Women Who Dared


She made her voice heard 

By Shanuka Kadupitiyage

In the rural regions of Thanamalwila, we learnt the story of U.S. Kanthi Sriyalatha, a woman who has played a crucial role in strengthening and defending her community, taking on multiple roles of responsibility in the rural organisations in her area, and empowering women as a unified front against forces that would have destroyed the region’s ecosystem otherwise. 

Unlike the norms of yesteryear, women currently play a massive role in the agricultural industry, taking part in the growing, nurturing and harvesting of the nation’s food resources. The same is true in the rural area of Thanamalwila. 

“In fact, I reckon there are more women doing agriculture here than men,” she shared.

Sriyalatha has always played a large role in assisting the villagers, especially in functioning as a bridge between the people and regional leadership. However, her role as a leader grew even more with a new threat that appeared in the area, which would not only bring massive negative impact to the environment but also to the livelihood and health of the families living in the region.

“There were plans to build a hotel or resort of sorts in the area, including a golf course,” she explained. 

Whilst having the golf course contribute to the development of the area’s economy, the runoff from chemicals used to maintain the golf turf would have undoubtedly contaminated the water, which many families in the region rely on not only for agriculture, but also for daily use and consumption.

Recognising the danger her community was in, Sriyalatha played a pivotal role in organising a movement against the project. Assisted by the Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ), the movement was successful in protecting the community and pushing back against the project.

Subsequently, she also played a main role in organising communities of women in the effort of building economic independence. Collaborating with the CEJ among other authorities, she has done much to strengthen the women of Thanamalwila while organising themselves as a front to protect the natural environment around them. Not only that, she has also helped in organising programmes to help produce organic fertiliser for farming in the community.

“As a community, we don’t want to see nature being destroyed in front of our very eyes,” she expressed. “As women, our organisations continue to assist in this cause.”

“There were many obstacles along the path we’ve come. But because of our unity and dedication, knowing we were doing the right thing, we were able to succeed in our efforts. But all this wouldn’t have been possible without the help we received from the CEJ as well as Chief Monk of the Suduwella Sri Punyakalarama Temple, Ven. Nelliwala Sumedhalankara Thera.”

Sriyalatha is a prime example that women around the country have a voice and have the potential to be a force for good in protecting the environment, as well as strengthening the communities they live in.

“As women, we have the power to fight for our rights, security and we have the potential to serve for the betterment of our community. This includes the women of rural communities. These women live in the greatest of hardships, and need the enabling power to use their strength and abilities,” Sriyalatha finally added. 

Juggling all odds

 By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

“When women do better, economies do better.” 

 —Christine Lagarde

We celebrated women’s day last week. While women in Colombo celebrated the day by organising events, gatherings, panel discussions, and webinars with wide media coverage, very little is being done on grassroots level. A vast majority of women in Sri Lanka still face the daily struggle of making ends meet and fight the same old battles. With the rising economic crisis and environmental issues, the country’s food security is severely threatened and rural economies are shaken to the core.

In the battle to achieve food security, women play a major role. Their contribution in this regard is high. These are the true women who should be admired and encouraged and supported if we are to celebrate women’s day. Hence, we at Ceylon Today chose one such admirable woman who has greatly contributed to Sri Lanka’s food security and to the environment. 

 She is Damayanthi Godamulla from Aranayaka, the President of the Community Development Centre (CDC). She was the recipient of the Equator Prize in 2008 which was to appreciate and honour her contribution towards sustainable development and food security. 

However, that is not all that she does. 

Her contribution towards uplifting the rural economy, women empowerment, and her great work towards preserving traditional knowledge is something to be greatly appreciated. She and her work is something that the country’s policymakers should take as an example and initiate at the State level.  

 Damayanthi’s journey 

“I battled poverty all through my life as well as social injustice fell upon us,” she started. “But I never let that defeat me. I worked hard and now here I am,” Damayanthi said with pride and happiness. 

Although she was hard working as a student, she couldn’t get into a State university as she lacked few marks. But, this did not make her lose her hopes and her spirits. Later, in the ‘90s she was able to complete her higher studies and managed to secure a job. But again, life was not sweet and fair to her. She lost her job due to weak Government job policies. 

It was then she was introduced to the Small Grants Programme of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which she remembered gratefully. As Damanthi said, it was the Small Grants Programme that helped her achieve so much in her life and to reach where she is now. 

The project proposal that she presented to the UNDP was picked up and funds were granted. UNDP had realised the high potential of the proposal in achieving the great successes.

 Success through the CDC

The project and her work through the Aranayaka CDC have reached the highest of heights and have achieved global recognition. Damayanthi’s conservation programme of traditional roots and yams was selected as the winner of the Equator Prize in 2008. This is the Equator Initiative in Barcelona, Spain, and she was awarded for outstanding success in reducing poverty through the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. 

She has made Sri Lanka proud on a global platform and has proven that we can beat poverty, combat climate change, and achieve food security while preserving our traditional foods, through traditional knowledge and achieving sustainable development, thereby causing minimal harm to the nature. Damayanthi has also proven that one individual can make a great change if there is the will to do so.

Her project was also chosen as a world success story in preserving biodiversity, at the UN Biodiversity Conference in Nagoya, Japan.

 Preserving Traditional knowledge and achieving sustainable development

By reintroducing our fading traditional foods such as yams and roots, Damayanthi immensely contributed to preserving Sri Lanka’s traditional knowledge. We need healthy food for a healthy nation. A vast number of illnesses we have today are caused by the wrong food choices we make today and the many wrong agricultural practices and wrong food production practices we follow. Therefore, Damayanthi’s successful attempt of preserving these traditional yams and roots, cultivating them, and preparing many food products using them is an example for the entire nation; this is not only for the policymakers but also for all of us.

Damayanthi says, “I want to see every household grow at least five types of these yams and roots.” 

Traditional agricultural and food practices are one of the best solutions to combat climate change, soil erosion, water pollution, food security as well as support our economy. It is also the core of a healthy nation. 

 Combating climate change

Damayanthi and her methods make the best use of rainwater and naturally degradable materials and therefore, combat the adversities of climate change effectively.

Uplifting rural economy and battling poverty

Damayanthi trains communities in her locality. They are trained to farm and manage their family economy. Through this, she enhances local livelihoods. With the introduction and training of cultivating traditional yams and roots and then making different food products, the family incomes have significantly increased in the area.  

“We have trained hundreds and will be doing more in the future. With the COVID-19 situation, some of our work was temporarily halted, but now we have started our training programmes once again.”

 Empowering women

Damanthi mainly focuses on women as she is determined to improve the quality of life of the local women and create more and more women leaders like her. Damayanthi and her women farmers, along with their creativity and traditional knowledge have come up with a delicious variety of yam-based food products that are now available in the market including the Colombo Good Market. 

“Women have always been the backbone of a large majority of farming businesses and they have probably not had the recognition they deserve.” 

—Minette Batters, President of the National Farmers’ Union of England and Wales