by Hiranthi Fernando
In the large air-conditioned production hall of the Tri Star garment factory, 100 girls from the Poonthotam and Pompemadu rehabilitation camps are getting on-the-job training on the assembly line, manufacturing baby wear. Most of them speak only Tamil, so translators are available to facilitate communication.
Chitradevi from Kilinochchi, is just 20 years old. She has studied up to the Ordinary Level but not sat the exam. She knows a smattering of English. Her parents are in Kilinochchi with her two younger brothers and sister. Chitradevi who came to the factory on June 1, says she is happier here than in Kilinochchi and likes the work.
For 150 ex-LTTE female combatants from the rehabilitation camps of Poonthotam and Pompemadu, this is a whole new life. They are now gainfully employed in two Tri Star garment factories in Ratmalana in the first stage of a programme designed to provide employment to a total of 1200 such girls from the two camps, says Chairman of Tri Star Apparel Exports (Pte.) Ltd Deshabandu Kumar Devapura. A hundred girls are working at the main factory in Ratmalana, while fifty are at the Kandawala factory.
“We provide them with up to date hostel facilities, meals, transport to and from the factory and medical facilities,” Mr. Devapura said. They are given free industrial training, from cutting to finishing and paid a salary of Rs. 10,000 per month during the training period, which will be increased after training. “They need to develop their skill and efficiency,” he added.
“We manufacture top labels like Marks & Spencer and Debenham and we have to maintain quality.”Initially, he said they set up a training centre at the camp with 50 machines, giving the rehabilitees an opportunity of developing skills. Those who were interested were offered work in the factories. “We found a few of the girls were educated,” he said.
“Those who have had some education are training as accountants or merchandisers, while the others are trained as machine operators. The girls will be given a certificate in six months, depending on their skills. This would help them to work in factories of their choice even abroad.
Vijay Lalitha, from Mullaithivu is 25. She has a younger brother and sister still schooling. She likes the job and says the hostel facilities and the food they get are good. Twenty-three-year-old Dharshini comes from Kanakarayankulam in the Vanni. Her parents and elder brother live in the Wanni. She too says it is better for them here than at home.
Sitalakshmi, 30, from Sittamparapura in Vavuniya is one of the few who can speak Sinhala. Her parents are dead - “My mother died in 2003 and I don’t know when my father was killed.” She has only a sister and brother-in-law. “We are happy now not like before,” she says. Having studied up to Grade Five she is grateful for the training. “Here we have all the facilities of training and the opportunity of a decent future.”
According to Mr. Devapura, the girls have been issued their release letters and ID cards by the Director General Rehabilitation, Brigadier S. Ranasinghe. The Secretary Defence has given his approval for the programme. Two teachers have been engaged to teach English and Sinhala to the girls.
“The others should learn Tamil too, so that they can all communicate with each other,” he added. Speaking of the programme, he said 400 more girls were recruited on June 25 to be trained and employed in factories in Dambadeniya, Alawwa and Giriulla, known collectively as the Dambadeniya Tri Star Apparel Village. Hostel facilities are provided at Malwatte, including meals and transport.
In the third stage of the project, 200 girls will be absorbed into the Trincomalee plant in Thambalagamuwa, 200 to three factories in Nikaweratiya, Yapahuwa and Polpitigama in the Kurunegala district and 200 to factories in the Southern Province.
Providing accommodation to so many girls was not easy. Apart from the building, they had to purchase beds, pillows, linen and all other necessary furniture and equipment for the hostels. “We sent out 56 letters to embassies, and NGOs, requesting contributions towards the shelter, but no one came forward. We didn’t even receive a reply from most of them. Anyway, with God’s blessing, we somehow did it,” Mr. Devapura says. He is grateful to Minister Rehabilitation Dew Gunasekera and Permanent Secretary A. Dissanayake who have agreed to give some financial assistance for the needs of the hostel.
“If we don’t do this,” Mr. Devapura commented, “the terrorist problem may come up again. When bombs go off in the country, visitors don’t come and our orders get affected. “We are grateful to the government for finally putting an end to the problem. It is time for us to get together and help develop those areas without taxing the government.”