Driving gender equality in the plantation sector

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At first glance, the lives of Hemamali Paranavithana and S.K. Wathsala Kumari appear differently from each other. Hemamali is an Assistant Manager of Human Resource Development (HRD) and Health at Kelani Valley Plantations PLC (KVPL) while Wathsala earns her living by plucking tea at Lower Division, Nuwara-eliya Estate managed by KVPL.

However, while their roles differ significantly, they also have much in common. Both are defined by their perseverance and determination to break away from social pressures and norms to become changemakers for the women around them.

Their inspirational stories also provide testimony to the transformational roles women are playing in uplifting the plantation community. Recognising the valuable contribution of such female changemakers, Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) like KVPL have implemented various programmes to help women look beyond traditional role in the community that is often viewed as patriarchal. 

‘Building trust – the key to change’

There is pride in the voice of Hemamali Paranavithana as she describes how 23 youth have been selected to university this year, from the 25 estates managed by KVPL for which she is responsible for the Human Resource Development (HRD).

“14 of our children have been selected to the medical faculty this time. The others were selected to the management faculty, law faculty and other degree programmes,” she says with pride.

Hemamali’s accomplishment is natural, considering the constant support she and her team have given to these youth over the years. 

From a pharmacist to her present role at one of Sri Lanka’s leading plantation companies, Hemamali’s career journey stems from her passion to serve the community around her. She developed this dedication at a very young age when she witnessed how her neighbour, who was a doctor, helped those in need. 

She now leads a team of 96 – of which 84 are women. Her team consists of medical officers, child development specialists and HR professionals, who work around the clock to ensure the health and wellbeing of a community of more than 140,000 living in the 25 estates managed by KVPL. 

“If a person living in one of our estates falls ill, even if it’s midnight, the Estate Medical Officer will respond, go to the house and take all the necessary action,” Hemamali explains. “From the time a child is conceived in an estate, we do our best to support their health, education and overall wellbeing, throughout their lives.”

These dedicated efforts have made a life-changing impact on many of the residents of KVPL’s estates. 

“We work with health authorities and donors to regularly screen for cataract eye conditions and organise surgeries for those who need them,” Hemamali says recalling one incident, which had touched her deeply. “Through such a surgery, a mother in one of our plantations was able to see her baby for the first time.”

Further, motivated by such inspiring experiences, Hemamali and her team work with passion and dedication, focusing especially on the wellbeing of the women and children in these plantation communities.

As a result of the commitment of officers like Hemamali, KVPL now has comprehensive and well-structured programmes in place to improve the lives of women of all ages.

“We take a long-term and holistic view of things and our programmes our designed accordingly,” describes Hemamali. “For example, the health of a new-born is closely linked to the health of the mother. However, for the mother to be healthy, she should receive proper nutrition from a young age.”

“For this, you must educate both adolescents and their parents. For such awareness to be effective, you also need at least a basic level understanding, which requires completing at the least the mandatory years of schooling.”

Continuous awareness and guidance provided by Hemamali and her team combined with other forms of support, such as free provision of medicine and medical care by KVPL, are delivering results. For the past five years, there have been zero maternal deaths in estates managed by KVPL and proactive action also resulted in minimising the spread of COVID-19 among the resident community. 

Beyond physical health, Hemamali and her team are also conscious of the mental wellbeing of the women that they support and have introduced mechanisms to prudently address sensitive matters.

“The community is quite conservative and don’t tend to comfortably discuss issues like reproductive health, which are vital,” she notes. “So, we’ve formed youth clubs through which we build engagement and trust with the youth. Once we build a relationship with them, we educate them on important matters like these.”  

“We use similar mechanisms to bring the women together, to tackle other sensitive issues like personal and household grievances.”

Hemamali finds her role rewarding and appreciates the support provided by her company and her family – including her husband and three children – in performing her duties. Her practical approach towards change explains her success.

“You can’t expect change from the first day. Initially, you must win the trust of the community and build a strong relationship with them.”

Asked as to what advice she would give to fellow female changemakers, her response is simple.

“You should not be afraid, but you should think carefully before you act. There is a perception that there are limits to what women can do, but we can make a big difference.”

‘Helping each other is the way forward for us’

33-year-old Wathsala, is a mother of four residing in Lower Division, Nuwara-eliya Estate.  She earns her income by plucking tea leaves under the ‘revenue share model’ a creative concept introduced by KVPL which enables individuals to function as entrepreneurs while also addressing the challenge of severe worker shortage faced by estates. 

Under this concept, individuals are allocated a plot of land of the estate to manage. They are also responsible for upkeep work including weeding, harvesting and are entitled to a significant share of the income generated by the plot of land allocated to them.

Thanks this the model, Wathsala has sufficient flexibility and control over her day and is also able to support her husband, the breadwinner of the family, who runs a garage.

“As a woman, I am glad that I am able earn an income to help run the household. We save my husband’s income and use my earnings for the household expenses, which helps us build some savings for the future,” Wathsala said.

During the pandemic, Wathsala recognised the importance of having a livelihood to support her family.

“Because of the pandemic some people faced challenges in managing their day to day affairs. However, my children had all they needed and I realised how important it is to be independent as a woman. I was able to support my family and whomever I can.”

“As a mother I am proud with how far I have come. I help my friends and colleagues who work with us on the plantation. We resolve our issues amicably. Also, thanks to the assistance of the company, I don’t have to contend with many challenges.”

Successfully managing both her livelihood and her role as a mother, Wathsala gets her children ready for school before coming to work on her plot.  

“I’ve taught my children to be as independent as possible. If both parents are working you must raise the children to not depend on others and the importance of standing on their own two feet. You can’t achieve anything without making sacrifices,” she stresses.

According to Wathsala, the right support and guidance can assist women significantly in reaching their fullest potential.

“As a woman I bear a great responsibility towards my family and those around me. We will always face challenges. However, I truly believe that you can resolve any problem if there is open communication between you and your partner. I am grateful that I have such support,” said Wathsala with a smile.


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