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Proud Mothers of Sri Lanka

Manipadma JENA

01 / 2010

Five years after it was devastated by the tsunami, the fishing village of Mahaskaduwa in Kalutara district of Sri Lanka is back on its feet. The Proud Mothers women’s collective has swept the garbage off the streets, provided a livelihood for the villagers and improved health and sanitary conditions.

When the tsunami crashed into Kalutara district in Sri Lanka in 2004, Wagira de Silva (45) was anxiously waiting for her husband to return home from the sea which had suddenly gone unrecognisably wild. He never returned. Whether he was one of the 279 dead or 74 missing from Kalutara she would only know much later, but her house was one of the 3,000 completely damaged in Kalutara district and she and her two grown-up sons were among the 35,000 displaced.

In Wagira’s fishing village, Mahawaskaduwa, on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Kalutara (north) district of the Western Province of Sri Lanka, homes, lives and livelihoods were lost, but one of the worst nightmares for social service organisations working in Sri Lanka during the 2004 disaster was the water and sanitation situation: pipelines, service connections and latrines were damaged and afloat, wells and low- lying areas were contaminated.

“If a visitor from December 2004 visits our village, he would not recognise it today,” claims S A Ratna Silva, the chairperson of Abhimani, a 48-member women’s collective. A dozen heads nod agreement proudly. Mahawaskaduwa stands transformed. And the trigger for change was the dengue epidemic that swept across many of the waterlogged tsunami- and flood-affected coastal villages.

Dengue fever and dengue hemorrhagic fever are endemic to Sri Lanka, first seen in 1965. The worst year was undoubtedly 2004 with 15,463 suspected cases and 88 deaths. Mahawaskaduwa is particularly susceptible because it rubs shoulders with the mighty Kaluganga or Black River that floods almost every year. The railway line, which runs virtually at the village’s doorstep, has created a permanent obstacle to the natural drainage of flood and rain water.

Add to this the lack of proper disposal of household refuse and other sanitary measures and the ever-increasing use of non-biodegradable plastics, and the village was fighting a losing battle with dengue. As a fishing and toddy-tapping community, there was not much civic awareness either.

Till the Abhimani – meaning ‘Proud Mothers’ – women’s group decided to take up the fight and invest the government’s call for community participation with an entirely new meaning.

After six cases of dengue in Mahawaskaduwa, the Public Health Inspector (PHI) in charge of the village, LPWN Pathirage, became the guide and mentor for the Abhimani mothers. They decided to segregate their household refuse into dry waste such as plastics, glass, paper and cardboard, and degradable waste such as vegetable peels and food leftovers.

They then visited the Mermaid hotel which, since it came up in 1983, has been helping the local communities in various ways. The hotel donated 10 large garbage bins. The women then approached Arthacharya Foundation, a non-government organisation in the Galle district whose recycling plant operates as a participatory community-based poverty alleviation programme. It sorts the collected garbage and recycles non-biodegradable solid waste like polyethylene into pellets and then into plastic sacks.

Arthacharya Foundation promised to supply them with four plastic sacks per family to store the segregated waste – plastics, bottles, glass and paper. Some Abhimani mothers like B D Rita Ranjani are also members of Arthacharya. Rita Ranjani says that often the latter does not get the 10 tonnes per month plastic waste to feed its installed capacity; so the synergies of both community-based organisations came together.

While the plastic and paper waste is sold, the women have used the kitchen refuse to generate compost, mix it with cowdung and develop kitchen gardens in the hostile sandy soil. They sell these homegrown brinjals, green chillies and leafy greens to neighbourhood grocery-cum-vegetable shops and make a neat income of around Sri Lankan Rupees 600 most months (1 INR = 2.50 LKR).

This amount usually goes to pay the interest on the loan of up to LKR 5,000 that the Abhimani members have each taken to either buy a sewing machine or raw material for making handicrafts. The community meanwhile has diversified into selling handicrafts, gems, tailoring services and work as drivers and tourist guides.

This is a great help for families of Mahawaskaduwa whose average monthly income is 7,000 LKR and where coarse rice, Sri Lankans’ staple food, costs Rs 70 a kilo.

The Abhimani mothers’ achievement has also been possible due to a simple but challenging motto on which the government of Sri Lanka has based its sanitation drive: “enable people to increase control and take care of their own health”. Ecological sanitation and resource recovery are only part of the story. What is noteworthy is that by end-2008, according to Sri Lanka’s focal National Water & Drainage Board (NWSDB), nearly 86% of Sri Lanka’s total population of 20.1 million had access to safe sanitation – a figure comparable to many developed countries and way ahead of its Asian counterparts in meeting the Millennium Development Goal to halve, by 2015, the proportion of population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Much of this has been possible because the island country has a strong grassroots health service network in place. The health service pyramid rests on a compact, well-trained and uniformed army of Public Health Inspectors (whose counterpart are Public Health Midwives for mother and child health) who are invested with legal authority. They feed the National Information System from a detailed field data entry system. According to Dr U K D Piyaseeli, director of the National Institute of Health, Kalutara, an institution set up in 1926, where the PHIs are trained, “The national epidemiology unit of the ministry of health can provide information within a week of surfacing of communicable diseases from anywhere in the country, so strong is the surveillance system.”

Crucial to this system of surveillance are the sanitation registers maintained by the PHIs of each registered house and family in his area, from his monthly visits to villages under his supervision. The PHIs record any complaints regarding water quality, communicable diseases in homes and schools and ventilation in houses, and methods of garbage disposal. They repeat checks on houses with or without sanitary toilets, record the type of toilet and whether applications to construct any have been received and what stage they are in. The record goes into minute details: complaints from neighbours about open defecation by anyone, number of unauthorised constructions, information on houses without toilets. All of this is supervised, put in black and white and reported to the centralised database.

If a complaint of open defecation has been received by the PHI, he issues a notice to build a latrine within six months. If this is not complied with, the PHI is empowered to file an FIR for creating public nuisance. The court could hand out a sentence of six months imprisonment or impose a fine of 500 LKR. If found non-compliant the third time, which is not common, the culprit would have to publish a public notice in a newspaper – at his own cost – that he has been defecating in the open and has not built a latrine even after being notified thrice.

Communities are today given a government subsidy of 3,000 LKR to build their own toilets with NGOs pitching in, but many complain that this is too little as the cost of building materials has gone up. So there is more sharing of toilets while the Proud Mothers take the lead to keep household sanitation in order and make garbage pay too.

Key words

water sanitation, waste processing, waste recycling, public health, local development

, Sri Lanka


This sheet is available in French: Les mères fières de Sri Lanka


Articles and files

Manipadma JENA, Proud Mothers of Sri Lanka, in InfoChange India, January 2010

InfoChange (News and analysis on social justice and development issues in India) - Centre for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS) C/12, Gera Greens, NIBM Road, Kondhwa, Pune-411 048, INDIA - India - - infochangeindia (@)

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