Three young students studying for their Masters in Social Work from St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore flew over to Sri Lanka in late April 2018 to study the contribution of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working in post-conflict Sri Lanka. Due to close relationships maintained with academic staff and students of St. Joseph’s College, the Alliance Development Trust (ADT) was approached by these young students who sought assistance to gather data and information needed for their course work. Thus, while their classmates flew to the United States of America and some travelled across their own motherland, Neetha, Arundathi and Deepika headed to the neighbouring Sri Lanka.

They were referred to the ADT by Prof. Kiran Jeevan who has taken part in exposure visits conducted by the ADT with his former students on two previous occasions. As students in community development, Neetha and Deepika hoped to gain exposure to community work and understand the various issues communities are faced with, especially in a country which has lived through the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the 30 year armed conflict. As one who studied the medical and psychiatric aspect of social work, Arundathi was hoping to gain an understanding of the health challenges faced by those living in a post-conflict situation and the dynamics of how such societies function.

For the next month, they were placed at the heart of the ADT’s activities. The three girls were fully occupied and had to divide their time between attending meetings, writing out proposals and discussing upcoming campaigns. Somehow they also found the time to visit a few tourist destinations in Sri Lanka. During their visit to the Northern Province, they visited war memorials and war-affected areas and while in the South, they were able to speak to victims of the Asian Tsunami of 2004. Though this was the students’ first time in Sri Lanka, they already felt at home. Most importantly, they were comfortable with the areas of work allocated to each one of them which were tailored to their own areas of interest.

At firsts, Neetha, Arundathi and Deepika worked closely with the staff of the ADT at the head office in Colombo. They were each assigned to a staff member working on a particular project. Neetha worked with the Coordinator of the ADT on revising the organisation’s Child Protection Policy as her interest area was women and child welfare. Neetha’s expertise in this area was very useful; she was able to positively contribute towards the policy with inclusions such as the importance of regular medical check-ups for children.

As Arundathi was passionate to work with the ADT’s health sector, she was invited to join in strategising towards a new anti-diabetes campaign. She participated in the various meetings with doctors and other partners and was actively involved in the research work towards the campaign.

Equipped not only with academic but also practical knowledge on livelihood and agriculture, Deepika opted to join with an upcoming livelihood initiative. She was actively engaged in drafting a proposal for an agricultural project which she thoroughly enjoyed.

Following their work at the head office in Colombo, the three left for Vavuniya where they received an opportunity to interact with war-affected communities. They visited war memorials, other non-governmental organisations working with war-affected groups and also attended workshops on sustainability and planning which was conducted at the regional office in Vavuniya. The three also participated in meetings for self-help groups formed by the ADT and other female rural development groups in Vavuniya.

Neetha, Arundathi and Deepika believe that the highlight of their stay in Vavuniya was the medical camp in which they participated. The medical camp conducted in Vavuniya for underprivileged communities helped the three students identify several health and psychosocial issues that such communities are faced with. They identified a burning need for counselling and psychological assistance among several persons suffering from post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD) and for school-going children who complain of headaches due to exam stress. The girls were also concerned that a number of patients were diagnosed with scabies. Equipped with a questionnaire to identify the socio-economic conditions of the patients at the camp, the three students found the entire experience extremely educative and insightful.

During their entire stay of 30 days in Sri Lanka, Neetha, Arundathi and Deepika learnt many lessons that complimented the lectures that they attended as part of their curriculum. On the field, they learnt a practical application to the theoretical frameworks formulated within a classroom. The interaction with war-affected persons and the social workers who work towards alleviating the various socioeconomic issues of underprivileged communities proved to be an excellent learning opportunity.

Neetha, Arundathi and Deepika flew back home on 29 May where they will spend the next 15 days in preparation for their individual viva presentations. At this presentation they would express how they put into practice the theories they have learnt during their academic year.

The three were unanimous as they explained how surprised they were to know so little about Sri Lanka and the conflict that took place in a country that is so close to their own motherland. “It is very different to India!” they exclaimed. While Arundathi was fascinated with the medical care system provided by midwives in Sri Lanka, Deepika was impressed by the empowerment of female farmers. “The concept of supporting female farmers is something different; we don’t have that in India. Only males are considered as farmers in India.” Arundathi explained that there is greater social cohesion in Sri Lanka. “We have a lot of discrimination in India and here we see more equality” said Arundathi while Neetha added “When it comes to communities, women have more opportunities in Sri Lanka”.

Even though the girls could understand Tamil, they were unable to converse with the locals due to their inability to speak in the vernacular. Yet they did not feel as if there was a language barrier because the locals would nevertheless speak to them.

“It was a great opportunity to work with the ADT. We learnt things that we have never heard of” expressed Neetha, explaining that the workshop on Key Performance Indicators was something quite new to her. “Each session was fruitful for us” she said. “It was a wonderful experience for us” echoed Deepika while Arundathi explained, “we really like the work environment here”. All three of them will be taking these lessons they learnt during their stay in Sri Lanka back home with them.

Once they return to India, the students will prepare for their final academic exercise before they receive their Masters in Social Work. Thereafter, they have many aspirations which they wish to fulfil. Arundathi with her interest in medical social work, hopes to join a hospital or medical faculty. Deepika hopes to employ the knowledge and theories she learnt in farmer empowerment towards working with Indian farmers among whom there is a very high suicide rate. She also hopes to start an initiative of her own in agriculture where she can put to use all theoretical and practical knowledge she has gained. Neetha hopes to start up her very own NGO through which she hopes to work for the welfare of children and women. She was therefore very grateful for the practical and hands-on knowledge she received from her stay with the ADT. “I got to know how an organisation structure is formed” she said. Neetha went on to explain that the flexibility and the cooperation of the ADT staff helped her understand how an NGO should function. “I think it is very important that the staff of an organisation should be friendly and flexible. This is what I will take back.”