My fourth day in Mannar, a Saturday, was jam-packed with activities. I arrived at the office at 7 in the morning, to start my work. At 8:30, we were off!
International Disabled Persons Day
First stop, international persons with disabilities day (which was actually on the third of december, but was celebrated on the 10th in Mannar town). It was held in the local “differently abled persons” rehabilitation centre, and the guests included UN and USAid staff, priests and nuns and many disabled persons, mainly the physically disabled.
The ceremony started with a garlanding of the VIP guests, and a blessing by the Father of the local church (who, somewhat strangely, put a “pottu” – the red forehead dot – on those whom he blessed).
Subsequently, the government minister who was present at the event cut a ribbon, and we proceeded to an exhibition in a temporary palmera leaf hall erected at the back of the compound. The hall was filled with the handicrafts of the disabled persons – dolls with custom-made dresses, candles, religious statues, all things created by these people within the “Differently Abled Persons Rehabilitation” initiative in Mannar.
I saw these handicrafts, and met with the amazing disabled kids (between the ages of 5 and 25, with disabilities ranging from severe autism to Down’s Syndrome or physical disabilities) who had created them, all so proud of their work.
After this exhibition, I was sent to the main hall, to the front row, where I sat, patiently, on the floor with the younger children, and drank the tea and ate the butter cake that was offered to me. The kids got Milo. I was a little jealous. Then a young girl, maybe 15 years old, who walked with crutches, came and pinned a badge on every single person in the audience, saying that they participated in the International People with Disabilities Day ceremony.
By this time, the kids at the front and I were getting a little restless. Why were we in the hall? Why was nothing happening? Lucky I waited, because the performance I was treated to was breathtaking, and all the performers were disabled. I saw comedy sketches, which were hilarious because of the their reliance on physical comedy; I saw dramas and I saw lots of traditional Tamil dancing: a group, a couple of girls on their own, and, the star of the show, an young girl, who couldn’t be older than six years old, performing a traditional dance in the most spectacular costume, that went for more than 10 minutes. And, it being Mannar (or, indeed, it being Sri Lanka), there were three blackouts during her performance, at which time she held her pose, waited for the music to start up again (sometimes several minutes) and continued dancing, to the absolute delight of the audience.
After wandering through the crowd, being stopped by every second person who wanted to get a photo and learn where I was from, it was time to go, we had a busy day!
16 days of activism against gender violence
After a brief lunch at the family of one of the workers at OfERR (Ceylon)’s Mannar Field Office, where I met his awesome son who is going to show me around Jaffna Town, I was off, for the first time, to Thalaimannar, the northernmost point of Mannar island. The trishaw drive was spectacular. One one side, a lagoon, on the other, dunes stabilised by grasses, palm and palmera trees peppered the landscape. We saw buffalo, goats, donkeys (we were still in Mannar, so it would have been strange not to see donkeys!), cranes, cows and more: the area was a natural wonderland (potential for ecotourism anyone?). We passed at least five ice factories (I think they are for the fishermen). We passed countless churches, temples and mosques, as well as the associated religiously segregated towns, “this is a muslim town, this is a roman catholic town” my trishaw driver would say.
Just as I was thinking “wow, the roads in Mannar’s regional island area’s aren’t that bad,” we left the newly constructed tarmac road, and drove around the machinery that had built it, indeed, the machinery that was still building it. We drove past what was until that point, the worst road I had ever driven on: a couple of times we had to push the trishaw out of a sand-trap. But, on a side note, I think these roads are nothing that my old Lancer couldn’t handle!
We arrived at Thalaimannar town a little later than we thought, but we explained that away because of the roadworks. We drove past another church, past a beautiful looking set of play equipment, and to the multi-purpose hall that had been built by an NGO, the “16 days of activism” banner hanging overhead. The women in the hall were sitting on three sides of the room, in groups with colour-coded saris. These represented each of the self-help groups in the town, and I must admit, the effect of their sari-uniforms was startling, they all looked so in charge and professional.
OfERR’s in-house council, Ms Sivalingam was already in the hall, and the women were doing a “male and female attributes” exercise, where women reflected which physical characteristics, jobs and household role were male, and which were female. After they had put themselves into these groups Ms Sivalingam challenged their characterisation, especially about jobs, where the women had proven themselves to be entrepreneurial through their self-help groups.
One group told stories about their 25 rupees a week translating to 2 lahks over the course of a couple of years. They told me stories of the project they had undertaken: net repair, selling of palmera products, of chilli powder and many more. The women, especially a Mrs Beauty (I know, what a cool name!) were confident and proud of themselves.
After these exercises and their related discussions, the women were organised into groups, and told to sing the traditional Tamil songs they had been taught as children. Each group started off quietly, and by themselves, but by the time the chorus came, there was clapping and all the women joined in: a real show of solidarity.
Finally, however, we moved on to the difficult topic for the day: gender violence. Where a second ago the room was echoing with mirth, at the mention of this topic, the room fell silent. One woman began sobbing. Whilst most of the women kept quiet, there were a couple of women fed up with the way they had been treated: they spoke out. They spoke of husbands intoxicated by arak, they spoke of the police turning a blind eye. They spoke of the lack of support in the village.
Ms Sivalingam, who had apparently heard these stories before, told the women of the support available to them in Mannar town, who would come to the women’s aid in the villages. She told of the Government projects targeting gender violence, and of the NGO’s that could help. It was moving, and it was painful to watch, but at least the women had a new hope from the organisations she recommended.
By now, the sun was setting and it was time for a sombre trishaw ride home. The sun setting past the Palmera trees and into the lagoon.
For more photos, see my flickr album.