DC to London to Colombo, Sri Lanka!

By Valerie Handunge, Founder, Malini Foundation 

As I continue my work with establishing the Malini Foundation’s projects in Sri Lanka, I want to share the journey of how I got here, as well as some history on the country, to put into context the current situation for women and girls and why doing what I’ve set out to do is necessary.

There are no direct flights to Sri Lanka. I decided to break up my 23 hours journey from the US to Sri Lanka with a stopover in London to visit family and to meet with our partner Advocates for International Development (A4ID) and a small London-based Sri Lankan non-profit.

London is home to tens of thousands of Sri Lankans resulting from colonial connections and asylum-related migration due to the now ended civil war. In fact, there was quite a bit of media attention on Sri Lanka in London due to the Commonwealth Summit, which was held in Sri Lanka’s cultural capital, Colombo. The Sri Lankan government has received serious criticism for allegedly using excessive force in the last hours of fighting in 2009, which took the lives of thousands of civilians.

The civil war was between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, a separationist militant group fighting to create an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the Tamil minority. They are also known for recruiting child soldiers and for pioneering suicide-bombing belts most often used by female LTTE fighters to attack politicians but also civilians.

Few deny the progress the country has made since the end of the war, not only in terms of infrastructure and commerce but also with personal freedom.

“You can finally drive on the road and go past a crowded bus without fear that it will blow up,”

I’ve heard people share.

However, the end of the war came with significant humanitarian impact. The issues are far too complex to be discussed in a blog post. There is no clear distinction between the good guys and bad guys.

A4ID brokers legal services to support various social causes and their lawyers were well aware of the situation in Sri Lanka. As I began to work with them to prepare for the Malini Foundation’s programs in Sri Lanka, one lawyer brought up several examples of the murders of journalists in the country. While our project steers clear of anything politically related, she urged me to be careful.

Several family members who had recently been on vacation to Sri Lanka added concerns around the safety for a single women traveling in Sri Lanka. There has been a string of rapes of tourists, particularly in the southern region, which is known for its breathtaking white sandy beaches. I was familiar with the usual street harassment that women face with vulgar comments being hollared but I was ignorant to such issues of rape.

I ended my stay in London by meeting two “uncles” (in Sri Lankan culture the older generation is referred to as “uncle” and “aunty” as a sign of respect, similar to Mr. and Mrs.). Uncle Jayantha and Uncle Raja have lived in the U.K. for most of their adult lives and their children were brought up there. Yet, they hold close ties to Sri Lanka through multiple philanthropic ventures spanning close to 20 years.

I met with them over dinner at an Italian Restaurant in Hammersmith and shared my plans for the Malini Foundation. I was nervous because I had a feeling that they would say something I had heard from many well-wishers: “While your intentions are good, you will run into a lot of legal difficulties and people will expect bribes so I suggest you try out something easier…”

To my delight, my expectations were proven wrong. They were not only supportive but stated that our sustainability model, while less common in Sri Lanka, is what would be most effective! They promised to help in any way possible.

They too expressed safety concerns similar to those I had heard before and I explained that I have no intentions of getting involved in the post-war political rhetoric. Regardless, they had some words of advice:

“Stick to your mission to improve the state of girls’ education and maintain a low profile in Sri Lanka.”

While I blog about this experience, I take their advice seriously and aim to remain low-key on the field.

I left London somewhat somber as I contemplated the complicated situation in Sri Lanka. But I have faith and perseverance on my side and hopefully that will help overcome some of the anticipated hurdles.

The Malini Foundation is a Girls’ Globe Featured Organization and in the early stages of development in Sri Lanka, led by founder Valerie Handunge. For more on the Malini Foundation click here


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