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Off-Screen Activist

After the Tsunami, Sri Lankan Star Is Helping Women Rebuild Their Lives

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page C01

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka

She was born in a shantytown and sold as an orphan for about $1.50.

She had a child out of wedlock in a country where that was two miles past taboo. She later endured a brain aneurysm that left her with a shaved head and a year-long bout of depression.

Renowned actress and social activist Swarna Mallawarachchi will visit refugees next week to talk about sexual and domestic violence as part of the United Nations' efforts to educate women. (Neely Tucker -- The Washington Post)

So when the grand dame of Sri Lankan cinema begins a tour of refugee camps next week -- urging impoverished girls and women to protect themselves from rape and abuse in the tsunami's aftermath -- they will know Swarna Mallawarachchi, and she will know them.

In a career stretching over four decades, she has portrayed women who have been killed, raped, beaten, forced into prostitution and, in one of the most famous scenes in national film history, run over repeatedly with a car. She has also punched, kicked, connived and fought back in those films with a vengeance. She is Sissy Spacek on speed.

She has won the nation's best actress award 19 times.

She has been voted the most admired woman in the country. The president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, finished second.

So it's really not surprising, in this second act of her famous life, that Mallawarachchi is planning to ditch her glamorous role as presenter of the best actress award in the Sri Lankan equivalent of the Oscars next week (the event was originally set for Dec. 27). Instead, in the role of a national spokeswoman for a branch of the United Nations mission here, the fifty-something actress will head off to a series of grimy shelters to speak to some of the nation's poorest women in a time of crisis.

"It's just not proper to hand out pamphlets to women and tell them to take care of themselves when they don't even have a sheet of plastic over their heads," she says, speaking from her desk at a local nonprofit organization. "We have to almost brainwash them into thinking about the future, into thinking about what's ahead, not what they've lost. I'm going to them empty-handed. I want to hear what they think."

It's anyone's guess how much rape, abuse and violence against women is taking place in the temporary shelters at schools, temples and camps that have sprung up since last month's tsunami killed more than 30,000 here and made hundreds of thousands homeless.

The worry, however, is that in a country where domestic violence and widespread incest are kept under societal wraps, many women will be too intimidated or too ashamed to come forward. Before the tsunami, more than 800,000 Sri Lankans had been displaced in two decades of civil war, and women in those refugee camps endured much. With long periods of homeless and transient living looming, there are fears that abused women just won't know where to turn.

"If you talk to the police, there are no reports [of rape or abuse] in the camps," says Malathi de Alwis, the UNICEF representative here for sexual abuse and gender-based violence. "The medical officers say they have seen accounts, but they're too inundated to deal with them. . . . There's a very general sense of unease. Women in the camps won't talk about it directly, but will say, 'I don't want to leave my daughter alone here.' " Enter Mallawarachchi.

To go by one name is the cultural norm here, but Swarna Mallawarachchi has achieved the sort of single-moniker fame -- as Swarna -- that goes with the likes of Cher and Madonna and Oprah. She'll step up to the microphone and talk about whatever it is that people don't want to talk about, and do it in such a straightforward and unapologetic manner that it engenders admiration instead of irritation.

"She's the Meryl Streep of Sri Lanka, and women simply flock around her," says Kumar Rupesinghe, head of the Foundation for Coexistence, a nonprofit organization here that employs Mallawarachchi as a public relations director. "She's been through a lot, and women really identify with her on and off screen."

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