She helped rebuild war-scarred lives



For someone who has spent four decades trying to help rebuild the war-scarred lives of women and children in Sri Lanka, Gethsie Shanmugam still believes in young people, who, she thinks, will create a world far better than what she has seen.

“I don’t know how but something in me sees the youth—not only in Sri Lanka, but everywhere—create a new world, a new way of living,” said Shanmugam, 82, a former teacher whose work among women and children who are victims of violence and war in Sri Lanka has won for her a Ramon Magsaysay Award.

“They are going to live in a world that is getting very fast, so they might not go for this bickering, this fighting, or being selfish, I hope,” she said.

“I believe in the young people. They will do something, a drop that will add up to something to fill a bucket,” she added, her brimming optimism unexpected from someone who had seen war kill an estimated 35,000 children in over two decades in Sri Lanka, where one in every four children in conflict areas lost one or both parents, and where 300,000 people were displaced.

Creativity, imagination

But Shanmugam, whose first name is Tamil for the biblical name Kezia, spoke about how much of her work navigating through war-torn Sri Lanka involved lots of creativity and imagination.

She recalled crossing the Sinhalese-Tamil line at the height of the fighting to counsel women and children in the conflict zones.

“We wanted to keep the children safe, but we can’t even talk about that,” Shanmugam said.

To enter the war zone, she said, one should avoid talking about war.

“It also helps if you’re already (an) aged (woman), you earn some degree of respect,” she said, smiling.

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