The passion and motivation to stand up against injustice and advocate for equal opportunities in her society began at a very young age for Sumangala Krishnapillai. It was at the age of twenty years that she together with her mother took the lead in establishing the very first Women’s Rural Development Society (WRDS) in their village of Seelamunai, Periyapodai, Batticaloa. What sparked it off was the denial of membership in a large Community Based Organization to a neighbour on account of her family’s low economic and social status. The mother and daughter duo with support from administrative officials and the backing of the community went on to set up a separate WRDS in their village and are rendering much support to the community through this organization on a purely voluntary basis. Ten years since that day, in recognition of her leadership and management skills Sumangala was appointed as the President of the government registered WRDS. The most significant ‘project’ she has overseen in the recent past is the Rs. 11 million valued, government sponsored flood mitigation mini project completed in her village.
“I was not always like this, independent and self-confident. Quite the contrary, I was extremely shy and was content to mind my own affairs,” recalls Sumangala. Having held jobs in data entry and public relations in the last ten years, she was presented the opportunity of being selected for the Youth Leadership Development Programme (YLDP) offered by the Vavuniya Campus, University of Jaffna – an initiative of the EU Support to District Development Programme (EU-SDDP) implemented by the United Nations Development Programme. The YLDP is a 180-hour course offering theory and practical knowledge cum-skills for upcoming youth leaders to strengthen local development along with the inclusion of disadvantaged groups.
Describing her experience of the study course, Sumangala says that travelling 40km both ways for each classroom session was not easy, but it is all worth it. Apart from the knowledge she gathered, the recognition she gained in the eyes of the community and the government officials attached to the divisional office has been of immense value. The components and process of ‘Project Management’ has been one such learning that Sumangala now puts into practice as the leader of her community based society as she interacts with government officials on a daily basis. This young woman has her hands full, but that hasn’t stopped her from reading for a degree in the social sciences while being employed on a full-time basis as a marketing focal point for a cooperative society in her village.
The YLDP has been completed for a batch of over 250 youth in Batticaloa, Mannar and Vavuniya and is now converging into transferring these learnings to community development initiatives. Street drama and open dialogue in two local schools was the route Sumangala and her group of colleagues took to raise awareness on serious issues pertaining to child development in villages in Batticaloa. Feedback received from children on these issues has been forwarded to the relevant authorities for action, as Sumangala and her team are preparing to replicate this in other schools.
Twenty-three-year-old L. Krishanthy, another YLDP participant, endured a difficult life as an orphan. “I have had to always depend on my relations to provide for my sisters and me. But, this study course has created many new opportunities for me in this short period of time. Echoing the added recognition and the close rapport she has been able to build with development officers during the period of the course, she was appointed Secretary to the Samurdhi Society and also gained employment at the Batticaloa Seed Grower’s Association to manage their financial and marketing matters.
Sumangala further commenting on her role as female community leader says, “Sadly, women are not given due recognition in their communities even though they have great potential and the ability to shoulder multiple responsibilities. Study courses such as these, which have the backing of national universities is one of many ways in providing young women like us with not only technical know-how but also recognition and credibility to become visionary leaders in the society.”
This youth development programme is carried out with funding provided through the European Union Support to District Development Programme. The EU-SDDP with a total financial envelope of EUR 60 million aims at supporting the Government of Sri Lanka’s thrust for economic and social development in 7 conflict-affected districts covering half a million people. Under the EU-SDDP, UNDP is strengthening the capacities of local governance by providing technical assistance to grass-root level youth to engage in community development processes and to enhance networking with local government officers in a bid to improve accountability of local service providers.