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The Iron Lady

Karunawathie Menike (Karuna as she goes by for short) is an unassuming Sri Lankan woman with an inspirational story. Karuna is from Wilpotha, Chilaw, a village that used to be so isolated in thick jungle terrain that it had no electricity, septic system or roads until recently. Being in such a state of neglect, education and healthcare were not even considered necessities.

“Be self-reliant and stand on your own feet without obligation to others” ~ Karuna

“Be self-reliant and stand on your own feet without obligation to others” ~ Karuna

But Karuna is no traditional village woman. She’s an entrepreneur, an advocate and a mentor to women’s groups around Sri Lanka. She helps them set up livelihood and savings programs to empower women to live independent and fulfilling lives.

To understand the magnitude of her accomplishments we have to go back to the late 1970s during a time of extreme drought and crop failures. The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) provided food rations but the local distribution middlemen were corrupt and many families went hungry. Karuna, along with a group of women, went on strike and pleaded with government officials to allow them to manage the food distribution process.

 “The food itself was bug-ridden by the end but we were allowed to manage the distribution and even started a loan scheme to satisfy emergency monetary needs,” says Karuna.

This rudimentary scheme is now a sustainable, self-managed microloan program that Karuna takes to village women’s cooperatives around Sri Lanka. A small amount of money is pooled from members, which is then used for low interest loans for reasonable emergencies and business initiatives. They called the program Women’s Savings Effort, Wilpotha (WSEW).

 “We don’t tell people what to do but show them what we did working from the bottom up. We talk more about our failures than our successes because this is how we become credible and inspire action,” says Karuna.

Her impact is so impressive that she was awarded the prestigious Ashoka Fellowship Award recognizing social entrepreneurs who design innovative solutions to social problems.

While Karuna’s life is an inspirational commemoration of International Women’s Day, it would be unfair to ignore the deep-rooted obstacles she faced. Many may not have even crossed our minds:

 1)   Language barrier leaves women leaders vulnerable to exploitation: one non-profit from Colombo city brought in foreign funders to see WSEW’s work. After several months, Karuna caught onto a few English words and grew suspicious. She realized that under the guise of giving help, the other non-profit was actually claiming WSEW’s work. After threats of sabotage and ill will, WSEW was able to shake off the other non-profits’ grip.

2)   Cultural stigma of a “disobedient wife”: Many women in villages are dependent on their husbands, fathers or brothers income and this status quo comes with control. Leadership requires women to leave the home and break these delicate dynamics that often results in jealousy, sabotage and abuse.

3)   Few local connections: Sri Lanka is a country where your network is representative of the likelihood of success with any initiative. A critic once told Karuna, “You’re not even good enough to go through the back door of a politician’s house.” Meaning, that her efforts will never be successful because she is a “nobody.”

4)   Lack of access to international resources: There is a lack of information flow leaving many women like “a frog inside a well,” as Karuna puts it. Village women leaders are often unaware of grants, industry developments and conferences, which are often attended by those in positions of privilege. Karuna has had the occasional opportunity to attend conferences only when organizations have gone the extra mile to provide her with a translator.

Handicrafts made by the members of the Women's Savings Effort, Wilpotha

Handicrafts made by the members of the Women’s Savings Effort, Wilpotha

These are just a few of the imperceptible social, cultural, political and economic obstacles Karuna has overcome in her path to help thousands of women build livelihoods, independence and dignity. It is no wonder that she is known as the “Iron Lady.”

Karuna’s story also illuminates the reasons why many women leaders may not be able to unleash their potential. This is reason enough for the Malini Foundation to seek latent “Karunas” and share their experiences. By doing so we hope to serve as platforms for advocacy by bringing their stories to the world.

Join the Malini Foundation for grassroots profiles of powerful leaders who will elucidate the complexities of the most forefront issues affecting girls and women.

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