25-year-old Ratha Nadarajah(not real name) is sixth of 10 children of a poor family that live in conflict affected Northern Sri Lanka. As daily-paid labourers, Ratha’s parents never had enough money to take care of their large family's basic needs. But, the family’s economic struggles could not dent Ratha's dtermination to do well in studies. After obtaining good grades in the Ordinary Levels examination, Ratha was studying for her Advanced Levels (A/Ls) when raging violence inflicted by the final phase of the war in mid 2008 made them to flee their home . Ratha decided to sit for her exam in a neighboring district where they were taking refuge in a temporary shelter.Minutes after she sat down to face the first subject, an explosion near the examination centre made the officials in charge to discontinue the proceedings. Days after that, an older brother and a sister were killed after getting caught in a shelling attack. Although she was deeply saddened and devastated by the tragic events happening in their midst, Ratha decided to face the rest of her subjects while being on the run. She obtained good results, but could not decide what she would do next as they were staying in a government run welfare camp at the time. Two years after, they returned to their village and Ratha was selected for a vocational training -oriented IT skill development program funded by an INGO. Today, Ratha works with an INGO in her own district.
Ratha’s story is not an isolated example of courage and steel shown by one girl in pursuit of a better life. In my countless journeys to war affected areas, I have met many girls like Ratha who never wanted to drop out school despite the intermittent disruptions to their education posed by the then ongoing war. For these women, a decent education was the only means of escaping the unfortunate circumstances they faced living in a war zone. As with war and violence, poverty also inhibits girls’ access to education as many girls from poor families are expected to share the responsibilities of traditional gendered labour roles that women play in their households. For example, girls from the tea-plantation worker families drop out school to look after their younger siblings since their mothers work on the estate as tea-pluckers to supplement the family’s inadequate incomes. In these areas, continuation of girls’ education is also restrained by other poverty-related reasons such as lack of access to basic needs such as water and sanitation facilities.
Despite the challenges and constraints that the girl child in some areas of the country face, a majority of girls in Sri Lanka have hugely benefited from the country’s free education system which began in 1947. At the time the free education system was introduced, only 43.8 percent of women were literate compared to the male population whose literacy rate stood at 70.1 percent. By 2001, however, literacy rate of the female population had gone up to over 90 percent and this was just 3 percent less compared to the literacy rate of men. The female literacy figures read even better among youth between the ages 15-24 with 97 percentage literate women to 99 percentage of literate males.
Access to free education enable girls from poor families despite their families’ miserable socio-economic conditions and disruption caused by other social, political and cultural impediments, including war, caste and class, to continue their education and even change things around for the better for themselves and their families. Free education based on meritocracy starts at primary level and continues through university providing women equal access to education as with men. The combined impacts of free education and free health care have enabled Sri Lankan women to play a critical role in the improvement of the health and well-being of their families, particularly that of their children.
According to scholars such as Carmen Wickramagamage (http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/a-silent-revolution-free-educa...) these remarkable gains made in the lives of Sri Lankan women are at risk due to cuts in state expenditure on health and education. “It is necessary to highlight the sea-change in Lankan women’s lives brought about by these achievements at this critical juncture when cuts in state expenditure on health and education threaten to arrest if not roll back the remarkable achievements that made Sri Lanka the ‘Miracle of Asia’ long before that slogan came to be adopted by the present government.”
The government’s deficit reduction plans should focus on other areas such as cuts to the unnecessarily high defence budget - even after the end of the war-, minimise corruption and wastage rather than going ahead with the proposed cuts to the free welfare measures, which undoubtedly will impact negatively on women and girls; hence the entire society.