A mother learns, produces and builds independence in a Sri Lanka village

Author: Zafran Packeerally*

Eluthoor, Sri Lanka — Things were not easy for Uma Maheswary and her husband when they returned to Sri Lanka after the country’s long civil conflict ended in 2009 and settled in Eluthoor village, Mannar District in Northern Province.

“Life was challenging for us since our income was insufficient to make a living,” she said. “We lived on land that belonged to my husband’s grandfather. I was clueless on what to do next.”

Uma Maheswary poses at her home in Eluthoor, Mannar in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka on 2 November 2022. Photo: UN Women Sri Lanka/Raveendra Rohana

An idea came to Maheswary while she was working at a facility that made cleaning goods.

“My work entailed sticking labels on bottles,” she said. “We were never allowed to enter the production area. … I learned very little about creating these cleaning goods. As a result, I wanted to start the same business but I was unsure where to obtain the training and how to start a business.”

That changed when Maheswary participated in Empowering Communities to Prevent Violence against Women and Girls in Mannar, a project jointly carried out by UN Women, United Nations Children’s Fund and United Nations Population Fund. The project, funded by the Government of Australia, helps over 90 women entrepreneurs become economically independent and thus less vulnerable to violence. UN Women and its project implementing partner Chrysalis, a local social enterprise, have done the trainings since the project began in September 2020. The project runs until February 2023.

Uma Maheswary mixes ingredients in her cleaning products facility adjoining her house in Eluthoor, Mannar in Northern Province of Sri Lanka on 2 November 2022. Photo: UN Women Sri Lanka/Raveendra Rohana

“These trainings helped in expanding my business and developed my skills as well,” she said. “I learned how to run a business, about marketing, and even how to manage finances. I cannot imagine running a business such as this without these trainings.

“These trainings bring out my hidden talents. I was so backward once, but because of this training, I am no longer so.”

Maheswary, 31 and a mother of two, now herself produces a range of household cleaning products, from detergent soaps to glass cleaners, under the brand Uma Products. She sells in Northern Province, but says, “I want my products to be available across every market in this country.”

Uma Maheswary is seen with her husband Imran outside her production facility in Eluthoor, Mannar in Northern Province, Sri Lanka on 2 November 2022. Her husband helps her source goods. Photo: UN Women Sri Lanka/Raveendra Rohana

“During the Covid-19 outbreak, my revenues increased as I produced hand sanitizers,” she said. “And with that money, I bought two types of machines. Because of this training, I am always able to convert unfavourable situations into positive ones.”

Uma Maheswary shows her range of cleaning products in her facility by her house in Eluthoor, Mannar, in Northern Province, Sri Lanka on 2 November 2022. Photo: UN Women Sri Lanka/Raveendra Rohana

In addition to entrepreneurship training, the Empowering Communities project works to change the discriminatory social and gender norms that seek to justify violence against women and girls, a threat that in turn limits their autonomy.

As an entrepreneur, “the biggest challenge was society’s perception of women”, Maheswary said. “People just look at me strangely in this male-dominated culture. But I kept going with what I was doing. I travelled alone and attended training sessions alone. I believe that women should be given the same opportunities as men.”

“Women should not be dependent on anybody, neither your spouse nor your children,” she said. “Handle situations tactically and, most importantly, be yourself.”

* UN Women commissioned Zafran Packeerally and Raveendra Rohan, both of The Picture House, a creative agency in Colombo, to do the text and photos for this story. 

Originally published on UN Women’s regional site for Asia and the Pacific