Author: Zafran Packeerally
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of survivors.
In the serene, green surroundings of Thalawa, nestled in the Anuradhapura district of Sri Lanka’s North Central Province, stands a remarkable house – a place of refuge, empowerment and transformation. This house, known as AKASA, which translates as ‘the sky’, is not just a physical structure; it is a beacon of hope for women and girls with disabilities who have endured the trauma of sexual and gender-based violence.
AKASA is the Association for Women with Disabilities, a network of self-help groups dedicated to creating opportunities and empowering women to lead lives with dignity and independence. Under the compassionate leadership of N.G. Kamalawathie, this safe house has become a lifeline for many, offering shelter and a path towards healing.
“This safe house is especially for women and girls with disabilities. There are women in this safe house who have intellectual disabilities as well. Therefore, it’s a challenging task,” says Kamalawathie.
While Kamalawathie acknowledges that they encounter many difficulties, she also exudes pride in the progress made by the women they shelter.
“I am so happy to see the women in this house improving day-by-day, working towards a sense of normalcy in life, and we always support them with whatever guidance they need.”
Lilanthi* a 21-year-old woman who suffers from a disability in her spine, shares her own story of resilience at AKASA. Her journey, though not without its hardships, is a testament to the transformative power of this safe house. Lilanthi’s mother left the family when she was 10 years old, returning after several years. But her joy at her mother’s return was short-lived. Lilanthi soon found herself in a harrowing situation of abuse by her mother’s husband and his friend.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” Lilanthi shares. “One day, I ran to a neighbouring house and revealed the horrors I endured.” They subsequently took her to the police station, and her abusers were arrested.
With no other options, the police placed Lilanthi in an orphanage for a time. But she had to leave it when she reached the age of 18. She went to live with one of her aunts, but this arrangement was far from ideal as she faced many issues with her aunt’s children. She felt lost and hopeless.
In her darkest hour, Lilanthi learned about AKASA from a former hostel matron. She made the decision to seek refuge there, where she has found solace and support ever since.
At AKASA, women and girls are not merely survivors; they are given the tools to thrive. The safe house provides special training, including small business skills development for women to enhance their economic self-sufficiency and livelihoods. Kamalawathie passionately believes that each district of the country should have at least one safe house like AKASA, offering a lifeline to women with disabilities who have survived harrowing experiences of violence.
In the heart of Thalawa, AKASA stands as a symbol of resilience, healing and empowerment. It is a testament to the strength of women and girls with disabilities who are survivors of violence and who, with the right support and guidance, can rise above adversity to reach for the sky – just like the name AKASA suggests.
UN Women’s project ‘Empowering Women in Crisis’ (February 2023 – January 2024) funded by the Government of Japan provides emergency relief and support to women’s shelters most affected by the socioeconomic crisis in Sri Lanka. AKASA is one of 11 women’s shelters being supported by the project.
Originally published on UN Women’s regional site for Asia and the Pacific