Saila

Sri Lanka
The confidence that Saila exudes today was created in the crucible of tragedy. She was only 17 when her fisherman father was killed in an artillery shell attack, and only 26 when her husband was killed by the navy in mid-sea. A year later, her brother was permanently disabled in another shell attack.

“My mother and I were both widows, but while she went into depression, I was determined to fight it. Psychiatrist Dr Daya Somasundaran of Shantiham showed the way out for me,” Saila recalled.

  Somasundaram believes that traumatized and marginalized persons can be mainstreamed through participation in social activism, group activity and assumption of leadership roles. Saila started “Tharaka”, which, to date, has rescued 105 women from depression and despondency. However, initially, it was difficult to get widows to join “Tharaka”.

“Families said that the duty of the widow is to stay home and look after the rest of the family and not go gallivanting. House owners were reluctant to rent their premises to us to hold our meetings,” a pained Saila recalled. Saila realized that rehabilitation has to address existential issues first. Since economic hardship was the main problem, she got the widows to do a small business together. They started to pickle fish and market them. A chit fund gives loans up to LKR 3000 to members to meet their personal and business expenditure.

But ambitious Saila has widened the canvas for “Tharaka.” Its members get involved in solving Chavakkad’s civic problems.

“The once marginalized widows now intercede with the government on behalf of the village. Recently, we solved a severe water problem. Seeing our successes, villagers are now using us as their spokespersons!” she says proudly.

She realized that for Tharaka to be meaningful to the widows, their existential problems will have to be addressed first and foremost. Since economic hardship was the main issue, Saila got the widows to do a small business together.

The women pickle fish and market them. A chit fund gives loans up to Rs. 3000 to members to meet their personal and business expenditure," she said. But ambitious Saila has widened the canvas for "Tharaka". Its members get involved in solving Chavatkaddus civic problems.

"We started taking the initiative in these matters and we intercede with the government on behalf of the village. Recently, we solved a severe water problem. Seeing our successes, villagers are now using us as their spokespersons! " she said proudly.

The once marginalized widows, dismissed by society as good for nothing creatures, and an evil omen, are now sought after by fellow villagers to assume the leadership role.

Tharaka puts its premises to social use when it is not conducting any activities there. "We allow school girls to come and study here during the day and allow boys to study in the evenings. This is done to provide the right kind of atmosphere for studies which may not exist in their homes," Saila said. Saila stresses the importance of hearing out the widows  or anyone who is traumatized. "They have to be heard when they describe their plight and recall the tragedies they had gone through. Asking them to shut these out and think anew is not correct. By talking, they unburden themselves and for this, they need a patient and sympathetic listener. I listen," she said.

Saila goes to the Wanni every 15 days to meet displaced and traumatized women. Tharakas activities do not yet extend to the Wanni, which saw the bitterest fighting in Eelam War IV. But Saila does the next best thing - go there and hear out the people. In addition, the widows of Tharaka help out with the work being done by Shanthiham.

Saila’s work has found resonance across the island and the world. The Finnish government has provided funds, and in 2005, she was among 12 Lankan women nominated by UNESCO for the Nobel Peace Prize.
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