Sister Christine Fernando has never been one for remaining within the confines of the walls of her convent. She regularly walks across the Sri Lankan city of Katunayake, known for hundreds of garment factories. On her walks, Sister Fernando meets many women in need, including garment factory workers. The nun from the Sisters of Charity congregation is acutely aware of the systemic poverty and discrimination the women face. The nun says it is her duty to help the marginalized factory workers who experience low wages and poor working conditions. Her work to empower the needy brings her much happiness and joy. "The young women migrate from rural areas to seek better employment opportunities, help their family members and all of them are Buddhists," said Sister Fernando. The garment industry accounts for the second-largest inflows of foreign capital to Sri Lanka. So, young women move to the cities in search of work opportunities and a better existence. However, in reality, they are often met by harsh living conditions, including forced labor, sexual harassment, a lack of support from trade unions, and no opportunities to speak out.
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Women make up around 85 percent of Sri Lanka's industrial workforce and the majority of them are aged between 25 and 30 years of age. Typically, migrant women earn a paltry 15,000 rupees (US$233) per month, even with overtime. The nun says many of these young women fear renewing their contracts and confrontation with management. Sister Christine Fernando visits Pulakudiyiruppu village in Mullaitivu Jan. 9, and listens to the grievances of the women and takes notes. (ucanews.com photo)
Sujeewa Pushpakumari, 45, a teacher and mother of three from Kandy said, as a former garment worker, she is grateful to Sister Fernando for her support. "I started work at the garment factory in 1991 and got to know the sister in 1994 [when she began her work]," said Pushpakumari. "Many of the women experience sanitation, safety and security issues, poor quality living conditions, as well as sexual harassment when they come back to the boarding houses after their night duties," she explained. Sister Fernando visits the boarding houses and listens to the problems of the women workers. Usually, five to six women live together in a small room. They share a common kitchen and toilet and there is very little space between each bed to walk. So, Sister Fernando represents the girls by negotiating with the boarding house owners for better conditions. "Some girls were required to pay 50 rupees for the basin of water until Sister Fernando negotiated and reduced the amount," Pushpakumari said. "The nun educated the women about our worker rights which helped us to gain courage. Even as a graduate I lacked the courage [to speak out]. After working with the sister I felt stronger," she added. Another issue that Sister Fernando cares passionately about is helping the unemployed get back to work. The nun established a center called "Shramaabimani Kendraya" (dignity of labor). The center gives vocational training to men and women who have lost their jobs. Women learn the skills of baking, sewing, beauty therapy or media while the men receive training in electronics. Vincent Bulathsinghala, an attorney-at-law and human rights activist, said Sister Fernando has "faced many challenges along the way," in her pursuits of worker rights, freedom of speech, minority and religious rights, either from her congregation, the church, elite classes or politicians. Despite such resistance, Bulathsinghala, who has worked with the nun more than 25 years, could reel off an impressive list of causes for which she has fought, from helping political prisoners and people whose family members have disappeared, to landless people, farmers, fishermen, and people who are affected by development projects. When one of the garment factories called "Synotex" was closed down, 600 local employees lost their jobs. However, all was not lost. The nun was on hand to provide those affected with advice about the labor tribunal process and how to get compensation. Sister Fernando said "with courage and passion" she will continue her social work for as long as she can. "These workers treat me as their mother and share all their family problems, life stories and I help them as much as I can." "The work of the church should not only be limited to church goers," said the nun.