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When the only meeting place available in a village is a tamarind tree, you know you will have to share the shade. This is certainly true of the one Youth Club in Soodaikudah in Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee district.

Jagadeeshwaran Suwarna and Ganeshkumar Sujitha are among the young people who would gather under the tree in their village, but they often found themselves bumping up against other people who needed it too – this included not only the local Grama Seveka and Rural Development Officers, but Public Health Midwives as well other clubs and societies.

VILLAGE IN THE MAKING

This is very much a village in the making. Even as homes are still being finished, community infrastructure is scarce. Suwarna and Sujitha’s families were relocated here in 2013 but it was 2016 before most of the new construction was complete. Prior to the move, they had been displaced for 10 years which made the relocation particularly challenging.

The long conflict had gutted their livelihoods and many in this area still need support from the state to find their feet. The community experiences serious water shortages for several months of the year, preventing farming families from making an income. Youth, in particular, face multiple challenges.

CHALLENGES TO FACE

“We have no employment opportunities, and we are living as dependents,” says Sujitha. She explains that those looking for work must brave a long commute to the closest town. This can be a challenge in itself: the roads turn to mud in rainy weather, public transport is erratic and unreliable, and wild elephants have attacked people travelling on foot.

Other problems are social and cultural in nature. “Girls are married off at a very young age here,” says Sujitha. Women in the family way can also struggle to access regular healthcare – the midwife assigned to them is a temporary one, and if they missed her monthly visit, they would be forced to travel 12km to the nearest hospital to get medical advice. 

ONE STOP COMMUNITY SERVICE CENTRE FOR ALL

Some of these problems are easier to resolve than others – when this community was selected for support under European Union funded Catalytic Support to Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka programme, it was decided to renovate the largest hall in the village and turn it into a ‘One Stop Community Service Centre.’ The centre would serve as a hub, offering multiple vital services under one roof.

The €8.1 million European Union (EU) funded Catalytic Support to Peacebuilding programme in Sri Lanka is being implemented by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) in partnership with a range of state and non-state partners. UNDP and UNICEF worked closely with their partner organization Peace Winds Japan to help restore this centre for the community.

As you enter, a small section has been blocked off and turned into a classroom where children from Soodaikudah can attend a Montessori. Other rooms have been converted into an office for the Grama Sevaka Officer and the Rural Development Services (RDS) officer. 

TIMELY INTERVENTION

Pathniyan Sujanthan who represents the RDS in Soodakudai says the hall was completed initially in 2015, but that it had no furniture and was not usable. It fell into disrepair until UNDP intervened.

Now he is here four days a week. “Before I could only stay for a few hours,” he explains, adding that people who needed to apply for ID documents or access social safety net schemes would have to catch him in time. As part of livelihood support programmes, he is also in charge of dispersing goods, such as seeds or saplings. Previously, he had nowhere to store them but today, there is what looks like a small nursery on one side of the hall. Villagers are able to pick up the plants at their convenience. 

Public Health Midwives meet with women and their children in a room next door. Women come here to find out more about sexual and reproductive health and to receive care during their pregnancies. Other services include information on nutrition, vaccination and supplements for young children.

Pathniyan says an unexpected bonus has been that coordination between his department and the Ministry of Health has improved.

A BURST OF INSPIRATION

“Now that I spend more time here, I am now getting to know all the families in this village and am able to understand their needs better,” he says, explaining that of the 83 families in the area, 62 receive some form of livelihood support from UNDP. He says they plan to raise funds for the maintenance of the building through renting it out – now locals can get married in their own village instead of having to book a hall in another town.

For the Youth Club, the RDS centre has offered a burst of inspiration. In the past, they’ve organised outreach programmes, sporting events and health awareness campaigns on a small scale. Now they say the new space is giving them ideas for other projects. “We would like to become a formal organisation and get recognition from the National Youth Council,” says Sujitha. “When the Youth Club cannot meet, all of us are scattered, with nothing to do. Now we can change that.”

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