Where Freedom Is the Greatest Christmas Gift

AKKARAYAN, Sri Lanka — Antonyraj Lourdamma used to idle away time in her hut relying on her husband's meager income as a manual laborer to feed her four children.

But, the Catholic mother's life underwent a transformation two years ago when she joined the “Rose” self help group of women initiated by Caritas in her village of Akkarayan. Caritas is an international Catholic aid organization.

Lourdamma, 32, took a loan of 3,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($30) from the group and started a poultry venture next to her coconut palm leaf roofed hut.

“Earlier, I could never afford to give eggs to my children, and cooking chicken was a luxury. But, everything has changed now,” Lourdamma said while feeding her hens last month. With the steady income from selling chickens, she has been able to ease her husband's burden and has already repaid the Caritas loan. She's even managed to buy a bicycle — the common transport in her region, which lacks proper roads.

The Lourdamma family lives in the Wanni region in the north of Sri Lanka. “Wanni” refers to the areas under the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. These “Tamil rebels” control a 93-mile stretch from Vavunniya, 168 miles from the capital, Colombo, to the Jaffna peninsula in the north.

Farming is the only economic activity worth mentioning in the rebel-held areas. There are few buildings left intact after more than two decades of intermittent fighting and bombings by the Sri Lankan army.

As a result, most of the half million Tamil people in Wanni live in primitive conditions in thatched huts like the Lourdammas', without water, electricity or telephone.

“We have found these [women's groups] to be a sure way to make the people stand on their feet and instill hope in abject conditions,” said Father Gnanaprakasam Peter, social service director of Kilinochchi — the only major township in the Wanni region.

The Church has already set up more than 50 women's groups of 20 members each. Many members are Hindus and widows of rebel warriors who have perished in the campaign for an autonomous homeland.

More than 65,000 lives have been lost and nearly 2 million people have been displaced since 1983, after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam took to armed conflict, demanding autonomy for the Tamil majority areas in the north and the east against the domination of the Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority.

Ethnic Tamils account for 17% of Sri Lanka's 19 million people while Sinhala speaking Buddhists account for 70%.

Using the Land

Life has been a constant struggle for Shivanesan Kauri since her husband died in an army operation. The Hindu mother of four struggled to feed her children and send them to school with her meager income from making artificial cotton flowers.

“Now, I don't have to plead before others for [lending] money. Life has become very comfortable and secure after I joined the group,” said Kauri, who lives in Udayanagar village, near Kilinochchi.

With an initial loan of 3,000 rupees from the Church group, Kauri bought cotton in large quantity to make flowers. She repaid it in weeks — going for higher loans. With the steady income from her exquisite handicraft work, Kauri saves now at least 3,000 rupees a month after meeting all the needs of her four children.

Following the training the Church group has given to its members in farming activities, Kauri has already bought a motor (for pumping water) and now plans to launch vegetable farming in the barren plot of land next to her hut.

In fact, the credit for reviving the agrarian economy in the war ravaged Wanni region goes to the Church. The self-help groups promoted and constantly monitored by field staff of Caritas have initiated several simple but innovative methods to prompt the Wanni people to make productive use of the fertile land around them.

The catalyst for this economic revival process came with the nutritional food program that Caritas initiated in 1998 to improve the health of the malnourished children and to reduce the high student drop-out rate.

“Our studies found that most of the children came to school on empty stomachs and had no assurance of a meal when they returned home,” said Kanagaratnam Theivendirarajah, head of the emergency wing of Caritas Sri Lanka.

While many fainted in class, others stopped coming to school. With the parents — many of them widowed mothers — struggling to feed their children, Theivendirarajah said, the parents sent the children to menial jobs for “additional income” instead of school.

After Caritas started providing food to 15,000 of the 25,000 children in 85 schools across the rebel-held areas, the drop-out ratio declined considerably — to 4% from 15% within a couple of years.

In fact, parents were encouraged to send their children to school as they were assured of the nutritious meal distributed around noon.

Though the initial supplies were brought from outside Wanni, the Caritas official pointed out that with the formation of the women's groups, the task of collecting the necessary ingredients and preparing the food was left to the women's group in the area.

With the Church offering attractive prices for local farm produce, the school feeding program has led to greater farming activity by the lethargic war victims who have been displaced several times during two decades of war.

When thousands of houses on the coastline were washed away by the tsunami waves last year, Father Peter said, the bulk order to provide matted coconut-palm leaves to make temporary shelters were given only to the women's groups.

“These small [women's] groups might sound simple. But, they are vital to the economic revival of this region with hardly any economic activity,” said Father Peter.

However, Sasikala Thankaratnam, a Hindu woman associated with the Caritas group in Ratnapuram village, said that apart from improving their “miserable economic condition,” these groups have given a “sense to dignity and confidence” to the women.

In fact, she is expecting a windfall (by Wanni standards) when the 100 farm chickens she is grooming now would fetch her at least 50,000 rupees ($500) by Christmas.

Thankaratnam had to depend on the petty income from the shop run by her husband with a paralyzed arm from the war. But, since she started a poultry venture with a loan from the Church group, Thankaratnam said: “We have no worries now.”

Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi.