The YWCA Participates in the Grand Celebration of the Sthree Mela Conference in Sri Lanka

December the 8th 2011 marked the opening ceremony of the Sthree Mela (meaning Voices of Sri Lankan Women) exhibition and conference held in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Arda Aghazarian from the YWCA of  Palestine reports on the delegation’s experience and participation.

Upon the return of the YWCA young women from their visit in Jaffna to Colombo on December 7 2011, they were hosted to a special viewing of the film “Peace Unveiled” of the Women, War and Peace series (one of the five films in the PBS TV Series by Abigail Disney).  The opening was delivered by H.E. Ambassador Patricia Butenis. It has been a real privilege for the young women from war-torn countries to personally meet with the filmmaker Ms. Abigail Disney who sat with the group in a round table and got to speak and hear from each one of our delegates. The TV series chronicles the rise of the newly-announced Nobel Peace Prize laureates, which streamed LIVE a couple of days later.

In the following three days, the group stayed for the Sthree Mela Conference in Colombo, and was joined by Juli Dugdale from the World YWCA for the partners’ global meeting, Mira Rizek from the YWCA of Palestine who took the lead in the bi-lateral capacity building dialogue between the YWCA of Palestine and Sri Lanka, and World YWCA General Secretary Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda.

The Sthree Mela Conference started on Dec. 7 with drum beats, modern sounds and cultural representations from Sri Lanka, as well as the opening speeches by Ms. Visaka Dharmadasa and the guest of honor, H.E. Senator Mubina Jaffar from British Colombia, Canada, who shared her metaphor of women having the ability to sew the fabric of communities together, and that in order to achieve “harmony” in society, all citizens of the society must be included.

The YWCA participated in three panel discussions at Sthree Mela (on the 8th and 9th of December); two of which had panelists from the YWCA of Palestine, namely Arda Aghazarian on the “Using Media for Peace-Building” panel, and Mira Rizek on the “Implementation of UN Resolution 1325” panel. The third panel was specific to the YWCA and was moderated by Marie-Claude Julsaint from the World YWCA and had the three young women panelists: Sichelesile Ndlovu from the YWCA of Zimbabwe, Magda Lopez Cardenas from the YWCA of Colombia and Kue Ku from the YWCA of Myanmar share their experiences as young women in conflict-driven areas.

The YWCA sisters from the National YWCA of Sri Lanka as well as the YWCA of Colombo have hosted the delegation in more than one occasion and have shared plenty of stories, food and Christmas carols that brought a spirit of joy, laughter and good memories to be remembered about the visit to Sri Lanka in spite of the horrid realities witnessed.

The World YWCA Embarks on a Visit to Sri Lanka

 Arda Aghazarian from the YWCA of Palestine reports on the delegation’s involvement and impressions.

As part of the project which specifically targets young women, with the support of FOKUS and in partnership with the World YWCA, Y-Global and the YWCAs of Palestine, Southern Sudan and Sri Lanka, and which is in line with the World YWCA and YWCA of Palestine Power to Change Fund under the title “Enhancing Leadership and Civic Engagement of Young Women to become Advocates for Change,” young women from YWCAs in countries of conflict were given the opportunity to partake in a visit to Sri Lanka from December 3-11, 2011 and attend the Sthree Mela conference.

The program, co-hosted by the World YWCA and the YWCA of Sri Lanka, started with the young women’s dialogue on the 3rd of December, where young women from the YWCAs of South Sudan, Palestine, Colombia, Myanmar and Zimbabwe got the chance to meet with young women members from Sri Lanka and share their experiences as young women in conflict-driven areas and the challenges they face in their communities.

That same evening, the group set off on a long journey by bus heading to Jaffna. The trip up north gave the young women’s group good overview of the conflict in Sri Lanka and the difficult circumstances and remnants of struggle that have remained after the war has ended in 2009.

The group reached Jaffna on the 5th of December with a visit to the Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation. Participants were given a brief about the organisation’s history (established in 1983) and the changes it has gone through during the conflict due to the borders being closed. The organisation’s main focus remains to be on livelihoods in relation to the large number of internally displaced persons, in addition to the humanitarian assistance that was done in 2005 to help those affected by the tsunami.

That same day, the journey commenced and became more difficult with the visit of four different families in the IDP camp in Jaffna. Houses have been isolated, destroyed yet are inhabited up to this day by the victims of war, mostly young widows who are trying to raise their children under extremely difficult if not impossible circumstances; lacking basic house utilities such as beds, bathrooms or even a path to walk through and living in a very unhealthy environment. The next visit was to the Jaffna Hospital and meeting its Director, Dr. Mrs. Pasupathirajah, who spoke of the health problems resulting from displacement, losing houses and care-givers, and living in crowded camps.

After a difficult day, the YWCA of Jaffna and its President Ms. Soundari Watson Ratram hosted the group to a friendly cultural evening, where special dances were performed by the young kids of different ages who were happy to receive the International YWCA delegation. Later that evening, the group got the chance to meet with the first Government Agent in Sri Lanka, Mrs. Emelda Sukumar. The G.A. spoke of the help that was offered by the UNDP and other NGOs and security to help re-build the houses that were damaged by the mines, and noted that 35,000 families have gone back to their original homes since 2009. She stressed that more facilities are needed in Jaffna as there are challenges to renovate or re-cancel houses in the area. Violence against Women has also been prevalent during the war, with 221 reported cases in the hospital, a large number of which was due to domestic violence. One of the additional concerns in Jaffna is the large number of widows (about 29,000), which could potentially introduce more problems in the future.

Heading back from Jaffna, which would be a longer trip by bus than anticipated, participants expressed that the time spent in Jaffna has been quite difficult as it brought to their eyes vulnerable people who have been affected by being placed in war-torn areas. The visit has infused a strong sense to stay committed as a movement and double the efforts in creating safe spaces for women. Real solidarity, it was expressed, is where the people are, and the members of this particular solidarity visit are themselves experiencing similar issues, and have hence valued the visit and found it to be very rewarding in working together towards peace with justice and creating safe spaces for women.