‘Herstories’ of Resilience and Hope

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” – Chimamanda Nģozi Adichie

Herstories project is based on the idea that generally, women and children are the most affected by war and peace. Yet, women’s voices are the least heard mostly because they are oral histories, and are hardly ever recorded. As it passes from their memory and ours, it will also vanish from history.

HERSTORIES attempts to address this gap, by collecting mothers’ narratives from the ground (South, East and North Sri Lanka). Primarily because mothers are guardians of memory – narrating stories, collecting photographs and keeping the family history alive – when a mother is asked her story, she speaks not only of herself but of her family, neighbours and village. As a result she creates a composite view of a time period, a place and a set of identities that is truly unique. Together, these lives of others even though very personal individual stories, create a collective set of narratives that add faces, names, places, character, hopes, dreams, challenges, strength, courage and ‘flesh’ to an era in Sri Lankan history that must not be forgotten.

It is important to hear all sides of the ‘story’ in as much detail as the narrator wishes to provide. The project is built on the idea that without oral histories, the gendered perspective of war, peace and security is inadequate. As such some of the more nuanced issues, needs and aspirations of women from all communities, can be left out or marginalised at the peace table.

The project is also built on the idea that reconciliation, must begin with empathy. The stories are full of strength and hope. The overarching view that emerges from the project is that war has cost us too much, and therefore people on the ground (North, South, East) are happy that it is behind us. In that, there is a fundamental human connection between these mothers from all ethnicities and across geography. The shared loss, even if the degree of suffering or experiences differ, encourages empathy for each other as mothers, and in the end, a sense of shared hope for a better future for their children.

A curated exhibition of 70 narratives traveled to Galle, Jaffna, Batticaloa, Colombo, London and Canada, with smaller exhibitions traveling to Kabul, New York, Sydney and New Delhi. At each location, we encouraged engagement with the material through dialogue and discussion.

‘Herstories’ contributes to the peoples’ history of Sri Lanka.

The Process

The project began in July 2012 and the data gathering continued through till the end of March 2013.

1. For initial access to rural women, community based organisations working on women’s development were contacted. These were selected based on prior working relationships with the team and on their reputation on the field.
2. Together with the local partners, a series of field visits were conducted to each location. First community meetings were held with women that volunteered for the project. They were told about the objectives of the project particularly why recording oral histories is an important part of preserving the cultures and histories of Sri Lanka.
3. The project gave neither compensation nor any other socio-economic benefits and was entirely voluntary. The feedback from these women has been that they volunteered because they wanted to share and preserve their life stories, request support and empathy from those who read it and because it is cathartic to reflect upon and share their lives with others.
4. Subsequent to the community meetings with women, each woman was visited at her home where their life stories were recorded through videos, photos, visual expression in the form of trees of life, memory-capture timelines and hand-written letters. The period of documentation was from August 2012 to March 2013.
5. Although the project’s remit is documenting women’s histories, where possible, we have connected the women and their families to other organisations doing socio-economic development, psycho-social work and to private donors for support
6. The women who have wished to remain anonymous have asked for their personal details to be removed while others have given express permission to be photographed or filmed, and to be publicly shared.
7.The original materials have been deposited as a permanent collection at the National Archives of Sri Lanka. The women themselves understood the value of sharing their story and depositing it in the National Archives as a testament to their own strength so that their and our children will be able to see the resilience and courage with which, for a time, ordinary people lived extraordinary lives.
8. The feedback option on this website is meant to enable Herstories to become a living history. By uploading stories onto the site it is hoped that this will become a repository for our shared history and shared hopes for Sri Lanka.

The Project Team

Radhika Hettiarachchi (concept, implementation and curator)
Shanthi Sachithanandam (Senior Advisor and CEO of Viluthu)
Zahira Ismail and Satgunarajah Sinniah (Viluthu – field coordination and financial/administration management)
Sharni Jayawardana (Photographer)
Vathesh Varunan and Asanka Rohana of November Productions (Videography)
Chandraguptha Thenuwara (‘Four Mothers’ sculpture based on the material)
Shanika Perera (minimalist graphics artwork)

Herstories Project is jointly implemented by Viluthu, Centre for Human Resources Development. On the field the project has been supported by FIRM and WDF in Vavuniya, Praja Sampath Surakeemay Madyasthanaya in Moneragala and Deva Sarana Centre in Kurunegala.

The project is funded by the Commonwealth Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund. Some exhibitions have been supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of UK, the World Bank and UN Women.

* Not all 285 narratives are on this site, nor are all Tamil and Sinhala translations (although available for all material) currently on this site. Uploading has been stopped, as the site will migrate and change within the next few months to incorporate more types of information*

** ‘Herstories’ is Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial **