She advocates womenís rights
Iriyagolla, is well known for her activities in rehabilitation,
welfare and humanitarian work. The Nation met her to learn more
into her personal life and to share her life long experiences
she has gathered as one of Sri Lankaís pioneering female
Following are the excerpts:-
By Lakna Paranamanna
Q: Can you tell us something about your childhood?
A: I was born In Badulla, and my father was a government
servant. We came to Colombo after the second world war to do our
studies. There were six siblings in my family; two boys and four
girls. During that generation, education was the most important
factor. So, for my primary studies, I entered Nalanda Vidyalaya.
During the period of war, it was moved into Minuwangoda, we were
very small then. Then, for higher examinations, I entered
Musaeus College. The religious background in the school was
something that my father gave preference, as much as the
standards of education. I think that is why he sent me to
Q: Can you tell me something about your experiences after
A: I entered University and I graduated with a General
degree. It was during those times that, I got engaged to my
husband. After my graduation, I was offered a job at the British
High Commission as a translator. Since I couldnít adjust to the
working hours, I didnít accept it. So, I applied for teaching. I
was chosen and my first appointment was at a school in
Kudabuthgamuwa. I taught Political Science, Sinhala and English
for almost 20 years. I got married several years after that.
After my marriage, I went abroad with my husband. During that
period of time, I got the chance to do my post graduate studies
at the Cambridge University. When I came back after my studies,
I continued teaching, but I got tired of it after a while, since
it became really monotonous. So, I retired and soon after my
retirement, I wrote a book on the British Parliamentary System,
as my students were requesting me to do so. I also got several
invitations from many political parties to contest for
elections, but I thought that, was not what I wanted to do.
Later, I realised that I had been right.
Q: How did you get the chance to join rehabilitation, welfare
and humanitarian activities?
A: Some friends came to visit me one day, and told me that,
it was the proper time to start an organisation for women. They
had wanted to create something substantial, to give our
knowledge, and to make better use of our education and use it in
a fruitful manner. I encouraged them about the idea, but I
didnít accept the invitation they made to initiate a movement of
that sort. Again, after another four months, they came back and
invited me. This time, I accepted the invitation. The Sinhala
Womenís Organisation started in 1985, was the result of the
acceptance of that invitation. Our main motive was to look into
the welfare and rehabilitation of the troops and the IDPs of the
war affected areas, in the North and the East. Ever since 1986,
we were providing our services to them till 2006. We were able
to help the volunteer soldiers, the army troops and the IDPs and
nurse them, with the support and the assistance of the donors.
During President Premadasaís times, he recognised the service
and did a lot to help these people. So, he appointed us for the
NGO Coordinating Committee, for the North and the East and gave
us a lot of patronage. I am so happy to say that, through our
services, we were able to make the lives of the soldiers less
Q: What are the other ventures of your work in humanitarian
and rehabilitation activities?
A: In 1994, we had to cease operating as the NGO
Coordinating committee, due to changes of the government. But,
we stretched out our helping hands to the war affected people in
a different approach. They had no privacy, no education; they
were above all, homeless. We carried out a project, to train
young girls and made them teachers in the camps, so these girls
could educate the younger children of the camps and help bring
them up. We worked hard specially for the betterment of women.
We were also able to organise a network, throughout the camp, to
save young girls from indecent overtures, which was a common
misfortune, the young girls in IDP camps had to face. We trained
other women in carpentry and masonry and by the end of the
training, we had built 10 houses. We also had a project for the
widows, which enabled them to earn an income for their living,
through selling poultry and harvesting. We also carried out
several other projects to help the Tsunami affected women. We
organised programmes to mend their minds and to train them in
fields like small enterprise and leadership. Females of all
religions and communities got together with us, in all these
ventures and gave us their fullest support, to fulfil our
Q: You have said that the representation of women in Sri
Lankan politics is less. Why do you say this?
A: Sri Lanka is a country, which needs more participation of
women in politics. I have been able to create a fair amount of
awareness among the public, about this matter, but still, there
is more, we need to do. There are women, who have working
capabilities and I think it is now time, for them to be given a
chance to try their abilities.
Q: With all this work going on in your life, you must have
hardly had time for a personal life. How did you manage your
role as a wife, a mother and now, as a grandmother?
A: To tell you the truth, it was really hectic at times. But
as my children grew and my husband became more supportive, my
work became much easier for me. It was mostly in the nights,
that I had free time to spend with my family, but I somehow
adjusted my time, so that I could be with my family. But after
my husband fell ill, it was a very hard period for me. But after
he became better, even he became much more understanding of my
work. It was very tough at first, but we somehow, managed it.
Q: Among this multi facetted career of yours, as a teacher, a
writer, a trainer and an activist, which one do you like most?
A: Writing! There is so much one can do through writing. But
time is the only reason that prevents me from writing. I really
enjoy doing it and I have six manuscripts which havenít been
published yet. I think more women should write, so we can create
more awareness, throughout the society about matters concerning
Q: How was the support that you got from your husband for
A: My family and my husbandís family were friends, since we
were small. My brother was a good friend of my husband. But, as
I mentioned before, I only got to know him properly, after
entering the university. We had so much in common. I used to
share everything with him. I was very close to him and I miss
him so much. He was very understanding and very supportive. Even
though he didnít like me taking up this job first, after he
realised and saw the service we provided, he became very
Q: What sort of activities are you hoping to organise in the
A: I am currently working in the UNDP, I have so much in
mind. But, at present, I am working on a programme to upgrade
the standard of housemaids and make it a more dignified job. We
are hoping to start the training programme for them, by July.
Q: If you hadnít chosen this field, what would you have done
with your life?
A: I would have definitely become a writer, or else I would
have become a traveller. I think I crave for those two
opportunities because, I am a person who likes to gather
knowledge and absorb it, in spite of the source, I gather it