The Hill Country
Melissa’s extraordinary story began in Sri Lanka, 32 years ago, when circumstances obliged her mother to give her up for adoption. She grew up in England knowing nothing about her parentage except the name of the adoption centre and the name of her birth mother.
Melissa’s search for her mother and success, came only through a sequence of lucky breaks and coincidences that she describes as “a series of miracles”. When she did find her mother, living on a tea plantation, Melissa learned that she had two younger brothers but that her father had committed suicide many years before. What she discovered about her long-lost family’s living and working conditions both shocked and appalled her…
Melissa’s family are Tamil of Indian descent, working as tea pickers on a tea plantation. They live in a shack provided by the owners which has no running water and no sanitation. Their wage is very low when they are working. Unfortunately – and inevitably – their work is seasonal.
Hardly surprising in these conditions, that some 85% of the community’s men (focus group) have an alcohol problem and 83% of families endure domestic violence (20% of which is sexual).
How did these conditions arise? Largely because the original Tamil workforce was imported from India – by the British colonial administration. Since then, the Tamil community has suffered long and hard because once the British left, neither India nor Sri Lanka wanted to take responsibility for the Tamil population living and working on the tea plantations. This has resulted in a high percentage of the workforce with no identity cards (passports) – no sense of identity or belonging to either Sri Lanka or India. This means that there is no one to turn to when it comes to basic human rights.
Melissa’s mother’s generation had to pay for education and with such low wages, this was near impossible so that whole generation is almost entirely uneducated. Now children do have access to schools on tea plantations however the Government has placed 1,500 non-qualified teachers in the tea estate schools. This leads to generation after generation losing hope and getting caught in a downward spiral.
Lack of Basic Rights
- No rights on the plantations – managed 24/7 by the estate owner i.e. no control over their housing or sanitation
- No ID cards means no freedom of movement
- Even if they do move within Sri Lanka, the young men risk being pulled off the street in Colombo for being Tamil and therefore linked with The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
- Received access to free education about 5 years after the rest of the country however, teachers hold parts of the curriculum back as an incentive to make the families pay for it which they just cannot do
- No chance of university
- Doctors at the hospitals deliberately prescribe lots of medicines so they can get more money from the purchase from their private practise. Medication is meant to be free at hospitals but the doctors take the medicine to their private practice to sell. The only medication given free in paracetamol.
Statistics on suicide rates and alcoholism are due to the issues above. 85% alcoholism amongst the men (focus groups) 83% domestic violence (20% of which is sexual). The tea plantation area is one of the top 4 suicide “hotspots” in the world.
Rape and sexual assault happens about once a month on each division of each tea estate (average of 4 divisions on each estate).
If a woman wants to report rape or sexual assault, undoubtedly, aspersions will be cast on the woman’s character, clothing, time of day and why she was there. Local women will be ousted by their communities and not seen as fit to marry. It is therefore not surprising that rape and sexual assault is rarely reported.
Respect for Women & Consent Programme
Melissa is developing a 6 week programme for both the young men and women (aged 18 – 24 years) to participate in at Tea Leaf Vision’s second school in Nuwara Eliya. The programme will focus on respect for women and consent.
The learning aims are:
♦ Respect towards women ♦ Reduced sexual crimes ♦ For women and men to learn how to say no ♦ To challenge and change attitudes