|Sumana Ranjani holds up the wooden frame with which she makes bricks. She has been helped to expand her business by Oxfam partner RRWO, which is focusing its assistance on rural women living in poverty in Hambantota district. Credit: Howard Davies/Oxfam|
“With the money I have made from making bricks, I have been able to build my own house,” says Sumana Ranjani proudly.
Sumana walks the short distance from her sturdy one-storey house to the deep mud pit from which she extracts the reddish-brown mud to make her bricks, and picks up the wooden frames she uses to mould them.
She is one of 20 women in the village of Dambetalawa being assisted by Oxfam’s partner the Ruhunu Rural Women’s Organization (RRWO). With Oxfam’s help, RRWO is assisting a total of 62 female-headed households in three villages in Hambantota district.
In this part of southern Sri Lanka, many women in rural areas live in poverty, and they are far more likely to be unemployed than men.
RRWO aims to build up the capacity of rural women living in poverty, encouraging them to form their own community-based organizations with their own savings programs, a key step in making them less vulnerable. By making monthly contributions to this fund, women have access to small loans to help them through difficult times or to build up their livelihoods.
Sumana, who has to care for her mentally disabled husband, has certainly found her income boosted as a result of the help she has received from RRWO.
Alongside the mud pit is a large square structure, approximately four meters by four meters, in which she can dry and store her bricks. Between the pit and the house is a large water tank, from which water is diverted via a drainage channel.
Sumana can make 200 bricks a day, and the average house requires around 2,000. Unfired, this quantity of bricks would earn her around 6,000 rupees ($54). “But now I can fire them, I can earn 16,000 rupees ($144),” she explains.
“It is very hard work. I never received any assistance before. With Oxfam and RRWO’s support I have been able to achieve so much more,” the 34-year-old says.
This is not the only help Sumana has received. She points to her one-acre banana plantation, which contains seedlings provided by RRWO. This brings her valuable additional income, as
Sumana is the sole breadwinner in her family. As well as the extra money, she now has greater confidence to take control of her life.
“Before, I could not speak to outsiders, only family. RRWO has helped me to overcome my shyness. Now I can negotiate with traders,” Sumana says.
Another RRWO beneficiary, Leelawathi, agrees. A dressmaker, she has bought a sewing machine with the loan she received from RRWO.
“I sell a dress for 550 rupees ($5), of which 100 rupees ($1) is profit. Before, I had to borrow a sewing machine and pay 50% of the profits to the person I borrowed it from. Now all the profits are mine,” Leelawathi, 55, says.
Now she has expanded her business by borrowing 1,500 rupees ($13.50) from a friend to buy material so that she can offer a greater choice of fabric to customers.
Leelawathi, who has brought up her four children alone, stands outside the village’s new community center, which was built with Oxfam help after the people of Dambetalawa identified it as a key requirement during a needs assessment in 2006.
The building of the center was a really communal effort. Leelawathi was among the villagers who provided unskilled labor to assist the skilled masons provided by Oxfam.
“I mixed cement and carried sand and water. I contributed my sweat and blood. It gives me great satisfaction to see this center being used and benefiting the village,” says Leelawathi, who collects food vouchers at the center every week.
Now the completed building provides an important venue for gatherings and social events, and villagers hope that in future they can use the center as a school.
But as well as being an important focal point, the center is also providing a crucial tool in bolstering their livelihoods by bringing them into more regular contact with key decision-makers.
Before the community center was built, villagers had to travel five km to see local government officials. Now three of these officials – a civil administrator, an agriculture instructor and irrigation official - have an office in the center which they will visit regularly to offer essential services to this rural community.