Selvamalar never gave up on her dreams

Selvamalar survived a civil war, started her own business to become the breadwinner of her family when her husband left her and now employs other women in her community.

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Selvamalar, 43 Sri Lanka Food Storyline

Selvamalar survived a civil war, started her own business to become the breadwinner of her family when her husband left her and now employs other women in her community.

Ilankumaran Selvamalar is a 43 year old mother, a survivor, a cook and an entrepreneur. She had to flee from war twice, she and her two children were abandoned by her husband and she was destined to work as a maid or a factory-worker. But Selvamalar never gave up on her dreams.

"My mission is to support women who need to support their households, as my mother was one of them, and I am one of them. I know how hard life has been."

She started her own business

In 1987 Selvamalar fled the Sri Lankan civil war for the first time. She was settled in a refugee camp, together with her family. After going back and forth from her hometown to the refugee camps, Selvamalar and her children moved back to Mullaitivu after the cessation of conflict in 2009.

Back in the camp, Selvamalar was working in a factory to be able to take care of her children. In her village there were not a lot of job opportunities. Women were merely destined to work as a maid.  “I wanted more and was eager to do something that could inspire both my children and other women around me. I still had the skills I learned in the factory, and I had the idea of starting my own production.” says Selvamalar. Through the Lasting Change fund provided by CARE, she managed to  build a kitchen and to get the necessary items for her food production.

She bought a quarter acre plot of land, to build her home and start her business in 2012. Her choice for the type of business she is running was strongly influenced by her prior work experience, considering she had worked in a company that made a traditional spice mixture and because of her experience in working as a cook in a hotel. These experiences prepared her for her business because they provided her insights into the process of making mixtures and of running a business.

In her community it is not common that the woman is the breadwinner. People did not expect Selvamalar’s business to be particularly successful, simply because she is a women. Against the odds, her business quickly flourished and the snack industry was revived. Even though her entrepreneurial behaviour wasn’t always appreciated by the people in her community, she needed to become business minded, which is often associated as a behaviour that is assigned to men. But Selvamalar did not care. She managed to grow her business into the success it is today.

She inspires others

She employs seven other women, who come from the same challenging situation as herself. All women she employs are single women who face the same challenges as Selvamalar once did. She is determined to employ more women in the future. “As an entrepreneur, my mission is to support other women and I am so proud to be able to say that there are women who have benefitted from me in many ways. I define the growth of my business by the number of employment opportunities I can provide to women like myself.”

Selvamalar has great plans for the future. Of course to grow her business, yet she mostly wants to improve employment benefits. She will be introducing health and insurance plans for all employees, and increase their basic salary. Selvamalar explains: ‘Over the coming years, we are looking to increase the number of employees to make sure we benefit as many women as possible in our community.’

Women in Enterprise

Ilankumaran Selvamalar is a participant of the ‘Women in Enterprise’ programme, funded by the H&M Foundation. Through our local partner Chrysalis, CARE Nederland is able to provide funds for women-led enterprises in Sri Lanka.