Women-Headed Households (WHH) are the most vulnerable to poverty, violence and social exclusion, due to lack of opportunities and access to service or means of uplifting their livelihoods. Oxford College of Business together with World Vision Lanka identified six women from Welikanda, North Central Province. These beneficiaries were supported to build a sustainable livelihood according to talent, skill, and resources at their disposal. Driven by hope and love for their children, they rise above their struggles.
Katheeja (56) has raised her two daughters Rinshabanu (24) and Rizwana (22) by herself since losing her husband 16 years ago during the war.
Before his death, he supported his family by looking after 50 buffaloes that belonged to his mother and selling their milk. The year he died, they also lost the herd in a flood. After her husband’s death, Katheeja found it difficult to meet the basic needs of her daughters. Rinshabanu was only 7 at that time and Rizwana was 5.
Katheeja is diabetic and also suffers regular swelling of her feet which makes it difficult for her to walk.
“I provided for my children, selling the vegetables from my home garden,” says Katheeja, “I also receive the Samurdhi subsidy of LKR 6,000 every three months. With these, I managed their basic needs and schooling and sometimes I borrowed money from a neighbour or a relative.”
Her girls studied well and to ease the burden on her mother, Rinshabanu, started Quran recitation classes for boys and girls ages between 7 – 11 years in her village. She earns about LKR 8,000 a month if all parents pay the fees on time. With that, she helps her mom with the electricity bill and other essential expenses at home. She also learnt tailoring in the madrasa and began to stitch their clothes with her neighbour’s sewing machine, so that they don’t have to buy clothes outside.
June last year, they faced an elephant attack and a part of their house got broken. They have covered it temporarily with roofing sheets. The district secretariat office has agreed to repair the house, but due to the restrictions in the country, it is on hold. Katheeja constantly worries about the safety of her daughters.
Rinshabanu has got married in August and Rizwana has started her university.
“If we can have a sewing machine of our own, Rinshabanu can stitch clothes at home and start her own tailoring station,” says Katheeja, “She is not always comfortable going to the neighbour’s to get clothes stitched. She and I can help Rizwana through her university.
“All I want is to see both my daughters do well in life without depending on others for everything,” says Katheeja.
Kandaiya Kugatheswari (39) sells chilli powder and wheat flour for a living. She started this business after her husband passed away following kidney failure. Their son was only 7 years old at that time and she had twin girls who were just three months old.
Her husband was a farmer and the sole breadwinner of the family. With his death, Kugatheswari needed to find a way to support her family.
“I had to find something I could do while looking after my children,” she says, “One of my aunts suggested making chilli powder as it was a hard thing to get in my area.”
“I bought a grinder, an extension cord and a few utensils on credit, with a promise to pay it back in small instalments,” she says.
First, she sold only chilli powder and the business picked up fast in her neighbourhood. The quality of the product was so good that the word began to spread and people came to buy from neighbouring villages as well. Gradually she also began to produce roasted rice flour.
Her mother and her sister helped her by taking care of the children, while they assist with house chores when she was busy.
Currently, the business helps her earn LKR 10,000 a month and she spends that on her children’s education, extra classes and food.
“Most of it I spend on the extra classes for my children and their school needs,” she says, “I want them to study well and do well in life.”
However, due to the government restrictions implemented due to COVID-19, she is finding it extremely difficult to sell her products. Therefore, she has started selling wheat flour to earn her means of income during this period.
Sometimes she has to buy groceries on credit when her earnings dry up. She settles her debts at the end of the month. If one of the children falls sick, she sometimes have to borrow money to take them to the doctor and buy medicine and pays back when she gets business.
Kugatheswari’s plan is to buy a grinder with higher capacity and increase the production. She also wants to buy a packaging machine so that she can sell her products in the shops in town. She also hopes to build a proper outlet in her home.
Meenatchi Vimala (47) lost her husband during the war. Since then she has been taking care of their son Thileepan (aged 18 now) and her two sisters, her brother and her nephew. Ambika (30) her youngest sister is speech impaired and her brother Nallathamby (29) cannot walk from birth. Rasalatchumi (38) her other sister is a single mother as well.
Meenatchi’s husband used to be a fisherman who also worked as a labourer in the paddy fields until he was forcibly recruited by an armed group. Meenatchi was three months pregnant with their son at that time. She kept searching for him even after the birth of their baby but could not locate him and later was informed that he was killed in the war.
“I had no income while he was gone,” Meenatchi says, “and I had undergone two heart surgeries, so I could not do any heavy work.
Before my marriage, I worked in a house in Colombo for 20 years and became conversant in the Sinhala,” she says, “After my husband’s death, I accompanied people who could not speak Sinhala, as a translator, when they had to go to hospitals in Sinhala speaking areas. They would pay me about Rs.100 to Rs. 300 and I used that money to buy milk for my son. During paddy harvesting, I visited the paddy fields to beg for a little paddy for my family.”
But she wanted to have a proper livelihood to support her son and her family. “I would’ve loved to make string hoppers and sell, but pounding the flour was difficult so I settled to making chilli powder for selling because that was easier,” she says.
With the little money she had, she bought some dried red chillies. Her sister roasted them and got them ground at the mill and she weighed and packeted them for selling. People in her village bought the chilli powder from her. Later she obtained an industrial grinder from the government.
She spent her earnings on school supplies for her son, for his classes and to provide for the rest of her family. The business brings her around LKR 8,000 (USD 41) every month.
The travel restrictions imposed by the government has made it difficult for her to sell her products. Sometimes when she is short of money, she would borrow from the neighbours on credit.
Meenatchi is in need of support to fix the current grinder and to get a packaging machine so that she can do a better quality packaging and put her product to a better market.
Kumaravel Pathmini (56) is a mother of ten – nine girls and one boy. Seven of her daughters are married. Other two daughters – Vasantha (20) and Kalaivani (19) work in a garment factory in Colombo and come home once a year. At home with her are her son Krishnakumar (16),
Vasantha’s son (and her grandson) Kabilash (6) and her granddaughter Suvanthini (16). Pathmini’s daughter –Rukmanidevi left Suvanthini in her care when she left for work in Kuwait.
Pathmini’s husband passed away 15 years ago. Her youngest child – her son – was only two years then. He was a farmer and one day he went to guard the farm in the night and was found dead in the morning. The police concluded it was a suicide.
“After his death, I had to do something to provide for my family,” Pathmini says, “I started making chilli powder, roasted flour, thosai/dhosa and appam at home and sold and sometimes took them to the shops close by.”
“I continued this until last year when the coconut prices went up during Covid and I had to stop making the food items. People were not able to pay more,” she says.
“I’m getting old, so I decided to rear goats because it is much easier,” she says. She asked her married daughters to send her some money to buy goats. “Currently I have two 2 males 1 female and 2 kid goats,” she says.
“Goats give birth to at least four kids a year and I can sell a grown one for about 16,000/- rupees,” she says, “I also sell eggs every 3 days.” Even during the pandemic, her sheer determination has led her to care for the goats and enhance her means of income.
A large portion of her income is used for her son’s education and on the schooling needs of her grandchildren. Her daughter who is working in Kuwait also sends money to support her daughter.
“But sometimes when there is an emergency like a child falling sick and I don’t have money in my hand, I borrow from my married daughters,” she says.
Pathmini hopes to get two more female goats because selling their milk and selling their kids would help her to get a more sustainable income.
She wants her son and her grandchildren to study well and achieve their dreams.
Kanapathipillai Theveshwari (55) lost her husband six years ago when he took his life following a brawl. She helped him in his business while going for daily paid labour work in paddy fields, cultivation farms and cutting grass in houses to support her husband’s income. She also reared hens at home.
Despite economic challenges after her husband’s death, she was determined to give a good education to her children. Her daughter Shalini was 12 and her son Yogeshwaran was 15 at that time. She took whatever labour work she found and her hens gave her eggs to sell too. Sometimes she bought fish from the fisher folk and sold it.
“But I couldn’t afford to keep both my children in school,” says Theveshwari, “My son dropped out of school and started to go for labour work in the paddy fields to support the family. He continues to do that.”
“My main livelihood is selling dry fish,” she says, “Sometimes I give the dry fish to other sellers to sell and sometimes I carry it myself in a basket walking from house to house selling.”
However, due the current situation in the country she started selling fresh fish within the village as the demand for dry fish has declined.
“Most of the income I spend on my daughter’s classes and her travel to those classes,” she says, “She is doing her Advanced Level now and classes are costly. Sometimes I even borrow from a few rich moneylenders I know. They usually give on interest but knowing my situation and knowing I always pay back on time, they lend me without interest.”
Theveshwari’s plan is to improve and move her dry fish business to a small hut because currently, she has used her kitchen space for it. The smell is very hard to handle while cooking.
Her only hope is to see her children do well in life and to see her daughter complete her A/Ls and come to a better place in life. She can help them with an improved income.