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Being honoured on a national level is always something to be proud of, and Rebecca Abeysinghe is one of the newest recipients of the Deshamanya award, one of Sri Lanka’s highest national honours awarded by our government as a civil honour. The Deshamanaya is awarded for “highly meritorious service”, and with this award, Rebecca joins ranks with the likes of Deshamanya Latha Walpola, Deshamanya Radhika Coomaraswamy, and numerous others who have been recognised as a “Pride of the Nation”. 

Rebecca is the Founder and Director of the “Smart Works” charity organisation, working with single mothers from disadvantaged communities towards improving their quality of life. Hailing from a family of five, Rebecca is the middle child. A past student of Methodist College, Colombo 3, she pursued her higher studies in law, which, according to Rebecca, was incidentally where her love for social work was born. She shared that they were exposed to a lot of charitable work under the able guidance of their lecturers who truly instilled in her and her fellow law students the important values which she has gone on to truly treasure to this day.

Rebecca recently concluded her master’s in business law and is currently reading for the state bar exam. She is currently interning under President’s Counsel Dinal Philips while focusing on her charity Smart Works.

A beacon of hope for middle children everywhere, we sat down with Rebecca for a chat about her life’s achievements. Having received such recognition and a prestigious accolade at such a young age, Rebecca shared with us her journey, having been recognised for the work she has done for the Sri Lankan community and disadvantaged persons across the island. 
You are now part of the very exclusive club of Deshamanya award recipients. Can you please share with us the road that paved the way to this moment?
The Deshamanya award, quite simply, was a title bestowed to me for the social work I’ve carried out, the most significant of which was my work at the Vajira Home – which is a home for children who had been exposed to and affected by the civil war in Sri Lanka. I engaged in activities that involved teaching English to the children residing there. It was a learning experience for me as much as it was for them. I can’t put into words the exposure to undiluted reality that this brought me. I commend this home for being one that is no respecter of race or creed. It is a haven to any child, of any race or religion. If I’m not mistaken, it is also the oldest children’s home in Sri Lanka.

My membership in the Eye to Eye project, which is an international charitable entity that seeks to give hope to students with learning and attention issues, created within me an interest to partner with organisations that carry out such commendable endeavours. Hence, I also became actively involved in the voluntary arm of United Nations (UN) Sri Lanka, better known as V-Force, whenever possible to contribute towards making a difference.
Not many have experienced this kind of honour. What was it like to receive this award – can you recall the day of? 

It was 22 March. I remember looking around the room and feeling intimidated by the seniority level of those who were receiving this award along with me, but I also can’t deny how blessed I felt and still feel, being honoured with an award of this kind at my age. 
I wasn’t a star student in school, nor was I the most popular one, so I had nothing much to be proud of in my schooling career, and that certainly took a toll on my confidence. 

But I’m thankful to Jesus through whom all things are possible and for this title that speaks on behalf of me, which has also undoubtedly added credibility and value to me as a person and the work I do. I had never in my wildest dreams hoped to be awarded recognition of this magnitude; I can’t help but feel immensely thankful.
When we are young, we all aspire to be great, but you have actually achieved these aspirations. What inspired you to choose this field of work?
More than what, it was who inspired me to get into charity work. It was none other than my parents. In addition to growing up in a Christian home, I’ve always been inspired by the kindness they’ve shown to both strangers and acquaintances by either word or deed. 
I could never forget the day my mom and dad carried out a very simple act of kindness in the spur of the moment that has remained with me even to this day. Heartbroken over a boy who was begging outside a store, my parents took the boy into the store and bought him whatever he wanted. Inspired by this, I remember buying bags of toys for girls and boys during Christmas and distributing it to any child I saw on the streets. I’ve seen my parents giving, out of their abundance and even in their lack and so, truly they are absolutely responsible for the heart that I carry for the less abled. 
You’ve mentioned that receiving the award has led you down even more avenues and pathways that allowed the opportunity to lend your services to those in need. What have been some of these projects that came your way?
The type of work I’m doing now is actively endeavouring to empower the lives of single mothers in our community to thrive through our charity Smart Works – of which I am the Founder and Director, together with Koshala Dissanayake, who is also a Director and Shenal Abeysinghe, who is the Financial Manager.
Having closely associated with the single mothers we support, I’m more convinced than ever before that single mothers are the unsung heroes of our community, and that’s why I consider myself immensely blessed to be able to make even the slightest of difference in their lives.

Through Smart Works, we seek to support single mothers primarily by delivering groceries enough to hopefully last a month, and we try hard to make sure that their monthly groceries are taken care of by us. Additionally, I do my best to support them in whichever way their needs might manifest; that ranges from endeavouring to get them back into employment, spending time listening to them, actively promoting their homemade businesses that help to fund their children’s education, etc.

The two most recent projects that I’ve launched through Smart Works are the “Us for Her” campaign and a fundraiser to enable a 13-year-old girl to get back to school. The Us for Her campaign is a gesture that encourages communal support towards single mothers, where people would send us photos that include a quote intended to uplift a grieving single mother. We print these out in the form of birthday cards that are sent out to the single mothers we support.

I’m absolutely passionate about the work that’s been done through Smart Works because I’ve seen and read about the negative impact that ludicrous stigmas of our society have had on these women. Can you imagine being a victim of domestic violence and not having the time to deal with the physical and mental strains of it all because you have to fend for your children with little to no support? I fail to wrap my head around that and that’s why it is my contention that I need to strive to be that support system to the best of my ability.
The work you have been doing via your charity Smart Works is primarily targeted towards specific groups of disadvantaged communities. What have been some of the challenges you’ve faced in your attempt to make change happen?

Due to Covid there is quite clearly a surge in the number of disadvantaged people. The most affected of whom are the daily wage earners. From personal experience, it must be stated additionally that there is also a disadvantaged community of battered women, which is a fact not spoken about enough. I’m told that helplines are far more vigilant owing to the expected flooding of calls for help and counsel. Research reveals that 52% of the Sri Lankan populace is women, and there are at least four rape cases alone on average daily, which should tell you that there are frequent recurring occurrences of violence taking place daily.

What baffles me is that these statistics are produced every year and yet our laws have not been improved to function as safeguards. There might be many more charities that would crop up in order to provide some solace, but the question is why aren’t we addressing the root problem? 

The law in Sri Lanka only recognises three forms of divorce, which, shockingly yet heartbreakingly, doesn’t recognise domestic violence as reasoning for divorce. In other words, our law criminalises the misdemeanour but fails to entitle the woman to legally remove herself from that position. This needs to change.

This specifically also happens to be a prominent challenge that is faced by the women we support. So to answer your question, the outdatedness and lack of effective laws have proven to be a challenge.
As a woman in a position of leadership, carrying out her passions, what are your thoughts on passionate individuals, particularly women taking point as changemakers, and do you feel that it makes a difference when there’s real care behind the work that is being done?
I think it’s commendable to see the work that women around the globe and in Sri Lanka do, especially given the constant criticism that women are exposed to. As Priyanka Chopra Jonas puts it, “we are women living in a man’s world” and this statement becomes more true every day. So, being able to rise above that and still continue to do what they do is laudable. Priyanka Chopra Jonas incidentally is also one female figure that I’ve always admired for the inspirational work she does. I believe that there is always an invisible yet very tangible presence of heart and warmth in anything a woman does, and I think that’s what makes it all the more beautiful. 

When people carry out work led by passion, that ensures that it is done with excellence and the true vision of it is quite easily achieved. Having said that, passion is also what I think will make the job happen, no matter the challenge. It’s never easy fighting against all odds and to keep going when no one is rooting for you, but I know for certain that passion can do that which applause can not.

Nonetheless, I think it’s so important that changemakers are given more recognition and exposure to be able to gather more support from people fighting towards one cause. Imagine what a difference that would make? I’m brought to tears thinking of single mothers who have got in touch with me wanting to support our work, just because they don’t want to see another woman going through what they went through. Some have made monetary deposits not because they had to, but simply because they wanted someone to know that they are all in this together. I think that there would be such a catalystic ripple effect caused if we decide to get behind just one individual trying to make a difference.
Any word of advice for young people who also want to get involved in the type of work that you do, and how best they should go about it?  
I would say the best way to go about it, is to just start. Smart Works was birthed in quite an ad hoc way. I had no idea what to do. Yet, just two months later, we’ve grown so much and have touched so many lives by the grace of God. More importantly, we’ve to this day had complete strangers come forward to want to get behind the work we do. You can’t be everything to everybody, but you can be everything to somebody.
If you’d like to get involved with Smart Works, we are constantly evolving so there will always be an opportunity for anyone to get involved. If you’d like to get involved by donating, the foremost forms of donation that are currently needed are groceries and finances, which you could simply email or message us about. We guarantee that every rupee is utilised for the furtherance of our vision. 
You’ve achieved so much in such a short span of time. What about the future? Do you have any plans?  
Yes. I’m looking forward to completing my studies, but charity-wise, we hope to extend our services and establish a counselling line for women. Additionally, I do have plans to form another charitable entity in Sri Lanka that supports mental health. 

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