the neighbouring village Madagama, through similar community initiatives.
Commenting on her takeaways from the programme, Chandani states that she has been reminded that community is important and that no one can exist in isolation. By eliminating preconceived notions and fears about people belonging to other races and religions, peace and many other things become possible. She believes that “racism is the core reason for our downfall as a nation and it is time that we stopped being narrow-minded.”
Up north in Vavuniya, another participant, Udayakumar Susila, 40, united people in her community to renovate and repaint the Grama Sevaka office (a government office), which is the primary gathering location for her community.
Susila, a volunteer for the Chrysalis organization, is involved in community work for conflict resolution and peacebuilding in her hometown, Kannatti Kanesapuram in Vavuniya. She admits that even though conflict is widespread in her community, she first learned to identify the reasons for conflict and how to approach and resolve them at the UN Women programme she attended in Cheddikulam in October 2022. “Although we are facing many problems right now, I feel we can achieve anything if we stay united,” she muses.
She believes that by renovating the Grama Sevaka office, which also doubles as a community centre, the villagers have created a conducive environment for open dialogue. As part of the project, Susila also assembled the townspeople for a shramadana (community clean-up) event and to plant food crops such as banana and coconut. She also organized an event to create awareness about conflict resolution, which was attended by over 200 people from the neighbourhood.
As the leader of the women’s association in her locality, Susila now uses her new knowledge on social cohesion to mediate between the women who approach her with conflicts of their own. Speaking about the influence of the event she organized, Susila observed: “People in my community are becoming more open to resolving conflict through communication and are learning that peace can be attained through meaningful discussion.” Although perceptions cannot change overnight, she is hopeful for a peaceful future for her community.
The Social Cohesion programmes are part of UN Women’s three-year project titled Implementation of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Sri Lanka, which was implemented from 2020–2022. As part of the trainings, more than 270 women leaders and 90 civil society organizations were given the skills to promote social cohesion in their communities. Through these initiatives, 5,400 people have also increased their understanding on the vital role women play in preventing conflict.