- Shanmugam did psychosocial work for adults and children displaced by war in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces, and became more intensely involved when she worked with Save the Children Norway (SCN).
- She took a leading role in designing programs and doing research, training, and counseling in projects aimed at building capacities for psychosocial support in war-affected schools and at helping war widows, orphans, and traumatized children.
- When Sri Lanka was ravaged by the horrendous 2004 tsunami, which left 31,000 confirmed dead, Gethsie trained eighty school teachers in a government pilot program to provide a supportive environment for traumatized children.
- In electing Gethsie Shanmugam to receive the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes “her compassion and courage in working under extreme conditions to rebuild war-scarred lives, her tireless efforts over four decades in building Sri Lanka’s capacity for psychosocial support, and her deep, inspiring humanity in caring for women and children, war’s most vulnerable victims.”
Three decades of a brutal civil war in Sri Lanka have left a hundred thousand dead and hundreds of thousands abused, tortured, detained, and displaced. A hidden cost but one that runs deep is the psychological impact of this war on people in the conflict zones, particularly women and children. As regards children it is estimated that the war killed 35,000; one in every four children in conflict areas lost one or both parents; and 300,000 were displaced. Given the lack of psychosocial support systems, the wounds of war will remain unhealed and lives will continue to be destroyed even as conflict has abated.
One woman has heroically devoted her life to meeting this problem. Gethsie Shanmugam had an otherwise unexceptional beginning: a member of the country’s minority Tamil community, daughter of a clerk in a British tea estate, she attended a private girls’ boarding school and chose to become a teacher and counselor. Teaching at St. Joseph’s College in Colombo she pursued an interest in psychology and worked as a volunteer counselor at the Family Services Institute and Subodhi Institute of Integrated Education, at a time when professional psychosocial work was still in its infancy in Sri Lanka. In 1983, after retiring from St. Joseph’s, she did psychosocial work for adults and children displaced by war in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces, and became more intensely involved when she worked with Save the Children Norway (SCN).
Braving bombings, searches, and threats of arrest in the conflict zones, Gethsie crossed the Sinhalese-Tamil divide as she did counseling work, collaborated with colleagues, and trained teachers and NGO workers. As the Tamil-speaking expert within SCN, she took a leading role in designing programs and doing research, training, and counseling in projects aimed at building capacities for psychosocial support in war-affected schools and at helping war widows, orphans, and traumatized children.
After she left SCN, she continued to be active as consultant and volunteer in organizations working with women and children suffering not only from war trauma but also domestic violence, alcoholism, and sex trafficking. As psychosocial consultant and child rights advisor to Eastern Self-Reliant Community Organization she led in establishing a pioneering temporary home for young people victimized by abuse and in trouble with the law. When Sri Lanka was ravaged by the horrendous 2004 tsunami, which left 31,000 confirmed dead, Gethsie trained eighty school teachers in a government pilot program to provide a supportive environment for traumatized children. Learning various approaches and methodologies from training experiences in different countries, she experimented with small, simple ways to build psychosocial resilience adapted to local conditions and the lack of trained professionals; and actively disseminated her learnings through publications and the mass media.
Despite extreme difficulties and the challenge of balancing her work with her responsibilities to her own family, Gethsie, even in her advanced years, has continued to work in the field, using what resources are available and working even without compensation, in her individual capacity or with organizations. Her deepest reward, she says, is seeing children she had helped grow to become better, happy persons.
Working quietly but relentlessly, she trained hundreds of psychosocial practitioners and countless of teachers, and helped change the lives of countless women and children. From working one-on-one with children to building the capacity of Sri Lanka’s psychosocial sector, she is truly amma (“mother”) of her nation’s children. Calm, wise, and self-effacing, she says, quite simply: “I did not do so much, just a drop in the ocean. But those drops are important, and I hope there will be many more to help society grow.”
In electing Gethsie Shanmugam to receive the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes “her compassion and courage in working under extreme conditions to rebuild war-scarred lives, her tireless efforts over four decades in building Sri Lanka’s capacity for psychosocial support, and her deep, inspiring humanity in caring for women and children, war’s most vulnerable victims.”
Vice President of the Philippines Maria Leonor Robredo, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, members of the Magsaysay family, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.
The Ramon Magsaysay Award affirms the spirit of humanity that endures even under the most difficult of circumstances. My work with children and adults living with war, disaster, and other hardships has shown me that even in the context of terrible violence, loss and suffering, there is always the possibility of growth, caring, and hope. Life cannot only continue despite pain and hardships, but can take on new meaning and purpose.
Working in war-affected Eastern Sri Lanka in the mid-1990s, I saw how, with encouragement and assistance, children on the small tidal island of Nasivantheevu found the courage to negotiate with the warring parties to allow safe passage for the bus that took them to school, enabling access to an education that would transform their lives.
I met a soldier who had lost both his legs in combat, who had thrice considered suicide, and could hardly bear to sit with a member of another ethnic group. I witnessed how, through personal contact, this young man was able to set aside his anger to care for an older woman from a community he deeply mistrusted.
Working with widows suddenly thrust into new roles in a society that stigmatized them, I saw how women’s determination and hard work enabled them to overcome challenges to secure a life for themselves and their children.
Whether working with children or adults, with individuals or groups, my 4 decades of experience has taught me that healing and transformation always starts with the person. For people who are in deep pain to begin to heal, it is essential for them to gain self-awareness and acceptance, which in turn shapes their capacity for healthy relationships with others or even towards themselves. This kind of personal growth is often something people overwhelmed by suffering find difficult to do for themselves, but with support and loving care from another human being, like the beautiful lotus that emerges from the mud, these people can be helped to bloom despite the pain they have experienced.
As individuals, we often feel that we can’t do big things. But we can do small things. All change starts with a person. When one person becomes brighter and relates to others with genuine love, then small groups of individuals can form around them, creating small ripples of change in the world.
I believe that each of us is a tool for the healing of ourselves, for the healing of others and for the healing of the societies we live in. No matter who or where we are, we can play a role in making the world a kinder and better place. This is the message that I would like to share with you all. Thank you.