For most people who make a difference in the world through volunteerism, the mission to which they became devoted emerge from their own experiences.
The decisive factor that led Pearl Stephen to open the first shelter for women in Sri Lanka in 1984 was the sad story of her own mother. Her Indian mother crossed the border into Sri Lanka by taking a train to Dhanushkodi, and then a boat to Talaimannar operated by then Indian Railways.
Her mother had to suffer a lot in an unknown place with her little knowledge and education. Pearl thought that no woman should suffer because of ignorance of her surroundings and believed that all girls should be empowered through education and economic opportunity.
She told me that it was her mission to help women because she did not want any woman to suffer like her mother had done. “I have always wanted to make a difference in the lives of people. My mother was my source of inspiration. Looking at the agony she suffered, I decided I would never let a man dominate my life,” said Pearl Stephen.
She provided education for shelter residents and gave hope to many young women when they had almost given up all hope for a better life. She helped women who had been thrown out of their own families and communities, who were pregnant or abused, to find their dignity. She firmly believed that no one should die because of unwanted pregnancy. She helped many girls and women who were in a destitute state and she embraced them with open arms and provided much needed care and protection. Currently, there are nearly 60 women and girls under the protection of the shelter run by Women Development Center, Kandy.
"Her everlasting efforts to bring happiness into women’s lives have made her an outstanding heroine and unforgettable person"
She was a real Pearl born in the Pearl of Indian Ocean
She was a real Pearl born in the Pearl of Indian Ocean, who lived up to her name by leaving glistening memories in many women and girls. She raised not only her kids she adopted at least more than six children and brought them up her own. Once I visited her house. She built a small house, similar to tsunami houses given by the government; she did not have running water in her house. Still she wanted to live closer to women and girls in the shelter though she could have easily lived in a rich neighborhood in Kandy. She led by example to others who really wanted to do social work. Despite the fact that she wrote several letters to government authorities to obtain water facilities she could not get water for the shelter. She had to struggle to find money to pay for water bowsers, as nearly 60 girls and women, including staff of the shelter needed at least three bowsers of water per day. I went to Women Development Center (WDC) many times through assignments with my work interest and activities. Every time I have been there, I saw government vehicles bringing abused girls or young teenage pregnant girls.
Many government institutions thought this place belongs to the government because many girls who arrived in WDC shelter was sent by the Probation Department, police or the judiciary. Though she did not get any support from the government to run this place, the authorities keep on sending abused girls for her care and protection. When Pearl Stephen first wanted to support women and girls, she started this service at her premises, gradually evolved into a 150 person-strong non-governmental organization in Sri Lanka with many regional offices. In 1984, she was able to open a first shelter for women and girls in Sri Lanka, who were victims of social and sexual violence.
The concept of sustainability for women’s empowerment
Among the services WDC provided were rehabilitation of girls who were subject to sexual violence, enhancing enterprise skills to underprivileged women, and Pearl opened a special education unit for children with learning disabilities. By giving alternative income generation activities for sex workers, Pearl Stephen strived to bring dignity and respect for street-based female sex workers in Kandy. Her idea for development comes from Ghandi Ji. lter; she maintained confidentiality of everyone enabling them to avoid stigma and social seclusion. She opened a village boutique to sell handicrafts turned out by the women at the shelter and she created a harmonious setting for the centre bringing much needed services together. Pearl has been felicitated by several organizations with awards for her decades-long commitment to empowerment of women, namely ‘Celebrating Womanhood Regional Awards in 2008’, ZONTA Award’, Liya Abimanee Award of Excellence 2011, UN volunteer award, etc.
"She was a real Pearl born in the Pearl of Indian Ocean, who lived up to her name by leaving glistening memories in many women and girls"
Economic empowerment is a key to opening the doors of dignity
I have never met anyone else like this truly humble woman in my whole life. Seventy-four year old Pearl travelled to the North East and other faraway places to see the field work with her own eyes. She was never a desk worker and wanted to use all development money meaningfully with a people-centered approach. She had a dream for her shelter: to get water for facility before she died. Now she has been called back from the Earth, but unfortunately the shelter is still without running water. Pearl played a key role in providing necessary supports and temporary dwelling facilities after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. . She emphasized that all women should have a Plan B in case Plan A goes wrong. She always tried to help women to find treasures in their own soul. “Women have so much potential. I think it’s like a hidden treasure but nobody has taken the trouble to take it out. And that’s what we are trying to do.” she always said. Once at an interview, she stated that “Women’s issues are not a priority either for the police or the judiciary,” and she cited an example of a survivor of mass rape whose case had been pending for 15 years. She had to fight with systems; initially she had to go to police stations quite often because women who were in the shelter were harassed by the authorities, who, strange as it may sound, thought that the women had connections with terrorists. She was brave enough to work with sex workers, and courageous enough to travel any distance during the time of conflict. She never rested until her last day. She worked daily from morning to evening and never retired from her work. She once said “I want to take a back seat and delegate these tasks for new people, but I know I cannot really retire while women continue to suffer indignity.”
Service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy on the Earth
Pearl’s life was an inspiration. Pearl was an extremely compassionate, loving, kind, generous, honest, woman who worked long and hard hours for women and girls in Sri Lanka.
She fought so many administrative battles to bring dignity for women and girls. She was not only a renowned social worker and women’s activist; she had been a foster mother for many children while sending them to school and being their guardian. Her service did not know any regional boundaries, and reached all ethnic groups, war widows, and the displaced, abused, marginalized and excluded. Her genuine personality and burning passion for equality and justice has influenced generations who came into contact with her to do volunteer work to upgrade humanity.
Her everlasting efforts to bring happiness into women’s lives have made her an outstanding heroine and unforgettable person. Pearl, who was born on 1939, during the British colonial time, has now gone from the Mother Earth forever leaving everlasting memories with many of us, reminding us to spend our lives in a meaningful way. As she emphasized “service is the rent you pay for the space and time given you by the Mother Earth”
Rabindra Kumar Tripa Friday, 20 December 2013 06:49 AM
I express sincere thanks for noble work for women.
Eleanor Macdonald Saturday, 10 August 2013 05:20 PM
I have met Pearl Stephen and visited the Children's Home which she set up. Pearl was a truly wonderful lady. The need at the Harragama Home outside of Kandy City is bottomless. Pearl told me that without the money from the big charities she could not go on. Princess Anne has also visited as Ambassador for Save the Children and that charity was one of several that helped. Lets hope that a water project for the home can be established.
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