Latha's Story

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GLOBAL REPORT[image, unknown] Mother and daughter

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Latha's Story
Changing the position of women in any society can take several generations. But in Sri Lanka at least, the younger women have had the benefit of free education. A mother and daughter talk to Peter Adamson about their very different expectations and about the first frustrating steps towards economic independence.
[image, unknown] WHILE women every-are overburdened in the home, in poor countries they are also the main food producers.
[image, unknown] BUT most of the technology, finance and training in agriculture is given to men.
[image, unknown] EVEN in Third World primary schools there are only five girls for every seven boys.
[image, unknown] So lack of education and heavy responsibilities keep women isolated and weak — unable to get together to take their rightful share.

IN a single canvas bed, in a hut of planks and palm-fronds, in the village of Galenbinda in the island of Sri Lanka. lie a mother and her 20-year old daughter. It is five o’clock in the morning.

The mother, Jayawathie Gunasekere. is awake. Soon she will get up and begin work. But for the moment she accepts just a few moments of conscious rest. Given in marriage at the age of 13, she immediately, became pregnant. By the time she was 20, there were five children. Eventually, after the birth of the tenth, her husband left her to become a Buddhist monk. In the eyes of society, and in the eyes of his wife he had done a virtuous thing.

But for Jayawathie, just when life ought to have been getting a little easier, it meant the added responsibility of earning an income. Since just after her marriage, she has worked an average of 100 hours a week to meet the needs of her family. From blowing the embers of the fire into life each dawn to stacking away the blackened pots each night. she has been the family’s principle provider of food and water, fuel and health care, guidance and love. But like most of the other one billion rural women of the Third World. she has little to do with ‘development’, Development is about change, and Jayawathie’s presence is not changing anything. Yet so much will be changed by her absence.

In the next room, which used to be the bedroom of husband and wife, the two eldest boys now have a bed each. They will not stir for another hour or more. Jayawathie is now up and the water for the morning tea is already rocking the blackened kettle on the stones at either side of the revitalised fire.

‘No, it has not, of course, been a particularly happy life’ says Jawathie ‘it would have been okay if there had not been anxieties each day. And no, I realise that I never had any real choices.’

‘The thing I think about most is my husband, I still love him every day. My daughter’s life will be very different though. More different, I think, than any daughters has ever been from her mother’s in these parts. That is because of education. And I’m glad her life will not be like mine. She will have choices.’ The daughter, Latha. is also awake now, and, perhaps, contemplating the day before she joins her mother. Her first job, after washing, will be to sweep the compound, spread out the already wizened chillies to dry in the sun, and then take morning tea to her brothers,

Because education is free in Sri Lanka, Latha stayed at school for almost ten years. The main result is that she knows more about the world and expects more from it. It is, as her mother has said, a big change in one generation. And the heart of the change is that instead of an instilled and unquestioned feeling that what life brings is to be accepted. there is an acquired attitude that the course of one s life might be changed by one’s own actions,

‘I will not accept a life like my mother and her sisters’ says Latha ‘I would not. of course, marry anyone my family didn’t approve of. But I will not marry anyone that I don’t approve of. In any case, I don’t want to get married until I am twenty-five or perhaps twenty-six. And when I do. I will be able to persuade my husband to only have two children. That will be the biggest difference. But I want to have some say in other things too’

Like many women in the industrialised world who are struggling, in a very different context, for more control over their own lives. Latha believes that brave words need to be supported by other women and by some kind of financial independence. Late in 1980, she and twenty-two young women from this small village made their bid for economic self-reliance. They successfully petitioned the government for some nearby scrubland— called ‘jungle’ in Sri Lanka. With Latha as their elected president, they began to clear the land in the name of the ‘Galenbinda Women’s F arm’.

Latha sets out for the Women's Farm: 'I will not accept a life like my mother and her sisters'.
Latha sets out for the Women's Farm: 'I will not accept a life like my mother and her sisters'. Photo: Peter Adamson

Eventually, the short-bladed scythes with long wooden handles had cut back fifteen acres of jungle, and, on January 20th 1981, the first crop was harvested. ‘We have each been paid about $40 for the cowpie seed’ says Latha, ‘and we’ve all opened individual bank accounts as well as a joint account for the development of the Women’s Farm.’

Later that same day, in the rough night-watchman’s hut in the middle of the farm, the twenty-three women met to discuss the future. They had already taken a step away from the lives their mothers have led. But one very practical hurdle stood in the way of continuing in that direction.

‘The thing we need most is a well’ says Latha. ‘With irrigation, we could get two or three crops a year and extend the farm even further. That will give us more or less full-time work and an income that will last. Without water, we are stuck with one crop a year from these fifteen acres.

From sewing circles to poppadom making, ideas for raising money were discussed at the meeting. And applause for each new speaker rung out over the farm,

Today, the Women’s Farm at Galenbinda is almost totally overgrown. The jungle has returned to repossess the land. The wire fence to keep out animals has been cut and removed. The palm-fronds of the meeting hut, which once shaded so many hopes, now lie on the ground, the entrance choked by dry weeds.

What has happened at Galenbinda this last year is a story of poverty’s stubborn clawing back of development. Because there was no well to irrigate the land, the women had to wait for the next rains before sowing the next crop. Meanwhile they had to live. And in the course of the year, international and national changes far beyond their control forced up the price of rice, kerosene, sugar, dried fish, and other basics by an average of about 30 per cent. One by one, little by little, the women drew out their savings for the future in order to survive in the present ‘Most of us had to take jobs on other people’s land for about 50 cents a day’ says Latha ‘and we still had to do all our other work. So our Farm became overgrown.

‘By September, all the money had gone. And not only are we no nearer to getting a well, but most of us don’t even have the money to buy seeds to replant the farm even if we clear it again.

Still at the mercy of economic forces
Still at the mercy of economic forces. Photo: Peter Adamson

‘We discussed whether or not to abandon the project altogether. Everyone felt very discouraged. Clearing the land again made everyone feel tired just talking about it. It would have to be done on top of all our other work and it began to seem as though there was no point.’

By October, some of the women had borrowed money from relatives, others had pawned jewellery at the people’s bank, still others had taken down the clay ‘tills’ which most families keep on top of a high shelf or cupboard to save money for emergencies. The closed clay urns have a slot in the top to put money in. But as an incentive to save, it can only be got out by breaking the clay till itself One sharp tap on the stone step and a black line appears round the terra cotta ‘till’, Another tap and the till rolls in half spilling out its rupees onto the floor. There is no need to count up.

On October 8th. without any certainty that the rains would come, without any real grounds for believing that the same thing wouldn’t happen all over again, without any realistic prospects of getting irrigation, the women of Galenbinda set about the backbreaking task of clearing the jungle and preparing the land for sowing.

‘I don’t know what will happen’ says Latha ‘but when we think what it means to go back, we know we have to go on.’

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New Internationalist issue 107 magazine cover This article is from the January 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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