Selvi and her husband Mahendran have been married for 22 years and live in Negombo. Together they have two vibrant young daughters; Madhushalani (20) and Swetha (16). Residing with Selvi and her family is Selvi’s grandmother, Raakamma who will be celebrating her 99th birthday in December. All five of them live in a small home temporary structure, which has been their home for the part 20 years. Built on 3.5 perches of land donated to them, Selvi and Mahendran built their makeshift home with wooden planks borrowed from their friends and family.
Over the years, what started out as a temporary solution has turned out to be their permanent home. Their small home made out of wood planks is a basic rectangular room which has been divided into several small spaces. Covered with tin sheets and partitioned with curtains, the small home has a tiny living area where the family gathers to watch tv in the evenings. All five of them also sleep in the same area. A small area to the back of the home has been allocated as the kitchen. They do not have a separate toilet and a small space inside the kitchen has been partitioned into a make-shift toilet. The roof of this temporary home has been in danger of collapsing for many years, and since Selvi and Mahendran do not have the finances needed to rebuild the roof, it is currently held up by a tree bark that has been tied to a nearby wall.
Selvi and Mahendran live in constant fear that their temporary home will collapse at any time. Especially when strong winds and rain storms occur, Selvi narrates how terrified she and Mahendran are with regards to the safety of their two daughters, “I have covered the half-built walls with sheets as I have two daughters, and we are constantly terrified that someone will enter the house and attack our daughters.” Their house is also prone to get flooded during the rainy season and destroying many of their belongings.
Mahendran doesn’t earn a stable income as he is a daily-wage labourer who works as a mason whenever work is available. On a good day, he would be able to earn up to LKR 3,000. But this income alone is not sufficient to cover the expenses of the family, the children’s education and Raakamma’s medical expenses. For many years, Selvi had no choice but to remain at home to care for the young children and her aged mother, however now that the children are older, she tries her best to earn a little extra income by selling lunch packets and taking on small-scale sewing orders. Now that Madhushalani has completed her Advanced Level examination, she has recently found employment at the local Laundry. She will be earning only a meager income of LKR 15,000, but she is still excited to be able to contribute towards the family’s income even in a small way.
Even though Madhushalani was a keen student and had dreams of pursuing a higher education, Selvi always knew that this was not a dream she would have the luxury of realizing, given their financial circumstances. Troubled by her family’s financial situation, young Swetha is eager to start working as soon as she completes her Ordinary Level exams this year, rather than continuing her studies. Mahendran and Selvi are both disheartened by this situation because they always had high hopes of educating their daughters, empowering them and enabling them to build themselves a life with less obstacles.
Even though Selvi and Mahendran qualify for financial aid from the government as a low-income family, they do not receive any welfare/Samurdhi benefits, due to an error of the local government authorities. The only welfare benefit they receive is LKR 1,250/- which is the benefit Raakamma’s is entitled to.
The nation-wide lockdown due to the Covid19 pandemic from March to May 2020, really added to the financial burdens of low-income families such as Selvi. On the 17th of March, the day the lockdown was announced, Selvi recalls that Mahendran only had LKR 2,000 which he has earned that day. With that small amount of money Selvi had bought a few rations that she felt they could manage with for a few days, not knowing that the lockdown would be in place for many months. Although they received packs of dry rations from local politicians on two occasions this was not sufficient to feed their entire family for two entire months. There were many days when Selvi and Mahendran went hungry while ensuring that the girls and Raakamma had something to eat.
A new home will no doubt give Selvi and her family the strength, stability and self-reliance they need to break the cycle of poverty and look at a future where their entire family can live in a safe and healthy home.