Rupa Manel Silva, 49, has come a long way. Born into a humble family in a remote village in the hills of Bandarawela, Rupa was compelled to give up her education after her O-Levels. Her father passed away when she was only 16 and the family found it difficult to support Rupa's schooling any further. Married shortly after that, she and her husband moved to Narahenpita, a suburb of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo in 1978.
Today, Rupa is an international awardee - a recipient of the Annual Award for Community Development Empowering Women. The award was conferred on her for her work in community development and women's banking, by the Geneva-based Women's World Summit Foundation at a ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland, early this year.
Recalling her transition from the salubrious hills to Colombo, Rupa says, "A representative of Sri Lanka's Women's Development Service Cooperative Society (commonly known as the Women's Bank, an independent bank open only to women between the ages of 18 and 54 years) contacted me and asked me to form a women's group. Initially, together with the women of my community, we formed a group of 14 women, paying a mere LKR 5 (US$1=LKR 112) per person, per week."
This contribution was paid to the leader of the group, who paid all the subscriptions of her group into the bank, which were then noted in the pass book that each woman constituent was given.
These women's groups were started in March 1989 in three suburbs of Colombo - Kotte, Narahenpita and Rajagiriya. Today, however, they have extended their reach throughout Sri Lanka. Each group of around five to 15 women selects a leader, who understands the background and the needs of each family member and who is responsible for giving a loan for a purpose that is seen to be a deserving one.
As the leader of Narahenpita women's group, Rupa encouraged poor women to begin saving regularly, no matter how small the amount, and thus establish a basis for loans. "As a result of our meeting regularly and speaking to one another, we began to address problems - forming networks for education, nutrition, helping women during illness and even during marital problems. This made the whole banking concept wider, more focused on the immediate needs of the women, the family and ultimately on the community as a whole," she explains.
Describing the average beneficiary, Rupa says, "Some of the women were given suitable training and employed in small-scale soap production enterprises, or as hair dressers and as data entry operators. They found jobs for themselves in various parts of the city. Some were house-bound but were able to use their money to make breakfast foods and sell them to small restaurants in their neighbourhood. Some women had husbands who were employed, while some had husbands who were drug addicts (largely on heroin). Whatever they did or whatever their circumstances, the women never failed to pay their subscription or attend a meeting - and the best part was that there was no opposition at all from the men."
By 1994, Rupa was able to extend the network to neighbouring areas and support the establishment of women's groups in places where life for most women meant only housework, cooking and raising children. Her work soon began to make an impact on the lives of many women from low-income settlements. "We have always urged women to think of more lucrative ways of earning money using the loans from the women's banks. We want to wean them away form traditional jobs which have a limited market, like making handicrafts and weaving lace," elaborates Dilrukshi Neluka Arachchige, 34, a women's group leader. Dilrukshi, an active member of the women's banking movement, lives in a low-income settlement in Rajagiriya.
The women's banking movement has certainly helped transform lives, including that of Rupa herself, who is today the chairperson of Women's Bank. Mud houses have changed into modest brick homes with electricity and running water. Many women have learned basic reading and writing. They are beginning to even imagine the possibility of a pension: a member can calculate her monthly pension based on her savings and the years of membership, with the Women's Bank offering the same interest rate as that offered by commercial banks.
As Rupa puts it, "A bank that protects our hopes and dreams, that is made up of our own hopes, is vital for rural women like me. It is an immense social and financial net that protects those dreams."
On the recommendation of the Sri Lanka office of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and UN Habitat (UN agency for human settlements), Rupa applied to the World Women's Summit Foundation (WWSF) of Geneva for the 2007 award. She was one of the four finalists. "I was so proud to be the only Asian among the finalists and elected as the winner when I was invited to Geneva on Women's International Day in March this year to receive the award," she reminisces.
Rupa was felicitated with a cash award of US$500, a badge and an intricately woven Indian shawl with the WWSF emblem embroidered on it. The Secretary of WSSF presented the award to her. Making the occasion even more memorable was the fact that she was selected as the best speaker, after she addressed a large gathering there about her work among Sri Lanka's low-income communities. It was an overwhelming moment for Rupa with not only her husband and children but also the whole community rejoicing with her. She has many plans for the prize money, but being a banker she is prudent and will first get her priorities right. At the moment, the money is safely deposited in her account at the Women's Bank.
So what has been the impact of women's banking and the contribution of workers such as Rupa? Sometimes figures say more than words: the Women's Bank today has 65,000 members. It has 16,000 women's groups active in 21 districts attached to it, and has a capital of 800 million rupees (Sri Lankan).
Sums up the awardee, "These figures are important, but of greater importance is the way women have gained power, unity, awareness of their rights and how best to use those rights. Personally, I have learnt valuable lessons especially as there is a mixed ethnic group in my settlement - Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims - who now work together in harmony."