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People

acts of war, acts of peace, acting for equality

by Sierra Bacquie | September 21, 2005

When Regi David was 14 years old and living in the midst of Sri Lanka’s bitter civil war, her family’s home was bombed. She quit school to volunteer as a community health worker with a Quaker-affiliated non-governmental organization (NGO); within a year, she began full-time work with the Poorani Women’s Centre.

Regi and her colleagues provided support and counselling to women who had been raped, lost family members, or suffered other horrors of war. The community workers organized women in 34 villages in the area around Jaffna – in the small island nation’s far north – and ran meetings aimed at fostering personal independence, and providing training in skills such as carpentry and masonry.

“I first met Regi in 1989 in Colombo, the nation’s capital, where she and a group of young women from Poorani Women’s Centre had arrived for a march to commemorate one of the centre’s co-founders, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, who had just been assassinated by a group of militants,” says Marilyn Weaver, a Canadian community-development worker who spent many years in Sri Lanka. “Regi was 15 years of age at the time, and I was struck by her confidence, sense of purpose, and obvious leadership abilities.”

The civil war raged. Regi provided support to survivors of rape (whom the society ostracized). She pressured government workers to fulfill their obligations and provide widows with death certificates, so that they could receive compensation. She distributed medications to people in the refugee camps in Colombo, and organized a peace camp for children. When the rebels appeared at the gate of the women’s centre, she required that they lay down their arms.

These were dangerous times. Regi put herself on the frontlines.

When she was 17, the police stormed Regi’s home in the middle of the night, arrested her and several of her family members. The group was held – without bail or explanation – for 12 days. Upon her release, family and colleagues suggested that Regi was not safe, and that she may in fact be putting others in jeopardy. She heeded her family’s advice and fled Sri Lanka.

Regi moved to Munich, Germany – the city where her brother lived. Soon after her arrival, she found work at a daycare centre and started a community drop-in with a Sinhalese colleague. Connecting with the local Sri Lankan community, she organized a group of Sinhalese, Muslim, Tamil and German women to work together for peace.

Regi ignored the anonymous warnings she received that her efforts to bring “enemies” together were not appreciated.

One night, as she headed home, three men stalked the 19-year-old and beat her so badly that she required a two-day stay in hospital. (She still has little recollection of the attack or the aftermath.)

Staying in Germany was no longer an option. Learning of the remarkable work she’d done, and of her desperate need to leave, the United Church of Canada – with support from Amnesty International and other groups – agreed to sponsor the young woman to immigrate to Canada.

After moving to Toronto, Regi once again quickly found work as a community activist, helping mobilize non-unionized immigrant workers. When she learned that domestic violence and isolation were leading many Sri Lankan women to suicide, Regi devoted her “spare time” to do even more community work. Regi has been employed at the Workers’ Action Centre since its founding.

(“By her third day in the country, she had studied for and obtained her temporary driver’s license,” recalls Weaver.)

Incredibly, since arriving in Canada, Regi has organized:

  • the support group Justice for Sri Lankan Women;
  • workers around the issue of poor conditions in factories; and
  • helped organize the Sri Lankan community in support of David Miller’s campaign for Mayor of Toronto in 2003.

Once, she even found herself sharing the stage with the presidents of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), the Canadian Auto Workers’ Union and Amnesty International at a Toronto conference.

“Regi has an amazing capacity to motivate people to get involved. She helps them feel empowered to fight for their rights. And she builds long-term relationships of trust, and inspires people to get involved and stay involved,” enthuses colleague Sonia Singh.

So, what is the source of this unusual degree of confidence, altruism and bravery?

Regi David responds with characteristic modesty. “I grew up in a family of six girls (and four brothers). There was never any suggestion from my mother that we would not be active members of society.” However, it was the attitudes towards women – that they were not as good or as competent as men – that Regi witnessed in the society at large and among those she knew that sparked her “I’ll show them” attitude.

Now married and a mother of two, Regi continues her efforts to support women – here in Canada and in Sri Lanka. She has sponsored several of her family members to immigrate to Canada. “Regi continues to face life’s challenges with strength and courage,” says Marilyn Weaver. “I could think of no better role model for any woman.”

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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