In 1984, Ms. N.G. Kamalawathie, a young Sri Lankan woman from a lower income, rural background, ventured out of her family home to seek a job and independence in the capital, Colombo. A childhood bout of polio had left her with permanent mobility impairment. Hence, she faced many impediments, and often needed to create her own opportunities and cope with various struggles.
This led her to campaign for improved public access for people with disabilities, but she found it difficult to get her lone voice heard.
Recognizing the strength in numbers, in 1989 she formed the ‘Sri Lankan Federation of Women with Disability’ along with five others.
Inspired after attending the UN Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 and brimming with new ideas on organisation and mobilisation, she established AKASA on the 30th of December 1995, re-organising the erstwhile federation. At that time, it had 36 members.
AKASA started by conducting a survey on the opportunities, projects and services available for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities in Sri Lanka. The survey covered 10 Divisional Secretariats in different provinces of the country, focussing specially on areas where community based projects had been implemented. The survey revealed that rehabilitation opportunities were very scarce. Further, community participation, especially of people with disabilities and their family members were neglected, in the implementation of the projects.
Women with disabilities in Sri Lanka were often confined to their homes, over-protected by their families yet isolatedby a society that stigmatised them. They had few opportunities for economic, social or cultural participation in society and little sense of self-worth. Change begins with self-belief. AKASA embarked on a process of mediation, aimed at a drastic change in the attitudes and behaviour of women with disabilities and female family members of people with disabilities, so that they would be empowered to organise themselves and demand their rights. This would-be organisation was envisaged to become a power block of women with disabilities, and one that would fill the identified void of participation, by people with disabilities, in their own rehabilitation activities and services.
AKASA trained 371 mediators in 10 Divisional Secretariats between 1997 – 1999. Initially all the mediators were non-disabled women, but now, the mediators are a mix of women and men, with and without disabilities. The mediators identified women with disabilities or women with family members having disabilities, and talked to them and their families about possibilities open to them. Gradually this was opened up to men with disabilities and their families too.
The survey revealed that the situation for people with disabilities was worst in the Anuradhapura District, especially in the war torn villages. Hence AKASA decided to locate itself here, and opened the project office in Talawa on 1st June, 1998. On the same day, a vocational training centre for young women with disabilities was opened adjacent to the project office. Both premises and the buildings were donated by the Government. The buildings were bare granary storehouses and were converted to office and vocational training facilities, with minimum resources.
From 2004 until early 2008, AKASA managed the running of a residential home, (on behalf of the Ministry of Social Services, North Central Province), for orphaned and abandoned girls and women with mental impairment in nearby Saliyapura until its turn over back to the Ministry last February.
In 2007, AKASA joined and participated in a South Asian Project (together with India &Bangladesh) to create spaces to advocate and communicate rights for women with disabilities. Also in the same year, AKASA started programmes and activities for mental health clients in Anuradhapura and Puttalam Districts.
Today AKASA has over 3200 members, organised in a bottom-up approach, beginning with small groups of 4-8 members within a village. Up to eight of these small groups within a village form a village group or association. Elected representatives (President, Secretary and Treasurer) from village groups within a Division combine to form a Divisional group or association. AKASA has 13 full-pledge Divisional networks in the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa Districts of the North Central Province. These groups form valuable support systems, and give its members the opportunities to discuss individual problems, help each other find solutions, organise collective actions, etc. AKASA supports the groups with skill training, a micro-credit fund endowment for self-employment development, and interventions to improve their quality of life.