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Investing in Women

I arrived in Kandy, Sri Lanka during a somewhat tumultuous time this fall in 2007. The war effort has been in full swing and the result is that everyone is on edge, being so uncertain whether a bomb blast might erupt at any time. Tension and fatigue seem to be running high and everyone I talk to just wishes the whole thing would end.

On a very positive note, Community Friends is starting a new and exciting program, and it’s my pleasure be able to do this during this visit. This program is to fund two new businesses, as part of our interest in supporting some of the folks in Ulla who we’ve been working with since the tsunami. As we have gotten to know the people in Ulla, we have noticed that a segment of the population consistently finds itself in a very precarious position – that segment is teenage girls.

By the time they reach the age of about 15-16 years old, they start to leave the school system. Very few are able to pursue education beyond this point. Many of these girls are married at this age, others become workers, and a very few are sent to the urban areas in pursuit of opportunities. Historically, many of these situations prove to be difficult, and the standard of living, or quality of life they are able to achieve falls far short of what we expect for our own children.

Through consultation with Ulla’s school principal, Mr. Piyasena, Community Friends has come up with a way to help those of these girls who want to work a way into micro-entrepreneurship. Mr. Piyasena has created a Community Development Committee (CDC), which is a group of parents and teachers from the school, which is doing the work of identifying appropriate businesses to start, and identifying individuals who would like to participate in the program. And this CDC is consulting to Community Friends and our main point of contact.

Today, in Kandy, we are awaiting a group of travelers from Ulla. Included are Mr. Piyasena, plus Malika, one of the head teachers from the school, and two parents – Shanta and Latha – who are community parents designated by the CDC as parent/mentors for the micro-entrepreneurships.

The CDC has recommended that we start two businesses that will be organized as collectives. Each of these collectives will have 5-6 girls and one parent mentor as its staff. The businesses that are to commence are food processing businesses. One will be a chili grinding business, which will use a grinding machine provided by Community Friends to convert local farm-grown red chilies into chili powder. The second collective will do a similar thing, but its output will be rice flour.

Both of these choices were made after we consulted with the CDC about our mission and interest in promoting sustainable practices in Ulla. Because the value-added of both rice flour and chili powder processing is performed outside of the greater Ulla area, the CDC came to see that bringing this processing into Ulla would keep those profits local and fill a niche. We are excited to be part of this process with our friends from Ulla.

Jay Goodfriend