More than 40,000 people were killed in Sri Lanka five years ago when a massive tidal wave pounded ashore on Boxing Day. Women, men and children were swept to their deaths, forced up trees or onto roofs.
When the waters receded, survivors found themselves surrounded by devastation: buildings reduced to rubble, roads and schools and health clinics washed away, their loved ones dead or gone or so scarred by the tsunami they retreated into grief.
Oxfam Canada began working in the Ampara region, in the country's embattled northeast, shortly thereafter. Women and men were gathered together in cooperatives, reintroduced to organic rice farming, encouraged to rear goats or sheep and supported with microcredit loans to open shops or sewing businesses. In three years, the area was transformed.
Where women had once been relegated to the house, by culture, by ethnic tensions and by the overwhelming grief that came with the deadly wave, they told visitors from Oxfam that through the project they'd gained new confidence, watched their incomes grow and their marriages strengthen as they began working for themselves.
One woman, whose husband had abandoned her and their six children, told Oxfam that she'd contemplated suicide, her life was so devoid of hope.
"Life was an unending struggle," Malar, 52, told Oxfam. "There were times when I thought of the entire family ending our lives because of the impoverished life we led. My relatives would constantly berate me for the choice of a single life and my in-laws would restrict my children and me and monitor our every move. Often, I wondered if my children and I could ever live peacefully."
Her tiny shop couldn't turn a profit. One of her sons was deaf and required extra care. But Malar joined one of the "self-help groups" and learned to raise goats. She took a loan of 20,000 rupees and invested in a small herd. As they grew and multiplied, she took another loan of 50,000 rupees and now owns a dozen goats.
"Today I have a three-way income," she said, "my shop, my firewood business and the sale of goats. The quality of our life has improved. I am able to educate my children and save for the future.
"I don't even remember why we wanted to commit suicide now. I have the group to provide me with financial and moral support. Today I am independent and make my own decisions."
Like Malar, women throughout the region told stories filled with warmth and surprise at the changes this simple program brought to their lives.
One woman became the best goat herder in her village. Another who had been discouraged from farming by her husband is now seen as a model rice farmer - she's even consulted by government officials. Another woman reported that she'd set up her own sari-sewing business and had earned enough to pay her own bride price, leaving her free to marry whomever she chose.
"I think sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by the need," said Andrea Lindores, an Oxfam program officer who worked on the project. "We can feel like we're too far away to make a difference, or that the need is too great. This program cost about $4.5 million and transformed the lives of more than 50,000 people. That's $90 per person - about the same amount as I spent on my winter boots. This program really shows that a little money can go a long way to transforming someone's life."
As the world marks the 5th anniversary of the tsunami, the program also proves that transformations can come from tragedy - particularly in the lives of women.
For more information, contact
Karen Palmer 613-240-3047