Poverty and the trauma of war has not stopped Wimalee Karunaretna (b 1961) from making common cause with thousands of poor families in her district and helping them build a better life for themselves - and their children. In a country torn apart by ethnic conflict, Karunaretna builds hope for a peaceful future by running pre-schools where Sinhala and Tamil children play and study together, learning each others' languages and cutting through the prejudices and stereotypes that divide their elders.
Lack of money forced Wimalee Karunaretna, eldest of five children born to a farmer, to give up her dreams of going to university. But today, as president of a 36,000-strong organization in Sri Lanka's poverty-stricken plantation areas, this intrepid woman has made it her mission to help hundreds of poor women and children in her district to pursue their dreams - and to help her country dream of a better future.
Plantation laborers in Sri Lanka are extremely poorly paid, and education levels in these hilly areas are low, compared to the rest of the country. There are not enough teachers, and students have to travel long distances on bad roads to access schooling.
Karunaretna herself has first-hand experience of the conditions that prevail in rural Sri Lanka. Growing up in a village two kilometers from Nuwara Eliya town in Sri Lanka's central province, Karunaretna experienced harsh poverty. She managed to secure a place in university after leaving school, but her family's situation came in the way of her education.
But Karunaretna could write, and write she did - on women's issues, especially economic problems faced by women - an issue close to her heart - sending her work to the local paper. It was during this time that she met her husband, D W Apuhamy, who was a reporter with this paper. The two got married and moved to his village, Kandalai. This is a village in the country's eastern province, Trincomalee, where three communities, Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim, live together. Sinhalas, who are the majority community in the country, are in the minority here.
Karunaretna, a Sinhala, took her place in this community, continuing to write and also beginning to get involved in social work as a volunteer. She joined a local organization, the Rural Women's Association and became its president. Unfortunately, her peaceful life came to an end in 1998, due to heavy fighting in the region between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam and the Sri Lankan army. The family lost all its belongings, including their home.
The cruelly displaced family went to live in Karunaretna's home in Nuwara Eliya. Despite her own trauma, Karunaretna resumed her work. She began talking to women working in plantations about their position in society and other problems they face. She went on to form a women's group - Sinhala Tamil Rural Women's Organization, Nuwara Eliya - in which women pooled their small savings for the benefit of women and children in the community.
The women's group - which cut across communal identities - worked in the villages where plantation workers lived. Karunaretna's main focus was empowering women economically, creating space for them to share their experiences and problems, and providing them with information about women's rights. The organization also helped women, among them widows and single women, get micro-credit. It was very important for women to be financially independent, since meager family incomes are depleted even further due to the high prevalence of alcoholism among men in the region.
The enterprising Karunaretna consolidated these efforts by beginning a pre-school for children from all three communities, and then a rural bank that benefits many today. It is remarkable that, despite her own traumatic experience of ethnic conflict, Karunaretna works tirelessly to build peace and coexistence through these pre-schools, where both Tamil and Sinhala languages are taught.
She has received an array of awards for her work, including the President's Award in 1998 for leadership in community development and peace-building; the Rural Women's Organization Award in 2000 for creative work in rural areas; the Sri Lankan NGO Council's Sevajoth Award in 2001 for peace-building; an award by the women's affairs ministry for working with women and the NGO Samaseva's award for peace-building.
Karunareta continues to work indefatigably at the district level with rural women and the Sinhala Tamil Rural Women's Organization has swelled to include nearly 36,000 members. Men are also among its members.
She has overcome many problems to carry on with her work, including the hostile behavior of chauvinists threatened by her popularity and efforts to bring the three communities together. When she came forward to contest a parliamentary election, someone tried to set fire to her house. When she began her work as a young girl, she had to face cultural prejudices. But marriage gave her cultural protection. As a committed and successful social activist and the mother of three sons, Karunaretna has managed to juggle all her commitments with enviable skill.