In 1852 18 year old James Taylor left Kincardineshire to be an assistant supervisor on a coffee plantation on Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). He learned about growing tea when he visited India, planted his first tea garden in 1867 and established the first tea factory in 1872. When blight devastated the coffee plantations the estate owners followed Taylor’s lead and opted to grow tea.
Local Sinhalese farmers were forced off their land and displaced by the plantations. Unable to find labourers in Sri Lanka willing to work for a foreign master, the planters brought Tamils from India to work on the estates.
The Church of Scotland sent ministers to be chaplains and built churches for the Scots planters, like Scots Kirk in Kandy, but they did no outreach to the local people or the plantation workers.
Fast forward 150 years and you can still visit Scots Kirk in Kandy. The workers on the tea estates are Up-Country Tamils who are among the most powerless people in Sri Lanka.
Thirty years ago a remarkable, visionary woman Pearl Stephen began a women’s’ project in the garage at Scots Kirk. Her husband George was the minister. Out of that garage an organisation grew to become the Women’s Development Centre (WDC). Pearl set up a school for disabled children to provide special education and rehabilitation. Community development work included work with commercial sex workers who were vulnerable to HIV. But WDC is best known for its work with victims of sexual violence.
Pearl died in 2013 and her daughter-in-law Sashi has taken over the leadership. Like Pearl, Sashi combines total commitment to the girls in WDC’s care with a love and compassion that does not judge.
WDC can accommodate 50 girls and young women under the age of 16 who have been raped or abused. Some of the girls have been abused for years before they become pregnant. They may have been abused by male relatives when their mother was working in the Gulf. They may have suffered because of the breakdown in moral behaviour as a result of the brutalisation of society caused by three decades of war between the government and the Tamil Tigers.
When the Sri Lanka justice system gets involved the abuser is charged with statutory rape and the girl can be referred to WDC. Girls come from all over Sri Lanka, they include Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. They can stay until the court case is resolved, which can take a few years in some cases. Sashi and her co-workers help the girls care for their babies, train them in crafts and weaving so they can learn skills that will help when they leave. Parents of the girls come for counselling so they can rebuild their relationship with their daughter. Other girls are admitted to local schools so they can return to education.
Sashi and her team at WDC care for and heal girls who are vulnerable and often discarded by their families. It is impossible not to be moved by what they do. The people who built the Scots Kirk may not have cared much for the people who toiled on their plantations. But the work that began in the garage is compassion in action.