Seetha Mela* felt uneasy when she enrolled in a media course for young women in the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee, far from her home in the interior of Sri Lanka’s Eastern Porvince. Living in a segregated Sinhala community, she had rarely encountered other communities. Her fears were by no means ill-founded.
For decades, Trincomalee suffered from the country’s conflict that prevented different ethnic and religious groups from interacting openly. Language barriers further exacerbated suspicions, deepening the separation between communities.
With the end of the 26-year conflict in 2009, the need was clear for journalists to explore challenges faced by local communities. Working with a local organization—People’s Service Council—USAID helped 15 young women like Mela undertake media training from September 2010 to February 2011 in Trincomalee. As part of the six months journalism course and a three months IT and language course, young female “aspiring” journalists from different ethnic, religious and geographic backgrounds received training on language and computer skills, thus improving the quality and scope of their reporting skills.
“For me, this course has been the best gift I have ever received,” said Mela. “I have met many young people who are from different ethnic backgrounds and from outside my village. This course, which I could not have afforded on my own, has brought me a lot of exposure into other cultures and people. I never dreamt of experiencing such diversity. I am very thankful for this opportunity and hope to make the best of it.”
The course also provided much-needed cultural exposure. As a Buddhist, Mela was able to attend a Hindu religious ceremony. “We might have different religious beliefs, but that didn’t prevent us from taking part in the ceremony. This kind of activity, apart from the course work, helped us understand each other’s backgrounds better and definitely helped us to forge stronger relationships,” she said.
In consultation with the students and media experts, USAID has also sponsored a series of workshops in electronic and print media, focusing on news reporting, media technology, investigative journalism and studio use. With guidance and editing from mentors, young students are developing 15-minute documentaries for local radio stations and preparing articles for newspapers.
Mela’s friend Reema Sheila* notes that sharing ideas and experiences with other students helped increase her understanding and awareness of problems faced by residents of rural villages.
“Thankfully, I am more aware of the problems faced by those in remote villages and how these problems impact their lives now more than ever before. For someone like me who has lived all my life in a city environment, this has been quite an eye-opener,” said Sheila. Her exposure to rural communities has strengthened her resolve to become a news reporter and report on their challenges.
Despite the dangers of media work in today’s Sri Lanka, young women journalists like Mela and Sheila are determined to pursue careers in the field.
*Names changed to protect privacy.
Last updated: September 11, 2013