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SMC professors visit Sri Lanka

Megan O'Neil | Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Five Saint Mary’s professors presented a slide show and discussion Monday on a group summer research trip they took to the war-torn nation of Sri Lanka, just off the southern coast of India.The professors, from various academic departments, toured and met with women leaders in Sri Lanka. The trip was sponsored by a grant from the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership.”What we were trying to do was visit different projects to see how women were trying to change society,” CWIL fellow and participant Meredith Sarkees said. Sri Lanka has been plagued by ethnic conflict since 1972. The extremist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, was a major player. On Dec. 24, 2001 LTTE signed a cease-fire which ended armed conflict. The repercussions of the war however, continue in daily life, particularly for women.”The problem is with conflict, a lot of women have been abandoned by their husbands, or their husbands have been killed,” religious studies professor Anita Houck said.Single women, generally the most at risk in Sri Lanka, have been forced to re-examine and re-invent their roles in a post-war society. The biggest question, said Houck, was whether women will maintain the elevated status they were given as soldiers during the conflict.”The LTTE did retain that level of autonomy,” said Houck. “Just for women to ride a one-speed bike was a huge thing and not really accepted in the Muslim community.”The participants visited several educational and vocational centers for women. Residents worked together to weave mats to support themselves.The trip also included a visit to an orphanage for children whose parents were killed in the conflict.While they never heard gunfire, the tension of violence was constantly in the background said business professor Susan Vance. The group was stopped twice at military check points where soldiers searched through all of their belongings. The experience Vance said, gave her a sense of what life is like in politically unstable countries. “It certainly changed my world view, we are so isolated here,” said Vance said. “To go to a country that has been in war for 20 years was really eye-opening.”One of the presentation pictures showed a large billboard warning motorists to avoid land mines and stay on the highway. “The problem with landmines is that they are cheap,” Vance said. “There are still a lot of land mines in Sri Lanka.”The participants are currently working on a report that will be presented to CWIL. They also anticipate utilizing the information gathered during the trip in the classroom. “I certainly anticipate using a lot of this in my teaching,” art professor Marsha Rickard said. “I think all of us in some capacity will find this knowledge filtering out into the community.”