Reading Time: 7 minutes

#WomenStories | She works without pay and that's alright with her. A young Sri Lankan mother describes her happiness

Story published on

 10 March 2019

#WomenStories | Two years ago today, Dinusha and Maleesha were married. He was 22, she was 19. Since then, their days have had a comforting ritual to watch: taking care of their one year-old daughter, Niki, and working side by side in a homestay owned by Maleesha’s grandparents. A work for which Dinusha is paid about 100 euros per month. His wife doesn’t get paid, which to my feminist ears sounds absurd, but to them, TO HER is perfectly alright. Sometimes, Maleesha takes her mother and little Niki and they all go to the beach. Dinusha stays behind, to mind the tourists. On their second marriage anniversary, this is the story of the first people I’ve met in Sri Lanka who told me their Happiness Story.

In a place where tourists come and go, frantically looking for places featured in their guidebooks, I arrived to stay put. I was in Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, famous for the World Heritage “Lion Rock”. Deep in my ‘staying put’ zone, I must have been such an odd sight that my hosts kept asking me what my plans were for the day. Seeing that, most of the time, I had none other than talking to them, they suggested popular tourist spots nearby. With a few exceptions, I remained on my porch.

That is because, coming from hectic Colombo, Sigiriya was the first time I actually immersed myself into Sri Lankan life, the first time I stayed with locals, witnessing how their days went by, how family members came and went from their frontyard that I couldn’t keep track of who was who. And the first time that I spent countless moments just watching them together, trying to comfort or spoil a toddler, minding their chores or trying to socialize with us, their foreign guests.

I was trying to piece out the “foreigness” in those moments, but, with a few exceptions, can’t say I found much of it. A young family’s life there looked a lot similar to that in my hometown, back in Romania.

How their story began

Women in Sri Lanka's politics
In 1960, Sri Lanka became the first country with a woman prime-minister

Still, now only 5,8% of seats in Parliament are held by women (UN Report)

Sri Lanka's Women
Sri Lanka is considered one of the more progressive countries in South Asia in terms of the situation of women

The country is ranked 80 out of 189 countries in the UN Gender Inequality Index

According to WEF, Sri Lanka is just about on the average pay gap

They met at her uncle’s wedding. The uncle married an American woman and then left for the States, leaving the green Sri Lankan Hill Country for the mountains and deserts of Utah. Since they haven’t travelled abroad, Dinusha and Maleesha say that the US would be a good place to start from – they could visit the uncle, who, lacking a Green Card, cannot come and visit them yet.

It only took Dinusha one month to talk to Maleesha’s father about marriage. Then, her parents discussed the matter and, having decided that he was a good boy, marriage was decided upon. She was 19, a normal age for a girl to marry in Sri Lanka, she says. They had a small party at the grandparents’ home and, thus, they started their family, which was soon to be joined by Niki, their daughter.

Little Niki playing on the floow, while I was talking to her parents

Caught on camera, some prejudices

Sri Lanka's Invisible Wounds
For a long time, Sri Lanka’s suicide rate was among the 10 highest in the world

According to the Government, 10% of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people suffer from some form of mental dissorder (NYT Report)

Of that, 800.000 of them are suffering from depression

Watching the conversation we had, I saw how my prejudices took over me every now and then: I observed myself unknowingly judging how young they married, how soon they started a grown-up life. I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why Maleesha would find it normal that, even though she worked side by side with her husband at the homestay, he’s the only one getting paid for it. “I’m not working, I’m just helping him”, she would insist.

But consider this: if a stranger came to you and bluntly asked you if you were happy, how long would your silence be? And what would you then answer? When I asked this question to this young Sri Lankan family, there was no hesitation: yes, they are happy. Why, I asked, always looking for recipes and big life tips to pass on. Turns out that, to them, happiness comes from a very simple thing that city life is missing now: community. They are all together. There are so many people in their lives that you simply can’t keep track of who lives there, who’s visiting and random people coming from the village to sell something.

It takes a village

This is something you see all across Sri Lanka. Accustomed to not having a safety net from the state, people here rely on their communities, their families. Colombo politicians are too far away from you, in every respect. Besides, they’re the ones who made the prices so high. They can’t possibly understand your life.

On the other hand, your uncle will always be a better help for you. That’s how little Nikki can roam around in the front yard. If her parents are not following her, there’s surely a cousin, aunt, grand-grandparent in her way. What a comforting way to raise a child, I thought. It does take a village, after all.

There is a subservience in the womens’ status here, that is true. But there is also a partnership in their relationship with men that comes less from ideas about gender equality and more from a practical need of sharing the day’s burden.

When life is hard and work is plenty, you have to share the weight of the day. It’s as simple as that.

Looking ahead

These are, then, Dinusha and Maleesha – they are young, happy, have a child (and would rather stop at one) and they have the support of their family. That’s Maleesha’s contribution to #WomenStories. That is their #HappinessStory.

When I asked what they would wish for her daughter, Maleesha did not need to think about it long: she wants Niki to learn both Sinhalese (the official language of the majority in Sri Lanka) AND English. But proper English, not only some grammar and no speaking, as Maleesha was taught in school. Then she will be able to have lively conversations with all those pesky foreigners looking for a hidden gem in their smiles.

Happy wedding anniversary, Dinusha and Maleesha!

If your travels take you to Sigiriya, you can find them at Riverside Lal Homestay.

Me and Niki playing hide and seek with a rusty nail 😀

Want to see more? Subscribe to my YouTube Channel!