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Visting WIN centers in Matara

Two days ago I took a trip down to Matara to visit several resource centers run by a NGO in Sri Lanka called Women In Need (WIN). WIN operates four different centers in the Matara area, all with the goal of helping women who have survived physical, mental, and sexual abuse.

Before I get into details about the actual visit, I should mention that getting down south was interesting on its own. I traveled with three other WIN employees from the Colombo office, one of whom was the liaison between the Matara office and the headquarters in Colombo, and another whom was my translator. The trip took 3 hours there, 4 hours back, and one of the highlights was seeing an elephant (my favorite animal) being lead along the side of Galle Road.

After a brief stop at the administrative center in Matara, we drove to one of the four resource centers, Polhena.

When I arrived, the Manager and Assistant Manager greeted me in the typical Sri Lankan fashion – palms pressed together, while saying “Ayubowan.” Entering the building, I saw over 30 women (it ended up being 34) seated on chairs in the main room. I foolishly asked “Oh, are these women here for a sewing session?” because I had seen sewing machines in the next room. My translator gave me a silly look before saying “No, they are all here to see you.”

My heart literaly went into my throat. I was not prepared to give a presentation, thinking that the trip was simply for me to see the spaces and meet with the managers of the centers. So I had to improvise. First I explained who I was and what Emerge Global did currently in Sri Lanka. Then, I began a sort of group interview – asking useful demographic question like family size, average income, what goods and services the majority of their family income goes towards, what they do in their spare time, if they own individual bank accounts, and so on.

After this discussion, which ended up going back and forth for quite some time, I asked them if they had any questions for me. One woman stood up and, in Sinhalese, asked where the jewelry would be sold. I replied that the jewelry was shipped abroad to the United States. As soon as that sentence was translated, they all began to applaud. These women had a better grasp on the global economy than some people I know back home.

Once all their questions had been answered, the women asked if they could put on a role-playing skit for me about their abuse.

They had been taught role playing by WIN counselors as a means of rehabilitation. I was blown away by how comfortable and open they were in talking about the – in this case – physical violence that one of them had faced. The woman in the white and black skirt, the one who’s life this role play told, portrayed her husband and satirized him as a drunk and bumbling man. I was moved that she had gotten to the point where she could share her pain and suffering with the rest of the group, and do so in a humorous way.

All the women were incredibly excited to see me, and the Managers of the center offered one of the center’s four rooms to house Emerge supplies should we expand there. Before heading to Nadugala, the second center on our itinerary, we took one last photograph together. It’s hard to describe in words how much I connected with these women after the two short hours we spent together, but hopefully my smile is some indication.

The Nadugala center is situated 10 minutes outside of the main city of Matara, in a much more rural area than the Polhena center.

As we arrived, two women dressed in beautiful white saris sang a Sinhalese welcome song – I was beyond touched. Again as I walked into this center, which was smaller than Polhena, there were 30 women waiting to meet me. This time, I was ready and ran the meeting much better (I’m sure), again explaining what Emerge Global does and asking questions about their lives and families.

There was the same level of enthusiasm from these women as there was from the women in Polhena, and I began to think of the opportunity for Emerge’s partnership with WIN – and the number of women we could help lift out of poverty and hardship. I was overwhelmed by their excitement – with me, with Emerge, and with the prospect of generating income for their families so that they didn’t have to worry if their husband fell ill, or if food prices continued to rise, or if their husband’s employer decided to pay only 100 rupees a day instead of 500.

As I was leaving Nadugala, I realized that it would be impossible for me to not help these women, not after all the faith they had put in me and in Emerge. I felt like I had made 60 new friends that day, as cheesy as it sounds. And it was a little surreal to think that the hopes and dreams of 60 women were riding with me as I drove back to Colombo, and back to work.


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