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Sunday Times August 29, 1999 

Women who excelled in social activities and service in Sri Lanka

These angels of help

Our Burgher community who were of Dutch, German and French origin had several women of great character and good education. The humane touch of these fair complexioned good looking women, is known to have illuminated this fair isle. In 1892 they identified themselves as pioneers by embracing the medical profession.

Deloraine Brohier, one of their kin living with us today, in a well documented publication refers to Dr. Henrietta Keyt who worked for a medical mission in Jaffna. Other "Angels" as they were known, were Dr. Evelyn Davidson who died in 1943 and Dr. Claribel Van Dort who won a Gold Medal for Surgery and later became the wife of that well-known ambidextrous Surgeon and anthropologist Dr. R. L. Spittel. Dr. Claribel was President of the Ceylon Red Cross Society, which she served with distinction.

Others of her kind and time were Dr. Raechelle Christolfesz, Dr. Ursula Van Royen and Dr. Sylvia Ebert. Dr. Alice De Boer, LRCP. (Edin.) was the first local woman to be sent abroad on a medical scholarship. She worked at the Lady Havelock Hospital and died in 1955.

When the patriarchal medical profession was broken into, these women of great endeavour paved the way for Sinhalese women to follow in their foot-steps. The first Sinhalese woman to enter the Medical College was Lucy De Abrew in 1902 and she was followed by Mary De Livera (later Rathnayake) and Veronica Weerasekera. They had the support of several liberal minded men led by Dr. James Loos, a medical educationalist, Hector Van Cuylenberg, and the barrister - newspaper proprietor, Charles Ambrose Lorensz who owned The Examiner after 1862. Lorensz was a great fighter of the time for social justice.

By Upali Salgado

The span of six decades from about 1885 wit- nessed the Buddhist revivalist movement spearheaded by Col. Henry Olcott, Ven. Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayake Thera, Walisinghe Harischandra, Anagarika Dharmapala and several others. The restoration work of the Ruwanveli Maha Seya, the Tissa Maha Seya, Seruvila Maha Seya and the Kelani Raja Maha Vihare had begun. Further, several large Buddhist schools were founded in Colombo, Galle and in Kandy.

There also blossomed great talent in the fields of art, music and drama.

It was during this period that a Sinhalese entrepreneur-class emerged.

They were associated with export of plumbago, government subcontracting to build roadways, hospitals and the port and also opened up virgin land to cultivate rubber, tea and coconut. Some took to furniture making and arrack renting, whilst the import trade was actively developed around Maliban and Prince Streets, Pettah.

The social scenario changed fast whilst all this activity was taking place. The businessmen's wives and daughters who attended schools such as Musaeus College, Visakha Vidyalaya and Southlands Galle, spontaneously stepped out to help in social welfare. Buddhism which refers to the Bodhisattva ideals of Maha Karuna and sacrifice for the betterment of the needy, was certainly an impetus in their endeavours to comfort the aged, the infirm, the deaf and blind, and orphans.

Social welfare did not usually concern the colonial rulers as they were more keen to develop a railway system, and promote external trade of their plantation crops managed by Agency Houses.

Mallika Home and others

Mallika Hewavitharane of Matara was one of the first Sinhalese women, from a business-minded successful family to think ahead of her times.

She took steps to purchase several acres of land and build a home for elderly women. This Home was to be cared for by the Mallika Nivasa Samithiya, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary by embarking on an ambitious building project to house more inmates.

Mrs. H. M. Gunasekera together with Lady Evadne de Silva in 1938 founded the Gamini Matha Home for males, situated by the Beira Lake, Colombo. This home now run by the YMBA, Colombo has 52 inmates above 70 years.

Lady Evadne de Silva, together with her husband Sir Ernest de Silva, who was known as the quiet philanthrophist and onetime President of the YMBA, also donated nine acres land at Walana, Katunayake to set up a large orphanage and school with a playgound. The Walana Orphanage is also maintained by the Colombo YMBA.

The Vihara Maha Devi Orphanage, Biyagama was founded about 53 years ago, and its founder President (who held office for 25 years) was Mrs. Constance Gunasekera (wife of Dr. C. H. Gunasekera, the well-known Ceylon Cricketer) who set up this large Home which has over 150 Orphan children from 2 to 18 years, Noteworthy help was given for this home by Dudley Senanayake and the Directors of the Chettinad Corporation, Colombo.

The Mahila Samithi

In 1931 two women of great ability and vision Dr. Mrs. Mary Rutnam and Miss Cissy Cooray established The Lanka Mahila Samitiya. Their aim was to move out of the metropolis and to train rural women in numerous skills such as sewing, lace making, pottery, basket and mat weaving, making of soft toys etc. At that time free education had not been introduced.

The level of literacy was comparatively low, and people were conservative. Their aim was therefore to improve the quality of life.

The Lanka Mahila Samiti Centre was founded at Kaduwela. This centre was a powerhouse of women's activity, and their produce was soon on sale in the city. These two women leaders and the Samitiya were helped by a fine team. A few notable names are Mrs. Violet Rajapakse, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Mrs. Loranee Senaratne, Lady Vaithiyanathan, Mrs. Swarna Guruge and Mrs. Anoja Amerasinghe Fernando, Miss Cooray, one of the founders, served that institution for 35 long years.

Miss Cissy Cooray was also President for 23 years (1942 to 1963) of the Sri Lankadhara Society, High Street, Wellawatte. This indefatigable social worker was born on June 8th 1889. She steered the work of this orphanage on the death of her aunt, Mrs. Catherine de Silva (wife of Dr. W.A. de Silva). The De Silvas had no children. For that reason, they purchased over two acres land at Wellawatta to build a two-storeyed home that today houses over 150 orphans and a vocational training centre. Miss Cooray was the first lady Senator we had under the Soulbury Constitution and for her outstanding efforts in social welfare she was awarded the OBE. She passed away at the age of 75, and in her honour a "Senior Citizens Home for Women" was founded on the Lankadhara premises. Mrs. N. S. C. (Winnie) Perera thereafter served this orphanage as President for 27 years.

The Ceylon Social Services League was founded over 85 years ago by Sir James Peiris, D. R. Wijewardena, and K. Balasingham, a barrister and legislator. This age-old institution has had the good fortune to have for years great leadership from Mrs. Sita Seneviratne and several others.

Missionary Activity

Some God-fearing Christians are also noteworthy for their love of the less fortunate. Miss M.O.M. Carter, MBE., looked after the Deaf and Blind School before they became two separate institutions at Ratmalana.

Her Mission gave her much needed finance and support.

These children were educated in Braille, and one student named M.Simon who attended S. Thomas' College, Mt. Lavinia in 1947 was able to pass the S.S.C. (English) examination using the Braille alphabet.

Mrs. A. Jayasekera, MBE., was another who provided within her own premises, much-needed shelter and care for women of misfortune. Her "Home" was named The Jayasekera Home for Women at Francis Road, Wellawatte.

The House of Joy for Children in distant dusty Talawa, NCP., close to Anuradhapura was yet another place that cared for poor children.

Whilst leadership to establish these social welfare institutions rested with women who were backed up by their hard-working husbands, they all had a great fund of goodwill from hundreds of like- minded women who remained unsung heroines. Without their support, the unfortunate in society would perhaps, never have had food, clothing, shelter and love to uplift themselves.