Home Sweet Home

Feature | 16 November 2010

An ADB-supported project provides villagers in Sri Lanka's eastern coastal communities with opportunities to move beyond a past ravaged by conflict and natural calamity, and has shown that poverty reduction can be achieved even in situations of conflict and disaster.

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka - When Packeer Mohamed Khadeeja contemplated returning for her eighth tour of duty as a domestic worker in Qatar, a chance discussion with a neighbor about cheap loans and skills training provided by a microcredit project changed her life.

"That's the best move I made," said Khadeeja, 49, of her decision to take a loan and stay at her home in Kattankudy, in the Batticaloa district of Sri Lanka's former war-affected eastern region. "The project helped change my plans. It's a great opportunity."

Microfinance and skills training provided by the ADB-supported North East Coastal Community Development Project (NECCDEP) have empowered women like Khadeeja in this community since 2005 and have given them more choice to stay rather than migrate to the Middle East as domestic workers. Of Sri Lanka's 20 million people, more than 1.5 million work in the Middle East. Some 50% to 60% are women, mostly from rural communities, employed in menial jobs, often in conditions that bring their own hardship.

"Migration is a pathetic situation," Jesmine Zubair, treasurer of a local women's rural development society (WRDS) in Batticaloa, said to nods of agreement from other women in the group, which manages project loans. "This microcredit program has brought major change to our village.

Earlier, at least 5 to 10 women went abroad. That's coming down now as women are increasingly able to earn a living here."

The eastern province of Sri Lanka is made up of the country's three main communities in equal proportions - Sinhalese from the majority community, Tamils, and Muslims. NECCDEP caters to them all and is focused on the eastern districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Ampara, where decades of conflict and the 2004 tsunami had destroyed infrastructure, reduced livelihoods to a bare minimum, and led to many women-headed households. The project aims to meet basic needs and raise incomes, with some of the funding helping regain livelihoods in the fishing industry and giving farmers greater opportunity to sell milk.

The ending of nearly 30 years of conflict in May 2009 has brought extra smiles to women like Muttiappa Thangamah, a Muslim housewife from Naduthivu village in Trincomalee, who rears poultry in her backyard to supplement the family income. The microcredit scheme helped her to secure a loan for her husband, a prawn fisherman, who purchased nets and other necessities from the loan.

Like many in the east, Thangamah and her husband were displaced, first by fighting between government troops and Tamil militants seeking a separate homeland for their minority Tamil community, and then by the tsunami. More than 60,000 people died in the conflict, while nearly 30,000 lives were lost in the tsunami that lashed the shores of Sri Lanka and many parts of Asia on Boxing Day, 26 December 2004.

"We lost our house in the tsunami when my husband was unable to fish in the lagoon due to the fighting. Now that the war is over, we are very relieved. The microcredit program has helped us to lift ourselves from poverty and earn a decent living," Thangamah said, sprinkling feed on the ground as the chickens gather in her backyard.

Soaring Incomes

The US$28.4 million community development project runs in tandem with the North East Community Restoration and Development Project II, which is continuing the government's rehabilitation program in conflict-affected areas of the northern and eastern provinces. The ADB-supported Tsunami-Affected Areas Rebuilding Project is also restoring basic social infrastructure, community and public services, and livelihoods to areas devastated by the tsunami.

"The project has led to social change, uplifted the lifestyles of the villagers, and empowered women,'' NECCDEP Project Director S.M. Croos said. "For instance, one woman's earnings soared to 30,000 rupees (Rs) (almost US$300) from Rs13,000 a month and she was able to buy a motorcycle for her brother to go to work."

Microcredit has made the biggest transformation in the lives of these coastal communities, with Rs251.3 million (US$2.2 million) in loans distributed since 2005 to help people, particularly women who head households, improve their livelihoods.

The project - set for completion in November 2010 - has also helped protect resources such as mangroves and fisheries, and has added to natural defenses against coastal erosion. Improvements to rural roads, markets, production centers, and training facilities under the project have benefited more than 40,000 families in the east.

S.V. Skandarajah, a livelihoods and enterprises development officer at the NECCDEP office in Trincomalee, said there are 63 WRDSs in Trincomalee alone, in which women manage microcredit programs and skills training.

Loan repayments are swift and made without default, unlike big borrowers at commercial banks. "There is no doubt that the program has changed their lives forever and provided the finance they need without any fuss," he said.

New Beginnings

The Valachenai Fisheries harbor in Batticaloa reopened in September 2010, after refurbishment with ADB assistance. Like most infrastructure projects, the harbor was severely damaged during the conflict and its dilapidation meant fishermen had to pay high rents to moor their boats on private land. A 275-meter long quay wall will allow 400 to 450 boats to berth and unload fish for sale in a new auction hall with cold storage. "Fish prices will be better once the auction hall is active," said fisherman Sangarapillai Ravikumar, 37. "These are good times for fishermen."

Lifting communities out of poverty has also helped villagers provide their children with a decent education and even send them to university. Take Adam Bawa Kasara, 44, whose son is a second-year medical student at Rajarata University in Anuradhapura.

"The day my son got a letter saying he had been accepted to university, I wept," she said, kneading the dough for string hoppers, the thin wheat or rice noodles strung round like a round cak - a staple food in Sri Lanka. Kasara increased production from 200 to 1,000 string hoppers per day with new equipment bought with a loan from the local WRDS. Her son said he was overwhelmed by his mother's determination for him to be first person in Kantankudy village to go to medical school.

The NECCDEP, like other projects in Sri Lanka, has been structured to cater to the large number of female-headed households in the east. Batticaloa has the largest number of such households in the region: 25,272 out of 153,074 families. There are 15,648 widows, of whom 2,939 are war widows. The rest have either separated from their husbands, or their husbands disappeared during the conflict or are disabled and unable to work.

Many women in these communities were married and widowed at a young age. Jeyaratnam Imbarani, 41, married at 17 and lost her husband 2 years later when he was shot dead on the way to work at a hotel. She then learned to sew and borrowed from the WRDS to set herself up in business. Nattily dressed in a sari, Imbarani said her 21-year-old daughter is doing a special university degree in education and wants to do a government job after qualifying. "I want her to have a secure job, unlike my past," she said at the WRDS center at Pethalai village in Batticaloa.

Imbarani's hopes are shared by many people who, like her, have taken out loans to build a prosperous future now that the conflict is over.

"The east will soon buzz with activity and return to its former glory as a key center of trade and commerce in Sri Lanka, after the advent of peace and the uplifting communities here," said Croos.