Stephanie Siriwardhana is hugely passionate — about life, love and family, but also about her work. For the past couple of years, her work in activism has taken her into a setting not many are comfortable discussing: the women’s section of the Welikada prison. One of the projects she does every 3 months is to provide care packages for 100 women that include items like pads, underwear, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. “When I was fundraising for the second year, I noticed that whenever many people heard the words ‘prison’, ‘prisoner’ or ‘Welikada’, they became hostile. I often get asked questions like, ‘They deserve to be there so why are you doing this? Why don’t you help a children’s or elder’s home?’” Stephanie tells me. “But they don’t know their story. How can you judge someone you’ve never met?”
Stephanie is well aware of the reality these women have to survive. It’s different from our own and hard to understand if you can’t put yourself in their shoes. Most of the women imprisoned are just trying to get by. “Imagine this,” Stephanie says. “You have two kids, and a husband who is the sole breadwinner of the family, but he’s also an alcoholic. So you don’t get most of the money he earns and you need to feed your children. What are you going to do? Aren’t you ready to do anything for your children?” Stephanie pauses. “Most of these women need 1,500 rupees to take care of their kids for a week and what’s the easiest way to do it? You sell a little packet of something of which you may not know the contents.” Stephanie is adamant: drugs are terrible, but with the disparity between the rich and poor and the high cost of living, how are daily-wage earners expected to get by especially when only the man in the family is expected to work? The system needs changing.
A part of her work with the prisons includes donating toys for the children who live with their imprisoned mothers. But it also goes beyond fundraising for infrastructural changes. “Many women have foot fungus because of the poor condition of the toilets,” Stephanie explains. “The septic tank was built outside the prison complex and all the gunk goes right past the women’s section. So whenever it floods up, they have to wade through sh*t to use the bathroom leading to a variety of skin conditions.”
Stephanie also helps young girls who have suffered abuse through Emerge Global. She was initially their brand ambassador and now sits on their advisory board. “Emerge started a reintegration shelter for girls in Colombo,” she says. “They have vocational classes, proper counselling and help the girls reintegrate back into society.” The girls are in probationary shelters once their court case is finalized. Emerge helps girls within the probationary shelter with therapy, and teaches basic business skills through their Beading To Business program, initiated by Alia Whitney Johnson, founder of Emerge Global.
The reintegration centre has programs of 4 months for girls who are upwards of 18-years-old. “In the probationary shelters, some of these girls have been sexually abused and some resulted in pregnancies. They’ve given birth but since many of the mothers are under 18, their kids are given up for adoption,” explains Stephanie. “I once went to the home and I noticed two girls, around the ages of 11 or 12, washing their plates. I overheard one say to the other, ‘Once we’re done let’s go play with the dolls.’ The other girl excitedly said, ‘Yes, let’s!’ pauses and then said, ‘No, let’s first go feed the children and then we’ll go and play.’ They had kids!” Stephanie exclaims. “And they realized they first need to attend to them before playing. It was heartbreaking.” That’s when I knew I had to help and started my journey with Emerge Global.
But, this was a rare instance, Stephanie clarifies. When most under-aged mothers give birth, their child is taken away within the first week. “Occasionally it can go up to two weeks but then the separation becomes a little harder,” she says. “Some of them are like, ‘Listen all I want is my child.’ The saddest part is that most of the girls don’t even know they’ve been raped and don’t realise what has happened to them. They live in little villages and they see their parents sleeping together and they think this is normal. Later they wonder why their tummy is growing.”
While important work like what Stephanie and Emerge Global do continues, she knows they’re only fixing plasters and not attending to the core problem: “The education system needs to incorporate proper sex-ed, demonstrating the difference between good touch and bad touch, and learning values, principles and boundaries.”
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.