The Resilient Matriarch

Despite losing nearly everything she owned, Gunawathie (60) remains hopeful. This resilient matriarch insists that unwavering hope has helped her overcome many difficulties. Gunawathie runs a small tea-shop in her village. Her daily income is used to clothe and feed her widowed daughter and granddaughter who both live under her care. Gunawathie lost her own husband two years ago and has since then assumed duties as the bread-winner of her household. In May 2017 Gunawathie’s family was one of many who suffered from the monsoonal rains leading to one of the worst natural disasters Sri Lanka has experienced. At the height of the crisis over 700,000 people were affected with 214 deaths and 76 missing persons reported by the Disaster Management Center (DMC). Gunawathie and twenty four other families from her village were selected to receive a cash grant of LKR 30,000 from Oxfam, LEADS and partners through the funding of ECHO, during the immediate aftermath of the floods. The money was deposited over the course of three months. The most vulnerable families were chosen based on several indicators, including those living below the poverty line and women-headed households.

  • Older woman sitting in a living room

    Gunawathie lives in a low-lying area in the village of Kahangama in the Ratnapura district. When the river opposite her house started to overflow she only had minutes to relocate her family to a safe location. “We spent the night at our neighbour’s house,” she explains. “We stayed until the water levels decreased. When it was safe to return, we discovered that all our belongings were caked in mud. We couldn’t salvage anything.”

  • Old woman sitting on the front porch of her old home

    Gunawathie’s ancestral house is over one hundred years old and was once home to her eleven brothers and sisters. It is now inhabited by Gunwathie’s ninety-eight year old mother who had been asleep when the floods came in. “There are no men in our family to help. I had to carry my mother up the hill so she wasn’t washed away with the river. She has a broken hip and cannot walk properly.” Fortunately, Gunawathie’s mother was also a recipient of the LKR 30,000 cash grant and used most of the money to buy food, medicine and rebuild parts of her damaged home.  

  • After several days of waiting until the water levels decreased, Gunawathie and her family returned to their houses, attempting to rescue what was left from the debris. The cash grant helped pay to fix damages around her house as well as her daughter’s residence, located close-by. Immediate needs such as food and bottled drinking water were also purchased. “We had to buy new school books for my granddaughter,” she says, describing how the money was also used to buy new kitchen equipment and fix several broken doors. 
    “We were absolutely helpless,” she says, “The cash grant supported us when we were desperately in need. My tea-shop was destroyed so we had no income for a while. The food we bought kept us fed until I was able to go back to work. Some of the money was used to fix my shop once the rain ended.”

    “The money from the cash grant helped us get back on our feet again,” Gunawathie says. “It will be a while before life goes back to normal but for now, we’re safe and that’s the only thing matters.”