“Disabled people don’t need sympathy, they need rights.”
A census was conducted on elephants, but no such survey has been carried out to find data about disabled Sri Lankans, argues N. Kamalawathie.
Narayanagedara Kamalawathie, a 59-year-old Sinhala woman has devoted much of her life to advocating for Tamil and many other women disabled by war. She formed the ‘Disabled Women’s Association’ in 1989 and has been a long-time advocate for the rights of disabled women in the North, North Central and Wayamba Provinces.
“What should be given to disabled persons is not welfare or sympathy but rights,” says Kamalawathie. “Disabled people are a huge resource that can be used for the development of the country.”
Narayanagedara Kamalawathie why did you form the ‘Disabled Women’s Association’?
After being infected with polio at the age of four, I went to school and later to my job with the help of wheelchairs and crutches. I have taken part in wheelchair races and attended conferences abroad, representing disabled persons. I got the idea to establish an association like this through the experiences and knowledge gained by attending such summits and conferences. There is no institution, which works on the rights of disabled women, facilities or a streamline methodology to help them in this country.
I saw that shortcoming many times. I had numerous experiences. That is why I thought there should be a stage where disabled women could gather and speak about our rights. Then all women with disabilities can get together and influence the government and other responsible institutions and work strongly to win our rights.
That is how our organisation, ‘Disabled Women’s Association’ came to be launched in 1989. We registered the association in 1995. After reforms, work is now being done in a new manner.
What sort of work does your association do? How does it meet the needs of Tamil women disabled by war?
We conduct various surveys. In 2007, we conducted a survey on the situation of disabled women. In 2012 a survey was done with the European Union about the situation of women who have become disabled due to war in the north, north central and north-east. We surveyed 1000 women with disabilities.
Five years after the end of the war, we conducted a survey with Dr. Dinesha Samararatne and a researcher at Western Sydney University Carron Soldertick about the war affected, disabled women who have overcome challenges in life.
Our association had the opportunity to work with the Law and Social Trust Organisation. There we received a good training on conducting a successful survey. As a result of that survey our association was able to assist in the survey of war affected and disabled women’s situation in the north and east. This survey was done together by Law and Society Trust (LST) and Sydney University. The survey for Auradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts was conducted through our association.
Why do you conduct such surveys?
It is essential to conduct surveys like this to speak about present living conditions of disabled women – problems in life, their rights and to know their future hopes. There are almost no opportunities to work on behalf of them in our country. We have done several such surveys. There are several sensitive issues we have discovered: many of them (disabled women) do not have a national identity card; the majority is not married. Two women in one district took part in the survey. There were questions about their security. Things like that come out only when a survey like this is done.
It is incomplete data and information that can be obtained from a Divisional Secretariat, government office or from a non-governmental organization. They have gathered information on a superficial level. They know that they have to conduct surveys about disabled persons, especially those who were affected by war. But these institutions do not act on that.
Surveys should be done on males as well as disabled women to know their needs, skills and capacities and they should be added to the social development and development process.
Are you saying that disabled women and generally people with disabilities are not noticed by society? And are treated unfairly?
I have experienced it many times. What are the facilities in Sri Lanka for a person who moves about in a wheel chair? If I come to Colombo from Anuradhapura I have to come in a private vehicle. There is no way to get on to public transport in a wheel chair.
In some places there are big boards saying the entry facilities are available. But when we go there, that facility is not available to us. We can’t go to a washroom in a wheel chair. In some places there are no facilities to drink water or wash our hands. The tap is often too high to reach. In many places those facilities are not available based on our needs. As a result of persuasion by disabled persons organisations for over 20 years, there are now initiatives to provide such facilities.
We can’t to go and meet some high-ranking government officials as we cannot climb stairs. There are no facilities for wheel chairs. Disabled people like us have to attend religious practices in an improvised way. We have not seen a monk giving a sermon in a sign language or a reverend conducting a prayer service in sign language at a church. There is no use of a woman who cannot hear going to a place of worship because she can’t understand it. We have to live amid many hardships including following our religion.
Confining disabled people to one ministry has created problems. The Housing Development Ministry provides answers to housing problems. But when we go to that ministry for a housing problem, we are directed to the Social Service Ministry. Even when we go for a problem related to women, we are directed to the Social Services Ministry. When we go to the Youth Affairs Ministry for something related to disabled youth, we are directed to the Social Service Ministry.
What should happen is that as human beings we should be able to get services from those ministries on equal footing without a difference. The labour of disabled people must be obtained for the development process of the country. A disabled person in a developing country cannot move forward because she/he is shunned and directed toward a welfare process.
Does that mean people like you do not need welfare programs?
Yes. What we need is not welfare but rights, opportunities and equality. Two of us are women. You came walking and I came in a wheel-chair. If I was looked at as a dependant person, that is wrong. Deaf and blind schools with disabled children get alms giving. When they come out they don’t have self respect. After receiving charity from 5 years of age onward, they go out and think it is all right to beg. Children who have got in to the habit of taking charity end up on the streets. It has happens because the government does not meet the needs of these institutions. These institutions have to depend on charity. Rulers of this country do not know how to use the talented, knowledgeable disabled youth’s labour for the country’s development.
What about North and East Tamil women who have become disabled due to war?
It is a very sad situation. A lot of disabled women in the North and East are connected to our association. We also worked with women who went to war. Similarly, we work with women affected by war and who became disabled due to the war. Once they are disabled, they are the same and suffer from losing their rights.
There is a large number of women, with no way to earn a living. Some of their husbands have died in the war. They live alone with their children now and do not have the ability to provide a good education to their children. They have severely suffered, mentally as well as physically.
More than us, attention should be paid to disabled Tamil women. Without allowing them to suffer more, authorities should take steps to meet their needs. But we have not seen much so far.
If everyone is treated equally in the country, we should also being accepted in that context. But there is no such acceptance so far. Recently, a census was conducted to find the number of elephants in the country. But there has not been a census carried out to find the correct number of disabled persons.