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Sewing the seeds of love and hope

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

POPE Francis has always been fulsome in his praise for women’s role in the Church—and has appointed several to top Vatican roles—the family and in wider society. The Holy Father has described them as ‘a gift’ and spoke of their own gifts of ‘delicateness, sensitivity and tenderness.’ He has also made mention of their ‘indispensable contribution to society,’ in which they show a special care for the ‘weak and unprotected,’ while also praising their moral principles that ably allow them to transmit the Faith.

With all this in mind—coupled with the example of the relationship of Our Lord Jesus Christ with His Mother—you would expect women to be placed on a very high pedestal wherever they are in the world. Certainly, in my experience of having visited mission countries and territories across the continents, the Holy Father’s comments about the role that women play in the different spheres he mentioned is accurate—and vital.

Women in Sri Lanka Unfortunately though, this love and respect isn’t always in evidence and that includes in our focus country for World Mission Sunday this year, Sri Lanka. While the country boasted the world’s first elected female Prime Minister in Sirima Bandaranaike in 1960—entering into politics after the assassination of her husband Soloman—women have little representation in government there today. Sri Lanka actually ranks lowest for women’s participation in politics among South Asian countries and women have never exceeded 6 per cent representation in parliament.

Moreover, a government survey reported that two in five women in Sri Lanka have faced violence from a partner in their lifetime. Psychological violence at the hands of a partner, that involves emotional abuse or controlling a women's behaviour was recorded at 27.9 per cent, the highest among all forms of violence in the past decade. Physical violence—mostly experienced while their partners were drunk—also prevailed mostly in the estate region, followed by the rural and urban areas respectively, according to the report. Women between 15 and 34 years were more prone to all forms of violence. It’s no surprise then that the female suicide rate in Sri Lanka is one of the highest in the world and there are high rates of self-harm in young women living in rural, disadvantaged groups. The survey also revealed startling details which showed that the children of most affected mothers were reported to have experienced nightmares, while 4.5 per cent had dropped out of school.

What’s disheartening about that last point too is that education is one area where women have tended to thrive in the country, with higher numbers of women being recorded than men in tertiary education. In the not too distant past, 63 per cent of all state university entrants were females and women made up a majority in undergraduate medicine (59 per cent) and law (86 per cent). Yet even in that field—and despite families valuing education—a significant number of young women drop out from secondary education due to the aforementioned effects of abuse, poverty or early marriage. Many in this group end up as garment workers, living away from their traditional social networks. These young women are often overworked, underpaid and subjected to abuse, which highlights the fact that increased numbers of women in the workforce does not necessarily translate to improved gender equality.

The Church in Sri Lanka is aware of this and has stepped in to this very environment and, in turn, so has Missio Scotland. For several years now, Fr Sanjaya Pradeep of St Thomas’, a rural parish in the town of Maho in Kurunegala Diocese, has supported a group of garment workers who are a mix of Catholic and Buddhist women. Their output is artistic, beautiful and, perhaps most remarkably, the product of off-cuts discarded by the large garment factories. However, they have been slightly hampered in their endeavours by having to work on borrowed sewing machines that are tired and outdated.

Life experience The life and difficulties experienced by one of the eight women supported by the parish, Malathi Iroshani Hettiarachchi, was in some way a microcosm of the challenges facing Sri Lankan women. Malathi is a convert to Catholicism and is the sole breadwinner for herself and her three daughters. Her story, as you might expect, is somewhat tragic. Her husband was an alcoholic who was abusive towards her during the course of their marriage and when she was pregnant with her youngest daughter, Ruwini, he died after crashing his motorbike while under the influence of alcohol. His selfish, abusive and destructive behaviour left Malathi deep in the mire. With two school age children and a baby, she faced the almost impossible challenge of balancing love and care for her daughters with bringing money into the family home. This is where Fr Sanjaya and St Thomas’ came in. Both he and the parish provided the means for Malathi—and no doubt the other women too—to achieve this balance and provide, in every sense for their families. Now, he is keen to take that support to the next level and provide the women with their own machines, so that they can work from home, achieve the family and work life balance—that we all strive for—and allow them to maximise their output and therefore bring in more income.

“The women need their own machines so that they can get on with their work and Missio Scotland is supporting them with that,” Fr Pradeep said. “If they have their own machines, it means that they can work from home, earn more and enjoy a better life.

“These women are all mothers and they are trying to educate their children and give them a better chance in life, so support for them is crucial and this project is important and will really help Malathi and the other women.”

The project will see the women being provided with their own sewing machines by Missio Scotland, at a cost of between £350 and £400, but which is a priceless contribution to the women who will be impacted by this support as Fr Basil Rohan Fernando, National Director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in Sri Lanka, noted.

“I want to personally thank Fr Vincent Lockhart and Missio Scotland for electing to support this project, because that will provide direct assistance to families,” Fr Basil said. “It will have an impact, because it will allow the women to be even more creative. It might even allow them to start their own business and give jobs to others, you never know. The project will also have a community impact because this area is part Catholic, part Buddhist, so it will have an impact even in terms of religious harmony, which is needed in today’s world.”

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