Athwela Sahana Piyasa is a centre for women and children based in the Ibbagamuwa Division of the Kurunegala District. This is a Grassrooted initiative in partnership with Women’s Development Foundation, a rural feminist organization, and Devasarana Development Centre, the development arm of the Devasarana community, that has supported local communities in Ibbagamuwa since the 1950s.
As of May 2023, the Athwela Centre is based in the unique Devasarana space; a green lung along the Kurunegala-Dambulla main road at the 6th Mile Post. We currently offer services that include emergency shelter and relocation; the spectrum of legal support in partnership with the legal team at Child Protection Force; psycho-social support for survivors of violence with Uttara Illangakoon, a qualified clinical psychologist working closely with a qualified in-house mental health team; education interventions on child protection, sexual and reproductive health, prevention of gender-based and intimate partner violence, including cyber exploitation.
The evolving response by Athwela Sahana Piyasa has necessitated that the Athwela Partnership reimagine our approach to supporting survivors of violence by framing a holistic response. This includes strengthening our relationship with local police divisions, the growing of the Athwela Huwamaru Pola [Bartering Market] into the Athwela Marketplace, setting up of the Athwela Sayanaya for children with special needs, and beginning Athwela Nirmana Kavaya – an arts-based approach with children and young people.
Athwela’s Mindful Menstruation intervention remains the backbone of our community response. Mindful Menstruation uses menstrual hygiene as the entry point to discuss wider sexual and reproductive health issues, the prevention of gender-based and intimate partner violence, and the value of maintaining good mental health.
Period poverty being the underlying reality, our distribution of the sanitary napkins during the COVID19 pandemic in 2021, and the economic crisis of 2022, along with best practice approaches to reusable cloth sanitary napkins, and the discussion around the period cup, was augmented in January 2023 by the introduction of the bio-degradable FDA approved Lily sanitary napkin.
In July 2023 we began the research and development phase for a reusable homemade cloth napkin. Those working on this product include women from our communities, some of whom will be on the team that tests the product. The model being developed is to ensure that women and girls in Ibbagamuwa will be self-sufficient in the production of their own sanitary napkins.
In August 2023 the Athwela Partnership begins work with 50 Tamil speaking plantation families of Indian Tamil origin in Bathalagoda. Discussion is underway to also improve wash facilities for women and girls, improving on overall health and dignity.
LEGAL AID SUPPORT
We provide Legal-Aid in partnership with Child Protection Force lead by Milani Salpitikorala. These range from domestic violence, divorce, and maintenance cases, to child sexual abuse including cases of statutory rape and grave sexual abuse.
The majority [95% approx.] of the cases we have handled since February 2021 have been referred to us by the Gokarella, Kubukgate, Maduragoda, Bogamuwa and Melsiripura Police Divisions. Five of which are within a ten-kilometer radius of Athwela Sahana Piyasa.
PARTNERING WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT
Building our relationship with the local police divisions has proved crucial to ensure that our clients receive adequate support from local law enforcement. Currently, under the leadership of the Bogamuwa Police Division, together with the Zonal Education Authority, we are involved in conducting Child Protection and violence prevention programmes for teachers, parents and students in five village schools. This intervention also helps us document the efficacy of standard government prevention interventions and will allow for us to offer up a localized replicable partnership model on violence prevention between law enforcement, education sector, and civil society.
ATHWELA SAYANAYA FOR CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
Our Sunday clinic currently serves children in the Ibbagamuwa area. We have a qualified occupational therapist, Mr Tharanga Mallawa, who works during the week at the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, and a qualified speech therapist, Ms. Kumudu Herath, also from Kurunegala. We are currently exploring the potential to expand on the number of clients we serve based on growing waiting list. We have also had requests to include adult clients.
The dearth of services available to those with special needs in the area is apparent. Our therapists provide a minimum 45-minute consultation per client as compared to 5 to 15 [outside maximum] minutes with clients within the available government-run response at Kurunegala Teaching Hospital that serves the entire district.
The Athwela Huwamaru Pola [bartering market] initiative was the result of the relief programmes conducted in Ibbagamuwa during the COVID19 pandemic in 2021 and the financial crisis in 2022. In order to respond sustainably to the ongoing food crisis women and men are encouraged to barter organic garden produce and cottage industry products. All packaging is ZERO plastic. 12 female community leaders were also part of a site visit and training programme on organic home gardening and water management in July 2023, with an Athwela Home Gardening Competition to be judged in April 2024 for the most consistently productive organic garden beginning November 2023.
From December 2023, the Athwela Marketplace is a permanent space for our communities to barter and/or sell their produce and products. The Marketplace also includes a café space with a curated village menu and clean toilets to encourage travelers to use the space as a pitstop.
ATHWELA NIRMANA KAVAYA
The Athwela Nirmana Kavaya uses an art-based approach to provide children and young people from limited socio-economic backgrounds opportunities to excel. Our art-based approach also extends to providing Nirmana Kavaya participants with coping mechanism to navigate their everyday spaces.
The Nirmana Kavaya also conducts reading circles for young children to encourage reading as a practice [MRI results show that children that read/or are read to have superior brain activity in comparison to children that consume media electronically].
The Nirmana Kavaya space has also been used for theatre, with the Surya theatre group from Batticoloa showcasing the ongoing economic crisis and its impact on women, directed by Dr. Ponni Arasu, and the UNFPA funded Genu Pirimi Mal Palathuru traveling street-theatre intervention, directed by Kapila Rasnayake.
Auditions and workshops are currently underway for a Grassrooted trilingual theatre production with local performers. This production, based on Grassrooted’s work, and the writings of rural feminist activists in the Kurunegala District, after opening in Yakalla on 1st April 2024, will go on tour to Batticoloa, Colombo, Jaffna, and Kandy.