It is not the export of tea, but the export of women housemaids that brings Sri Lanka the highest foreign exchange earnings, said Nilita Vachani at the screening of her documentary ‘When mother comes home for Christmas’, on Monday.
The World Bank has estimated that in 2015, Sri Lanka received US$7.2 billion in official remittances, equivalent to 8.7 percent of the country’s GDP, underpinning Vachani’s claim. In 1996, 73.48 percent of departures from Sri Lanka for foreign employment were females, out of which 92.47 percent were housemaids. In 2015, the situation has changed to 34.44 percent of female departures, out of which 81 percent were housemaids.
The documentary, screened at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai (ACJ), throws light on the struggles faced by Sri Lankan migrant women. The film depicts the life of Josephine, who comes back to Sri Lanka from Greece, after staying away from her children, Suresh, Suminda and Norma for about eight years.
“When Josephine met her children at the Colombo international airport, there was an initial euphoria of a reunion, but soon it disintegrated. Norma felt that her mother only cares about her brother, Suresh. There were sibling rivalry and a lot of tension in the family,” Vachani said.
Josephine left to Greece when Suminda was just two years old. The film shows how it affected Suminda’s childhood, elucidating the psychological issues faced by children whose mothers leave them in early ages.
A study commissioned by the SriLankan Government on the psychosocial issues arising from labor migration noted that a mother’s migration for two or more years will affect a child’s personality development.
Moreover, since the execution of the 24-year-old Sri Lankan housemaid, Rizana Nafeek, in Saudi Arabia in 2013, for the murder of a four-month-old baby, the issues of migrants have become a matter of concern for human rights groups, the Lankan government, and the citizens.
The documentary shows that, despite these problems, Josephine, who doesn’t own a house, had no choice other than migration, to bail her family out of the financial problems.
Speaking about how Josephine reached Greece, Vachani said, “Sri Lanka never send them to Europe. Instead, they send them to middle-east. They had contracts with middle-east, paying US $100 a month for working 24*7. Josephine ended up paying US $4000 to a smuggling chain to get Norma in Greece.”
The film, which was first released in 1996, had been screened in numerous film festivals, including the London Film festival and the Toronto film festival, and also has won the best documentary award twice. ( In Festival dei Popoli, Florence, 1996 and Festival Internazionale Delle Donne, Torino, 1997)
When asked about the challenges faced while filming the private life of a person, Vachani said that Josephine wanted the film to be released and shown to her children, so that they will understand what her life was there in Greece.
Vachani added that, in fact, the biggest challenge was language.
“Josephine’s mother tongue is Sinhala, which I don’t know. So I was forcing her to speak in English, which she wasn’t comfortable. This was the first documentary I made, which I didn’t know the language of characters. So, editing, especially subtitling in English was a herculean task,” she said.