Uplifting the lives of women, while reviving the forgotten palmyra industry


Women engaged in weaving Palmyra leaves

It is around 5 in the evening when we reach the handicraft training centre in Tharmakkenni, a GN Division in Pachchilaipalli, in Kilinochchi District. Seated on a mat outside the training centre, under soaring Palmyra trees – a common sight in this part of the country – a group of women are busy at work weaving long Palmyra leaves with their hands. Around them are an array of products; mats, temple baskets and hats, among others. Their colours are striking and vivid. Each piece is intricately designed. It is evident that much time and effort has been spent on their detail.

Highlights

  • The Project has helped facilitate the sustainable resettlement of returnees and reduce tension within and between target communities by improving their socio-economic conditions.
  • While improving income, the women are now able to sell their products at the outlet of the Palmyra Development Board in Jaffna, and are further empowered

These women are part of a group of 15 who have just completed their training in Palmyra product making, initiated under UNDP’s Vanni Rehabilitation Project of the Transition Recovery Programme. Funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the project aimed to facilitate the sustainable resettlement of returnees and reduce tension within and between target communities by improving their socio-economic conditions. With special emphasis on providing opportunities for women and youth to engage in alternate employment activities, the handicraft training sought to strengthen existing micro and saving systems among these segments of the community.

The group, which commenced training in April this year, includes school leavers, those from female headed households and the differently-abled. They range from the ages of 16 to 35. Eager to expand their opportunities, they explain that they are now looking at ways to improve their products as well as market linkages.

The handicraft training, aims to provide opportunities for communities, especially for women and youth, to engage in alternative employment activities. The three month training programme was initiated with the support of the Tharmakkenni Women’s Rural Development Society (WRDS), and conducted by two certified trainers from the Palmyra Development Board.

The training has provided new opportunities for the participants and helped empower them, says J. Pushparani. For most of them it is a means of earning additional income, while developing their skills and gaining new knowledge. It has also proved convenient.

Many women begin work here in the afternoon, around 2 pm and spend a couple of hours on their work. “This leaves us enough time to complete our household chores in the mornings,” says S. Puwanalojini Sinthalady, adding that she, like many others, help their husbands in the paddy fields before they come here.

“Now we can earn about Rs. 1,000 per week by selling these products. This is in addition to what our families already earn. It is sufficient for us to meet our daily needs,” explains Pushparani.

Yet, the significance of the training does not end here.

The women are quick to point out that the training has helped revive interest in an age-old industry. With Palmyra trees found abundantly in Northern Sri Lanka, years ago, Palmyra based products, ranging from sugar to fibre, handicrafts and even building material, helped fulfil the daily needs of the villagers of Tharmakkeni. Once a lucrative business, it was also the main source of income for many of the villagers here. Yet, as many of these products became readily available in the market, interest in natural products waned considerably. Today, the Centre incorporates both traditional styles as well as modern methods in their teaching.

The products we see are varied. Among them are the ‘pooja’ or temple baskets, which are used by pilgrims to carry flowers. They take about a day to complete. The group has just completed producing 40 such baskets for the nearby Kovil. They sell in their numbers during temple festival times, which is usually from around September to mid January.

The mats are also popular among villagers. They are sold at Rs. 150, while Palmyra woven hats, which take about a day to complete, are sold at Rs. 200. The ‘kulla’, a basket that is used to gather seeds, is especially popular among famers, while the colourful table mats are also in demand.

Once completed, these products are supplied to an outlet of the Palmyra Development Board in Jaffna. In addition, with their village located close to the A9, there is opportunity to attract more customers, especially those travelling to and from North and thus, ability to increase production and income.

Yet, challenges remain. The group is keen on establishing their own outlet in the vicinity. However, there is difficulty in obtaining land. “If we have an outlet, it would be easier to market the products,” says S. Yavanarani. 
In looking to the future, the women are determined to build on what they have already learnt. They are eager to improve the designs, introduce new and diverse products and market these to a wider group of people. It is with this zeal that Puwanalojini, Pushparani, Yavanarani and the rest of the group will come here tomorrow.