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Inside Sri Lanka: Mothers who migrate

Umeshi Rajeendra, Room to Read Sri Lanka | May 03, 2019

Skill building Sri Lanka

For much of her childhood, Madushi was hardly able to communicate with her mother who lived more than 2,500 miles away in Kuwait. She’d only hear about her through her grandfather when she sent him money for the family.

“I missed her a lot,” the 16-year-old Girls’ Education Program participant said. “And it wasn’t easy finding ways to communicate with her.”

Madushi’s mother, like many Sri Lankan women have done and continue to do, made the painful decision to leave her children in Sri Lanka and migrate to the Middle East to work as a housemaid.

“I was barely earning enough to feed my children, and I feared not being able to look after them,” Madushi’s mother, Gunasili Bodidasage said.

Gunasili is from a small town in Sri Lanka that was once engulfed in civil war. With few jobs and prevalent poverty, high numbers of women migrate out of the country in search of employment, a trend that surged during Madushi’s youth.

A United Nations report showed that in 2012 alone, 282,000 Sri Lankans left the country for work, 93 percent of whom were employed in the Middle East. The report also found that 86% of the women who migrated out of Sri Lanka worked abroad as housemaids.

Like many mothers, Gunasili hardly wanted to leave her children, but found herself in difficult circumstances.

Her first husband had passed away and she remarried in the hopes of a better life. Yet, things took an unexpected turn.

“The only reason my second husband decided to come to my village was because my parents promised to give him land and money, and so when he came and realized he was not going to get anything, he wanted revenge,” Gunasili said. “His revenge is basically not working or caring for us.”

Gunasili had difficulties finding a job. And even when work was available, the pay wasn’t enough to live off.

Given the circumstances, a job in Kuwait sounded like the best option. She signed a contract for six years despite the negative things she heard about the plight of women in the Middle East.

“At that time, foreign employment seemed like potential income to buy a plot of land, build a house and also buy half an acre of paddy to cultivate when I eventually returned home,” Gunasili said. “However, little did I know that all my hard work would be for nothing.”

For six years, Gunasili sent money to her parents instructing them to take care of her husband, Madushi and her son. Though she hardly heard from them, she was hopeful her hard-earned money was well spent. However, after six years she realized her father had spent it all on his needs and alcohol addiction.

Gunasili’s experience is similar to thousands of other women working in the Middle East. Most of these women travel to countries like Kuwait hoping to earn a better living, but many end up losing money, isolated, exploited or abused.

Gunasili was lucky to have an employer who treated her fairly, but few are as lucky as her.

With Education, Comes Hope

This is just one of the reasons Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program supports Sri Lankan girls through secondary schools, empowering them with life skills and locally hired mentors known as social mobilizers. Madushi’s mentor, Sujeewa came into her life in 2013 when Gunasili was working in Kuwait.

“I mentored Madushi through individual and group mentoring to encourage her to work through her hardships. I also worked with her family and her community, building my relationship with them in order for her to be able to make choices that work best for her future. I became her friend. By doing so, I was able to provide emotional support and be a role model,” said Sujeewa.

Inspired by her social mobilizer, Madushi began studying hard and taking part in extracurricular activities. She grew from being a quiet timid girl who hardly came to school to a young woman with great ambition.

“I want to be a police officer,” Madushi said. “I want to take care of my people and make sure everyone can live in a safe space. A government job will also allow me to take care of my mother really well. I have more hope for my life now.”

With Madushi well on her way to graduating and thriving beyond secondary school, she and her mother are hopeful education will open new doors for the future.

“Madushi is only 16 years old and very responsible. I have no doubt that she will take care of herself and use the education she is receiving.” Gunasili said. “I know daughter has learned from my life and I can see she is already working hard to ensure she lives a better one.”

Madushi is just one of the 95,000 girls who have been empowered with life skills and mentorship through Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program.

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