Kirupalini, 32, runs her own weaving business selling beautiful handwoven garments to markets in the capital of Colombo over 300km away, as well as to buyers in other regions. But behind her smile and this strong looking woman, there is a different story of daily struggle and a past clouded by growing up during Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war. Aged 19, she was hit by shrapnel from a bomb blast and has a visible welt in her arm as a daily reminder. Marrying her school friend at too young and age she was abandoned while only three months pregnant. Today her son aged nine suffers from a brain injury and attends a special needs school. She glows with pride when she speaks about her son and pulls out her phone to show pictures, adding: “I am father and mother to my son and now, thanks to my business, I can buy him what he needs.” She has also become President of the Special Needs Society where members can save money together and share their experiences and support one another.
Although Kirupalini’s 70-year-old father is a weaver, she chose to learn the trade through a training programme run by Chrysalis. She explains: “During the training we each had to make ten six-metre saris in two months. I made mine in one month.” Her speed and accuracy is clear, even to the untrained eye, as we watch her working the loom. Following the practical training she was given a hand loom by Chrysalis, through CARE’s Women in Enterprise programme, funded by H&M Foundation.
With her newfound skills, Kirupalini trained her sister on the new handloom after which her sister also received her own loom. Adjustments were quickly made to their home to fit in the new looms, which has now reached four. They have now developed a small weaving collective, consisting of her father, sister, a neighbour and Kirupalini. Chrysalis continued to support Kirupalini through training where she learnt bookkeeping and marketing and grew in self-confidence. She explains: “Before, I thought that all income was profit, but thanks to the training I learnt how to separate my income from my profit. I used to be afraid of talking in front of others but now I have the confidence to speak out.”
Her public speaking skills are now being put to good use as she has become President of the Pandiyankulam Weavers Cooperative. Thanks to her business she has also been able to take out a small bank loan to buy a motorbike which she uses for marketing and to transport raw materials.
Kirupalini is deeply proud of all that she has achieved against the odds, adding: “I have proved that a woman-headed household can have the same standard of living as a male-headed household.” Her advice to other women thinking of setting up a business is: “If you have a chance, you have to take it. Have perseverance and love your work!”