Storming a male bastion | Sunday Observer

Storming a male bastion

Harshani climbing her crane
Harshani climbing her crane

It is a remarkable story. They have earned exceptional life experience to narrate of theirprecedential journey at a young age.

“Why don’t we go up and talk? Noise in the surrounding areas will not then disturb us and you can see where we work. Are you afraid? It is just a few hundred feet above the ground,” one of the operators suggested.

Her energetic and confident voice showed her enthusiasm for her work.

Listening to them at their work station was the best option as it authenticate what they are doing almost daily.

By following her suggestion, we climbed through the yellow ladder made out of thick iron bars. It took us a few minutes to reach an operational room of a rubber tyred gantry crane also known as a transtainer.

When on the crane our eyes caught the beauty of the surroundings of the Colombo Port. Our fear of heights disappeared as our eyes caught the blue coloured waves decorating the Indian Ocean and slight winds countering the heated air.

We began listening to them and their stories. We spoke to four of the ten women crane operators employed by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Formed in 1979, the SLPA is one of the largest state institutes enriching the nation and is counting days for its fortieth anniversary later this year.

The Port of Colombo ranks as the highest container growth project in the world. It handled over seven million containers last year.

Poojani hails from the coastal areas of Sri Lanka and joined the SLPA three years ago when she was 19-years-old. She is the youngest crane operator in the port and most probably the youngest in Asia.

“I never thought that I would get an opportunity to join the most efficient state institute in the country. My father always encouraged me and taught me how to stay strong under any circumstances,” Poojani said looking at the horizon of the Indian Ocean through the glass window from her operational cubicle on a transtainer.

There are three types of transtainers deployed in the Colombo Port. Poojani and her colleagues are well equipped with knowledge and experience in handling them without any hassle. Their achievement is the result of the long journey of women who struggled for equality, fraternity and dignity by overcoming challenges in a male-dominated society.

Poojani, Sewwandi, Harshani and Udeshika are present day representatives of the long journey of women’s struggle for freedom. They have their own stories to narrate and are proud of themselves. Working for the SLPA is not just an employment opportunity for them but a revolutionary milestone in the course of the emancipation of women.

“It was challenging at the beginning as the men thought women were weak and will not be able to do what they had been doing for decades. Especially in a place like the port, how could a woman handle a sky-scraping crane, they questioned. We must, thank the high officials for taking this revolutionary decision to recruit a group of females as Crane Operators in the Colombo Port,” Poojani said.

Ensuring gender equality in the work place the SLPA recruited a group of females as Crane Operators. Although 25 females joined the training program only 10 remained at the end.Those who left, gave up due to various reasons. The 10 who courageously faced the challenge, were deployed at the Jaya Container Terminal of the Colombo Port.

“The target is to handle 25-30 containers per hour and we are doing that,” Poojani said while levering a container. “Like in any other field, the beginning was a sort of a mix of excitement of winning and fear of failing. Working with others looking at you was indeed challenging.

“I am happy adn proudly say that we are an active part of enriching our country. When we learn that the Port has become one of the best on Earth, we feel delighted by recalling our contribution,” she said.

Like for the men working in the port, for Poojani and her colleagues too there is a long journey ahead. Every drop of sweat they shed will fill the golden pages of the history of the port.

Harshani hails from a Colombo suburb, said that being a crane operator was way beyond her dreams.

“I never thought I’d do this job as it was classified for men. But, when we received training, we learned how to break that old myth, that of the impossible. We were taught how to cope with technical and ideological barriers established in society,” she said.

“The gentlemen who trained us, corrected us whenever we made mistakes. In a very short period of time, we proved our capability and efficiency just like our male colleagues. We are safe and we are proud,” she said.

The Colombo Port as one of the oldest ports on Earth has witnessed many historical events. Located in a strategically valuable position, the Port represents a significant space in the global maritime industry.

Sewwandi and Udeshika then shared their experiences. Their fathers worked in the Colombo Port and so it was’nt a new place for them. However, they never thought that one day they will operate this high-rise crane and handle tons of weight containers.

“Life with the Gantry Crane has already become an inevitable part of our life. It is, I believe, not an exaggeration to say that home has become secondary to the Gantry Crane. Our world is here,” they said. These females are showing the world how to change tradition for the betterment of mankind.

The world is changed not by those who obey and follow caged traditions but by those who think and act differently with compassion and discipline.

Their passion, courage, self-belief, commitment, bravery, and conviction towards their ambition make their life meaningful, makes it possible for them to override barriers and be successful. It is indeed demonstrated by every step they take to move forward and every word they speak to share their hope.

These young women stand tall, taking responsibility by proving their efficiency, reliability and capability just like men or even better.