ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 38

Her wheels of fortune

Stepping on determination, to make life better for her children, Sunethra earns a living as a three wheeler driver

By Dhananjani Silva

She is a wife who is trying to support her husband and a mother who wants to give her children the best. With her husband away in West Asia, 40-year-old Sunethra Hemamali from Rajagiriya is fighting a lone battle of survival – as a woman in a man’s world. Her determination to support her family has made her take a bold decision – to find employment as a trishaw driver. However, she says with much bitterness, that the world around her is insensitive to her needs and blind to her hardships in life.

“My attempts to learn bridal dressing and sewing failed a long time ago even after spending a lot of money as I had no talent for these fields. I used to feel disappointed when I saw other women making a living by earning at least a small salary. One day, I came across a female trishaw driver near the Eye Hospital junction and she inspired me,” she recalled. “I had heard of women trishaw drivers in other countries but until I saw this particular person, I never knew that we too had women driving tri-shaws,” she said adding that she went to a driving school to get her licence.

Hearing about a People’s Bank’s loan scheme for seamstresses, Sunethra met the Bank Manager and convinced him to grant her a loan after insisting that she has the ‘courage and energy’ to drive a trishaw. She needed Rs. 270,000 and she obtained one lakh from the bank, and the rest by pawning her jewellery and borrowing from friends and family.

She says all this is for her two children, a 17-year-old daughter and son, just six years, as she wants to make their dreams come true. “They also like to live in a house with furniture and a tiled floor. They also like to eat good food and dress well. But, with the meagre salary that my husband earns I cannot manage. My husband too is going through immense hardships there, sometimes he is not paid for months and months. Neither do they allow him to come to Sri Lanka. So, I am in debt eternally,” Sunethra said.

And what is it like for a woman to be a trishaw diver?

“When I was a learner, being on the road among other vehicles was quite a challenge for me. But I somehow managed and now it is no big deal for me,” she says with a triumphant smile.

“I have a fixed hire -- taking seven schoolchildren daily along with my children. However, given today’s situation where there are so many abductions, rapes and murders it is dangerous to stop for anyone on the road. I am cautious when it comes to outside customers both men and women, and before I stop, I always judge the person and unless I am satisfied I do not take them into the trishaw,” she said.

Sometimes people try to bargain, and reduce the charge by half-something which they do not dare to do with male trishaw drivers, she says.

Sunethra is disappointed that she cannot park her vehicle at the trishaw stand near her house. “The other drivers objected and I did not receive the permit from the Kotte Municipal Council to park my vehicle despite repeated requests,” she laments. The ill-treatment that she receives from the drivers in this particular stand was obvious even to us as when we asked for directions to her house, they merely responded saying “do not listen to that woman’s lies.”

Sunethra says there are some trishaw drivers who cast remarks at her saying; “apita bade pahara gahanna awada? But there are also those who appreciate her efforts saying it is courageous of a woman and even help her to change a tyre or find parking space.

She also says with a smile that many are the instances where women in luxury cars and jeeps gesture to her as if to commend her action. Such instances bring a sense of satisfaction, she says, adding that she gets a lot of support from family members. “They never had any objections as they always knew I had the courage and ambition to go ahead,” she says.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.