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Sri Lanka: New hope for war victims

Decades of civil war have left deep scars in Sri Lanka. An ILO training project brings new hope to some of those whose lives and hopes were shattered by the violence.

Feature | 18 July 2012
JAFFNA, Sri Lanka (ILO News) – Subasudaram Pradeepan, 32, remembers preparing for his secondary level exam at Jaffna’s Hindu College, filled with dreams of a future as a teacher.

That was in 1994, when Sri Lanka’s civil war was entering its second decade and Jaffna was the scene of bloody fighting between government forces and the Tamil Tiger separatists.

The violence shattered Mr. Pradeepan’s hopes.

“I lost my sight when I was 14,” he said. But he wouldn’t discuss details of the attack that robbed him of his eyesight and his dreams.

He soon left school, and most of his friends left him.

It wasn’t until a decade later that he learned Braille, and started using computers again.

“I learnt that I could work on my own, do things without any help,” Mr. Pradeepan said. But it would be another seven years until he got a job.

Last year, he was invited – along with five others – to take a three-month computer course organized by the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon (EFC), which provides training and helps secure work for the visually impaired. The programme is part of the ILO’s Local Empowerment through Economic Development (LEED) project, which is funded by AusAid.

At the end of the training, the Federation tapped its network and asked companies to send representatives to the graduation ceremony to interview and possibly hire the trainees.

Right after the graduation ceremony, Mr. Pradeepan sat down for a job interview with two representatives from Singer Finance, one of Sri Lanka’s oldest companies. He was nervous at first but smiled when he was offered a job as telephone operator and telemarketer. He gets a 10,000 rupee ($90) salary, and will be on a six-month trial.

The employers’ group is one of the partners in the ILO’s Local Empowerment through Economic Development (LEED) project which promotes economic empowerment and decent employment for the most vulnerable and conflict-affected communities in Sri Lanka’s north.

The project mainly aims to assist female heads of households, persons with disabilities and conflict-affected youth.

The disabled, along with single women heading families, are two of the most vulnerable groups in the north, which had been at the centre of the civil war that ended in 2009. It is not easy for people with a disability to get a job, and society often looks at them as a burden.

“It is a very long process, breaking down stigma to achieve social acceptance,” said Cyril Siriwardene, Secretary of Sri Lanka Foundation for Rehabilitation of the Disabled.

Small victories like Mr. Pradeepan’s go a long way towards breaking down those barriers.

By Amantha Perera, IPS Asia-Pacific