Community leader in Southeast Asia. Photo credit: APWLD.
When her husband’s alcoholism became so debilitating that he could no longer work, Kanthi Wijekoon had to make a difficult decision. She left her three small children in Sri Lanka with hopes of making higher wages as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.
While living and working in her employer’s home, she was sexually assaulted. When Kanthi complained, the employer’s wife retaliated by withholding food and burning her hand to the bone with a hot frying spoon.
Kanthi escaped by jumping a high wall surrounding the family’s home. But without a passport, she was quickly arrested and placed in Saudi jail with little food and poor sanitation.
In prison, she met over 700 Sri Lankan women; all had been arrested for running away or minor infractions like stealing food from their employers. In the long tradition of Sri Lankan women’s organizing, Kanthi didn’t resign herself to the sickening prison conditions. She organized and led her fellow prisoners to demand better treatment.
Remembering her local women’s organization, Kanthi wrote Global Fund for Women grantee partner, Rural Women’s Front for help. They sorted out legal aid and paid her fees. When she returned to Sri Lanka, they provided her with counseling. After hearing her stories of prison organizing, Rural Women’s Front knew Kanthi would benefit from leadership training.
Today, Kanthi is a recognized leader and role model for women in the rural Gampha district. Using skills from Rural Women’s Front, she was able to increase daily wages for women rice farmers. Kanthi now leads programs reaching more than 600 women every year, many facing the same struggles she once did.