She now joins a list of awardees that include fellow Sri Lankans, Pundit W.D. Amaradeva, A.T. Ariyaratne, Ananda Galappatti, Marcelline Jayakody, L.T.P. Manjusri, Ediriweera Sarachchandra and Tarzie Vittachi, and also Hermenegild Joseph Fernandez (a Frenchman who worked in Sri Lanka) and Dr. Mary H. Rutnam (a Canadian who worked in Sri Lanka).

The board of trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation recognized her “compassion and courage in working under extreme conditions to rebuild war-scarred lives, her tireless efforts over four decades in building Sri Lanka’s capacity for psychosocial support, and her deep, inspiring humanity in caring for women and children, war’s most vulnerable victims.”

As a professional educator,  teacher, a volunteer counsellor, a professional psychosocial worker, a programme designer (inculcating various approaches, entry points and methodologies), a researcher, a trainer, a consultant, a child rights advisor and a grass roots level field worker, she has worked with many including the abused, the tortured, the detained, the displaced (internally displaced persons), war widows, and traumatized children in conflict zones.
She has also worked with young persons victimized by abuse, street children, and child soldiers.

She also works with teachers, professionals, caregivers (in the context of trainings), psychosocial practitioners, non-governmental organization workers, and war affected schools, in the North and the East, braving bombings, searches and threats of arrest to create supportive environments for emotional and social development and to build psychosocial resilience.

Sri Lankan Recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2017 for rebuilding lives shattered from the psychosocial wounds of war and violence, 83-year-old Gethsie Shanmugam spoke to the Nation about her life’s work.   

Q : What are the challenges of counselling?

A : Children taught me about life. It was a great challenge for which one needed strength. It started out as life education, a situation where one had to find ways to work with children, to interact. We (schoolboys and I) also had concerts and get-togethers. It was hard work. People did not understand. We maintained confidentiality. Parents wanted hints, yet none was given to them. Each and every person has his or her own side which belongs to them, and them alone, only to them. They may not want anyone to see that side to and of them. The other staff did not understand. Counselling (psychological counselling) is a misunderstood word. It is seen as a Westernized way of sitting and talking face to face. There are various theories on this such as the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy. What the child needs at the time must be provided. It can be love shown by a mother or a brother (a female psychological counsellor too has to show a brother’s love in such an instance). It helped me understand youth. There is a problem. Present youth are on the streets. I feel that role models are not playing their roles the right way. One has to work with schools and parents.

Q : How did you and your work fare during the war?

A : In 1996, I was in Mullaitivu, eight miles away from the action. There were massacres. Bodies were taken in vans and buried. It was a terrible time to be there. The killing of soldiers was terrible. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) gave permission to get out of Mullaitivu. The Army personnel even though they were harsh or pretending to be so at the beginning when they had to check our vehicle for bloodstains and whether we were transporting persons, they did not irritate me. It was a shock.

What happens when counselors have problems? I needed someone. Afterwards, I would lock the door and not allow anyone in. A maid would come and cook and would be sent out later. We who work with pain cannot work in the world if our feelings are hurt. I needed to know, understand and heal. There were periods in which I did not talk at all.

Q : What is the state of women’s rights in the country?

A : People fight for the rights of women. I understand why they do so. There must however be a balance. We cannot talk solely of women. Women are harassed. Within the Tamil society, women are made to bow down and kowtow to the man, the man who is high up while the woman is down below.

There are still cases where people in our society do not take note of women. How can we help those addicted to alcohol, especially in Jaffna? Male psychology must be taught at the lowest level, to children growing up, when they are fighting for their independence. The boy must see the girl and vice versa.

Q : What is the state of affairs at present with regard to the rights of children?

A : Regarding children’s rights, we are not doing the right thing. They are still being abused. The big question is how we help children to create a balance in their lives in relation to emotional wellbeing in the accelerated pace of today’s electronic age and world. We have to find ways.

Girls know a lot today, both in the villages and the cities. Things are moving fast. Therefore, one has to learn to crawl before one can run. They cannot touch a computer and expect emotional healing when their feelings are hurt or they want escape emotional trouble involving anger, confidence, envy, jealousy and violence. There must be role models.

Self-awareness is at the base of all this. It is not touched upon. This has nothing at all to do with teaching religion. This must be taught at the pre-school level. We have to create modules in this regard. Children are smart. We have to help them understand their feelings, which are in a kind of a twist. They are trying to get something when what they need is something else. If they are sad and crying, they will lash out and let it out, which must be allowed, and then they will quietly calm down.

Q : Do you have any proposals or recommendations with regard to sex-education in schools?

A : We must start before they get married. Preparation for marriage is important. It has nothing to do with sexuality and instead is about the beauty of growing up.

Q : What can be done to address probation related issues faced by children?

A : Home-based care is the best. If a grandmother does not have the financial means to look after the child, then she must be helped with such whilst allowing the particular boy or girl to continue to be with the grandmother at the village level.

Abuse can also however take place when children are in the care of relations. One cannot run away from this fact. However, the fact of the matter is that in this kind of programme, the whole village and community members are involved, which helps in great measure and to a greater degree.

It is home based care and not institutions and institutionalization that works. In the case of the former situation, parents and caregivers have access and children have the freedom to go out.

We should not be in favour of closed institutionalization. Children are put in prisons. There are a lot of problems that arise as a result. They are locked up. There are general open toilets and no toilets in the rooms or cells, which they need. We have to fight for these. The children are unhappy in them and they do not like it. They are human beings. They must be able to visit their families and be helped to be with their grandparents. Volunteers can be recruited to help free of charge. Savings and credit systems must be put in place.
The criminal justice system as is applicable including the juvenile courts and penal system is strict and consider these children, also known derogatorily as juvenile delinquents, as being bad. They are merely looking for love and care.

The likelihood is that the man who abuses a girl child has been abused earlier. If a child is used in sexual activities, she or he gets used to such and if it is the father or step father who for an example is committing the abuse, they may not even tell the mother let alone anybody else about it. There are so many nuances. It is a rough path. We have to understand sexuality. There are homosexuals. The society is not ready to accept them. Some of them cannot find love at all. This must not be the case. Sexuality is growing up beautifully.

Q : What can be improved upon in relation to ensuring the future of children?

A : We have to go by the children and not on what we plan. Parents want their sons and daughters to become doctors or engineers. Each person has his or her own way which is not the way of their parents.

We cannot force children to take our path. Money is at the base of all this. What the child needs is important than what I need.

There is need for some work to be done on parental education. Schools must balance education and not solely focus on the intellect. Even those who cannot function very highly have to be helped to develop something within them. Bringing about the emotional wellbeing of children and also of the country is not easy.

There is intellectualization, social relations and physical relations addressed in the syllabuses, yet the emotional part is nowhere to be found. It is neglected when it must be underlined. Models sans religious or linguistic biases must be put in place in this regard. Each and every person is responsible, not just the Government. The kind of feeling we must generate is of one Lanka and that we are all Lankans. We must think that it is my country. Sri Lanka is the best placed country globally, in the world. We are the ones who have created the problems through our destructive habits.

Q : Nutrition is an important aspect when it comes to children, Any suggestions in this regard?

A : Schools are doing their best. Nutritious food includes food like green gram. The teachers check. Yet, all of this should begin at home. The children follow their parents. If the parents eat something else than what they give for the children, then the children too will refuse to eat what they are given. They may take the food to school and throw it and eat what they like from their friends.

Q : What do you make of the efforts towards reconciliation and resolving the national issues?

A : It must be done. Nothing can come out quickly. We cannot expect things in a hurry. Results are not achieved overnight. It takes time. We were in the clutches of a war. We are all still struggling from the spillover from the war.

The efforts of those at the top must be genuine and the same is the case with those in between and right down. One must think of the wellbeing of one’s own self and of others including all Sri Lankans. We must think in a mature way. We have to transform. Where does one start with reconciliation? One starts with the children and the youth. The young have something within them. They must be given a chance.

However, cases especially on the legal side take years and are pending. The case may have occurred when someone is 12, and he or she may be in his/her 40s when it is concluded. Things have to move quickly in this regard. We have to find a solution. This is not easy.

Q : What is the role of the military in relation to such?

A : We should work with the Army. We cannot say that the Army and the soldiers do not allow and do not support. They struggle with their own problems. I could not however go into such refugee camps and centres alongside a soldier wearing the military uniform as those in the camps would consider me as a traitor who was on the side of the Sri Lanka Army.

We must treat people as human beings. The Police also struggle with their own problems. There are good people in the military and the Police.

One Sinhalese spoke Tamil fluently and was loved by the Tamils in the area and was even called ‘annar’ (elder brother).

We must work with them. For an example, inside a camp in Mannar, we were as part of a Catholic ritual (Shanmugam is not a Catholic), we were going to light candles as part of a healing of memory.

The Army got excited. It took some outside influence to convince them that we were not doing this in relation to the deceased Leader of the LTTE.

Making them understand is the problem. I have lived with soldiers, spending a night over in a closed camp in Mullaitivu. They are good. In certain cases, some former female child soldiers, who had been severely abused during the war, after surrendering and being rescued by the Army later on married Army personnel.

These girls had been shot at by their own superiors when they refused to die by swallowing the cyanide capsules given to them. They had been lied to by the Tigers that the moment they surrendered they would be sexually abused by the Army.

They were waiting for the abuse which did not take place. Instead they were treated for their wounds and fed by hand. To a certain extent, it is also up to our own attitude. The military does good things. Some group within it did something bad. The same is the case even in families.

Q : What exactly is being proposed?

A : Security is important. We need to secure protection. The protection must be balanced protection. The country is very vulnerable. There are so many interferences. Right now, people including countries like India are eying the country’s natural resources such as those in Hambantota, Jaffna and Trincomalee, which will help us prosper very soon. The military is every bit as essential as anything else for reconciliation. The military however must relate to the society.