Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blind woman in Sri Lanka mentors struggling women

From The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka:

In a world moulded to suit the needs of people who can see, Violet Yakandawela (pictured) is determined make room for the blind. President of the National Women’s Forum of the Sri Lanka Federation of the Visually Handicapped (SLFVH), Mrs. Yankadawela and her team currently work with about 75 women between the ages of 20 to 45. Their concerns range from the financial to the emotional, and the institution does what it can to help them cope.

The forum dedicates sessions to teaching daily skills and has a modest fund that offers business loans and medical stipends to their members – but sometimes the scale of their challenges can seem daunting. Here Mrs. Yankadawela seems to lead by example.

The first visually handicapped woman in Sri Lanka to actually attend university and graduate, she’s worked as a teacher, is married and has a raised a son and now hopes to help others like her take their place in the world.

Trained at the School for the Deaf and Blind in Ratmalana, Chitra Gunesekera can type in Braille, and is an accomplished singer. Today, she is working with a trainee, helping him get used to managing the phones in their reception. Chitra is one of the many blind people employed at SLFVH’s office in Colombo -7.

In some ways, she’s fortunate to be so independent; many visually handicapped people rarely leave their homes, imprisoned either by well meaning relatives or the challenges of navigating the hustle and bustle of unfamiliar streets. Even though SLFVH tries to cover transportation costs, many members still need a guide to get them to the offices, says Mrs. Yankadawela. Still, this year seven women made it from the Northern province. “We have to depend on others,” she says, adding that as many as 80% of their members have no fixed income.

They do what they can to help themselves. Some women make wicks, while others make small ornaments and candles, reveals the Federation’s Assistant Administrative Secretary Rienzi Benedict. Small loans issued in collaboration with Handicap International are used to support some of these entrepreneurs, and they are encouraged in turn to save some amount, however small, every month.

The organisation then deposits the money into savings accounts under the women’s names. Especially for aging women, health bills are difficult to meet and many want for medicines as simple as panadol. An emergency health fund, courtesy Technique International provides a small safety net, and the organization continues to look for ways in which to nurture it. At the annual meeting of the women’s forum, held to coincide with International Women’s Day, Mrs. Yankadawela and her team try to address issues that the women face. Some of these are extremely serious and include domestic violence and sexual abuse.

For others, over protective parents will not consider allowing their children to study or marry. Mrs. Yankadawela, who is herself married to a visually handicapped man, says encouraging a handicapped person to gain some measure of independence and to begin their own families is often the best for everyone.

Should they choose to keep a home, these women need to learn essential skills, but these can be mastered, says Mrs. Yankadawela. At workshops where daily living skills are imparted, members of the women’s forum have been taught some basic cookery alongside child care and household skills such as sweeping and cleaning. Essentials of personal hygiene and manners and posture are also taught. Having mastered how to drape her own saree, Mrs. Yankadawela says she encourages her protégés to take pride in their appearance. Many of these women are also fluent in Braille, yet are forced to use a fingerprint in place of a signature on official documents.

Equating the thumb print with illiteracy, Mrs. Yankadawela shows me a little card that when placed on a paper allows the user to sign in a straight line. “We try to teach them how to write at least their names,” she says, as Mr. Benedict demonstrates.

But the most valuable lesson is not one that’s easily taught. Determination is the quality that makes the biggest difference, says Mrs. Yankadawela. Having lost her eyesight to nerve damage as a four-year-old, Mrs. Yankadawela says that it takes willpower for a visually handicapped person to make his or her way in the modern world, but she herself is proof that it is far from impossible.