Shanti Christine Arulampalam – Sri Lanka

Linked with our presentation of Survivors Associated – Sri Lanka.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed fort the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

Shanti Christine Arulampalam and her organization Survivors Associated, for witch she is working, have transformed the lives of more than 27,000 people in four war-torn districts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Shanti Christine Arulampalam – Sri Lanka

As executive director of Survivors Associated, working for the psychosocial healing of people affected by war, Shanti Christine Arulampalam has helped transform many formerly ravaged lives. She and her organization have assisted more than 27,000 people in four districts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka. As a Sinhala working among Tamils, Shanti has often been viewed with suspicion, but has won over her critics with her hard work and transparent approach.The daughter of academics, Shanti Arulampalam did not expect to become a social worker. She had planned to be a doctor, but became instead a teacher. Today, Shanti is executive director of her own organization, Survivors Associated, which works for the psychosocial healing of people affected by war.

Shanti discovered her mission in life by a circuitous route. After finishing her studies in business management, she taught English and mathematics in the Maldives for two years. After her contract was over, she returned to Sri Lanka to work in a commercial establishment as a business manager. In 1967, Shanti, who is a Sinhala, married a Tamil man, but the marriage was not a happy one. She was left to take care of two little boys on her own: as a single parent, she went to work in a premier export house as commodities buyer, and employed by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, became the first woman member in its commodities auction division. She later began her own export venture.

The event that changed Shanti’s life was her arrest by the police. When she went out of town on a business trip in 1986, she was taken to a courthouse by a senior police officer, and asked to wait in his vehicle while a magistrate signed a form the police officer had given him. On the way back from the courts, Shanti was told that she was being taken to prison, and was denied her request to inform her family or to know the reason for her incarceration. Her surname, which was actually her husband’s, was to blame: she had been misidentified as a Tamil.

In prison, Shanti met many Tamil women and heard their stories of the impunity of human rights abuses. Her influential Sinhala family tracked her down and had her released from prison, but the stories she had heard in prison stayed in her mind. She decided she wanted to serve people affected by the ethnic conflict, and actually felt that her Tamil surname – which had landed her in the soup, in the first place – might turn out to be convenience.

It also helped that she was bilingual, fluent in both Tamil and Sinhala. From 1987-89, when several refugee camps were set up around her home in the suburbs of Colombo, she seized the opportunity to do her bit, initiating contact with some women in a refugee camp.

While she was organizing these women with schooling, material goods, and mutual support, her home became the base of operations. Her children, embarrassed to see so many traumatized women whenever they were home, placed Shanti in a quandary. Fortunately, she had seen an advertisement for the Family Rehabilitation Centre, whom she approached in 1989 and commenced working for, initially as administrator and then as project director. She developed programs for training and services in psychosocial care, and worked through young, educated people from conflict zones. They were designated “befrienders” and “counselors” within the community.

Shanti was exposed to several overseas training programs in the care and rehabilitation of war victims, which helped her identify culturally appropriate methods of working with survivors. Her employers, however, were inimical to her suggestion for a community-based program to address the need for grassroots-level psychosocial work. That was how she came to start Survivors Associated in March 1996, when the psychosocial sector in Sri Lanka was in its infancy, and she was unable to convince prospective funders to invest in something that innovative. So, she dug into her personal funds.
Using her field experience and contacts, she asked the trained “befrienders” to work within their own communities, using group therapy and attending to needs identified by peer groups. Over time, the original psychosocial development program diversified to help the disabled. Survivors Associated is now an organization with a holistic-care approach.

As donors gradually began to come forward, Shanti and her organization – of which she is executive director working on a voluntary basis – helped more than 27,000 people in four districts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

Among her target groups are widows and women-headed households. The “befrienders” help traumatized women and children get on with their lives. The organization works with all the three communities – Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim – affected by the internecine conflict. It gives revolving credit loans for micro entrepreneurship support groups; and it trains members in entrepreneurship development and skills.

It is exceedingly uncommon for a Sinhala woman to work with Tamils. Shanti was regarded with jaundiced suspicion by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but hard work and a very transparent approach helped her defuse a potentially hostile situation. During the war’s most intense periods, roads were closed and Shanti and her dedicated group often had to cross the seas by boat for seven hours at a stretch to reach the affected districts.

Furthermore, since the psychosocial sector was in its infancy, she had her work cut out to prove that her approach could work. It has been a long haul, but clearly worth it. (Read this on this page of 1000peacewomen).

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