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Personality of the week : Indrani Iriyagolle

by Ilika Karunaratne - Daily News, Sat Feb 22 2003

While there have been rumblings and grumblings about some of the women appointed recently to positions of importance, I don't think anyone in their right senses could do so about Indrani Iriyagolle's appointment as Chairperson, National Committee of Women. She has everything it requires and even more to head this prestigious body.

She is academically highly qualified, having
done her degree at the University of Ceylon and postgraduate studies at the Universities of Cambridge and London; has wide teaching experience in 4 well known schools including Visakha Vidyalaya, retiring when she was in the grade I special posts for principals category and has a wealth of experience stretching over a number of years in service to the country. "I retired early as I wanted to move away from the classroom environment, devote my time to writing and to serve my country nationwide. My first publication was entitled 'British Parliamentary Government' which I wrote in Sinhalese and presented to the then British High Commissioner here. He was amazed at my publication which is now in the library of the British High Commission."

Indrani's vast experience; academically, in travel and in service to the country has widened her horizons, strengthened her will and deepened her sense of perception. It is almost beyond the realms of possibility to find that such a gentle soft spoken woman has achieved so much. International organisations had recognised her potential before it was done here.

"I have lectured at the Royal Asiatic Society and various other forums abroad including Universities on Women's Issues and was one of ten women from all over the world chosen for training by the International Federation of University Women on Voluntary Welfare and Organisational Development. I was on the Board of the International Alliance of Women and Chairperson of the civil and political rights commission and then elected Vice President of the World Body".

Indrani feels that the work she found most satisfying and rewarding was when she was President of the Sri Lanka Women's Organisation for the Welfare and Advancement of Women. "I was President from 1985 to 2002 and am now its patron. In this capacity, I have travelled widely all over the country particularly in the North, the East and the NCP, visiting and helping people afflicted by the war situation.

We paid regular visits to these communities, trained ourselves in counselling war trauma, how to overcome war trauma, social care and learned how to train other women in these categories to help and look after each other. We even ventured into non-traditional occupations for women like masonry and carpentry. The women we trained built 7 workshops for themselves in Kalukundanmaduwa and 6 other villages in the Vavuniya district. I am proud to state that I have rarely seen such a perfectly finished flawless product.

They underwent tremendous difficulty to achieve this as it was in a jungle area. The army gave us immense support without which it would have been impossible to achieve. Counselling was a very important aspect of our work and we would make it a point to be there within a week of an attack. We counselled the women spent time talking to them and helped to dispel their fears. We helped them to overcome the fear psychosis, which was ingrained in them. Each time, a group of about 16 of us visited and spent 4-5 days with them".

Did her work involve visiting the armed forces? "Yes, this was yet another aspect; soldiers and their families were also under great stress and trauma. The soldiers would give us addresses of their families and we were able to dispel their anxiety as we visited the families and saw to their needs. I think we were able to gift things to the value of 2-3 million to the soldiers. We found that the need was greatest in the volunteer corps. I recall getting a gift of some good quality suits. We gave these to the person in-charge of the unit to be given to soldiers getting married and they sent us photographs in these suits taken at the weddings."

Did your work have the blessings of the government? "Yes, at that time we sent regular reports to President Premadasa and President Wijetunga as a feed back on the needs of the armed services. President Premadasa appointed a co-ordinating committee for the North and East under the Ministry of Defence and I was the only woman on that committee. That was an era that was unforgettable.

We received immense support from abroad too. We sent questionnaires out to the soldiers to ascertain their requirements. Their most urgent request was for chaplains and counsellors. It was at that time that President Premadasa decided that every soldier who had served three years at the war front gets a special concession to send his children to schools of his choice. Another order by the then President was that the Army everywhere be given traditional food like kiribath, kavun etc. on the day of Sinhala and Hindu New Year".

Didn't your husband object to your visits to the war torn areas? "No, he was most supportive and always said, 'you love your country, so you must go in spite of the element of risk. After 1994, I was not on any official committee, but we continued our work, through our women's organisation and gave it another twist through training in self-employment especially in Batticaloa, Vavuniya and Trinco.

We gave each woman 4 acres to grow black gram and the one who got the highest yield was a 64-year-old woman from Karuwalagaswewa. We had a special project for widows too. Some grew kurakkan, bred chickens and sold the eggs. We had sewing projects too, gave 4 sewing machines and they turned out T-shirts for the army.

We also equipped 250 pre-schools. We were helped by the WHO and The World Bank too in these projects for the civilian population. Our emphasis and motive here was entrepreneurship and leadership for women." What of her present role? "The NCW is a monitoring, consultative, executive body. We can advise the Ministry of Women's Affairs and seek advice too.

There are constraints as we are unable to take action on discrimination against women. The Women's Charter is declatory document. We have not got a women's act so our hands are tied. But because the UNF government and its manifesto promised to improve the structure and have woman-friendly programmes the P.M. has asked us to get ready to work towards a two tiered body with legal status to carry out activities to primarily investigate acts of gender discrimination against women. So the NCW and the ministry are working towards a bill of rights for women where women will have a lot of power and relief".

If all women appointees were of the calibre of Indrani Iriyagolle, there would be no complaints whatsoever. Academically qualified, with no fingers pointed at her on any count at all. Moral, financial or otherwise.

She has her own gentle genre of charm; is beautifully dressed; always in hand embroidered sarees, turned out by women in her organisation; her appearance is in contrast to the general idea of what a fighter for women's rights should look like.

But I think an iron will lurks behind that soft exterior. She is impressive, enterprising and is a woman of extraordinary conviction; who is reluctant to blow her own trumpet. Indrani Iriyagolle is an unsung heroine of our time.