One of the first people from Sri Lanka to summit Mount Everest would like the world to know that it wasn’t an individual who did the feat.
Jayanthi Kuruu-Utumpala is a fervent mountaineer and a champion on behalf of the rights and interests of women. She was ranked among the most powerful women in Sri Lanka according to the Sri Lankan government in 2019.
In the summer of 2018, she walked portions of her trek along the Pekoe Trail – a new route that stretches through more than 300km of Central Highlands, a Unesco World Heritage site in Sri Lanka. The trip was, as she describes, an experience combining the two things she’s passionate about most: mountains and gender equality.
It is supported through the European Union with additional support from the US Agency for International Development to support Sri Lanka Tourism; the Pekoe Trail has 22 stages. Kuru-Utumpala has walked four of them, ranging from 13 to 16 miles, mostly on narrow pathways, with some overgrown sections for four days, staying in properties that are community-oriented, including an ethical tea plantation, and encouraging gender equality in Sri Lanka’s industry of tea.
Guide to travel Thushni de Silva (above, left) and Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala along the Pekoe Trail.
13. Stage 13 on the Pekoe Trail, accessible via Amba Estate. Photo: Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
Stages 13-16 of the Pekoe Trail are closest to The Amba Estate, which hosted Kuru-Utumpala’s expedition and, according to the traveler, is “an exception to the norm” that is “really changing the game” regarding the equality of gender and moral standards.
Amba Estate Amba Estate does more than just produce organic tea. It also has a guest house. Kuru-Utumpala was a guest in a “small but cozy and comfortable” room that was the estate’s original house. The house was built about century 100 by the earliest local families to start their tea company.
Similar to sailing back to the past from Malta to Sicily via yacht
“When the British introduced [commercial tea cultivation] to Sri Lanka, they brought indentured labourers from South India, who didn’t receive a salary – essentially slaves,” she explains. “I wouldn’t say that things have changed much, as many workers are still being exploited in some estates across the country.”
A gender pay gap has become an enormous problem in the tea estates of the region, as Kuru-Utumpala explains, citing the standard practice that women work from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. while men work between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. However, both are the same amount.
Another unjust but widespread practice in the tea industry in Sri Lanka is hiring employees by gender. As we see it, women are thought of as having solid fingers, making them better at picking tea leaves. “A nonsense stereotype,” Kuru-Utumpala says.
A natural swimming pool is located near Amba Estate in the Uva Highlands of Sri Lanka. Photo: Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
“Another popular myth is that supervisors are men only. This is not the case. have to be the norm. The world is changing and it is no longer acceptable to minimize the roles of women or consider them to be inferior beings.”
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In the Amba Estate, women are part of the management team and hold one of five chairs.
“Normally, If you’re a plucker, you’re simply a plucker. You don’t know what happens to tea after that. However, at Amba, everyone knows how tea is brewed and processed and what happens after it is planted in your cup.
Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala, as well as Simon Nihal Bell, who bought Amba Estate with three partners in 2006. Photo: Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
“This education is important for the employees to understand the value of the tea,” says Kuru-Utumpala.
“It’s maybe the only tea estate with a waiting list of people wanting to work there.”
She says: “Some of the other estates are losing people [ …] the younger generation is beginning to realise the exploitative nature of the industry.”
Pabasara Manathunga, her dad (left) together with the Kuru-Utumpala as well as Nihal Bell, from The Amba Estate. Photo: Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
While on her journey, the adventurer ran into the 26-year-old entrepreneur Pabasara Manathunga. Samanala Farm, her company Samanala Farm, produces artisanal teas and herbal infusions, which can be exported as far as Singapore in Singapore and New Zealand. Manathunga has provided rural jobs for women from the region.
“I was really inspired by her story because she’s from the rural town of Haputale, where stage 13 of the Pekoe Trail begins, and not an urban city, where you have more access to opportunities,” Kuru-Utumpala says.
“She, her father and her sister all joined us on the trail, and her father was from the area, so he had a lot of knowledge regarding the history of trees and the various sites we passed.”
Kuru-Utumpala took a walk from the tiny village Liyangahawela, “where you can observe the locals farming, on neatly laid-out terraces, vegetable plots of leeks, carrots, turnips, cabbage, and lettuce,” and then walked past an abandoned shelter that has “a stunning view,” an old Hindu temple, and a Eucalyptus forest.
Chandrika Sriyani of Happy Horizon Homestay, in Ella, Sri Lanka. Photo: Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
A Sri Lankan breakfast at the Happy Horizon Homestay. Photo: Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
She also stayed at Happy Horizon Homestay in the city of Ella.
“The homestay concept is distinct from a guesthouse. It’s more comfortable, and you can connect with your family.
“Chandrika Sriyani, the host at Happy Horizon, started because of Karen Robertson, an Australian-born woman who had lived many years in Sriyani’s village.”
Robertson began renting one or two rooms in her house to guests. When the women in her neighborhood noticed and began to inquire about how to run the homestays of their choice.
Robertson’s Waterfalls Homestay is next door to Happy Horizon.
“It resulted in a group of women who ran homestays from their homes. Today, many years later there are many women operating their homestays on their own, in their homes as one of the families’ primary sources of income,” adds Kuru-Utumpala. “It’s something the husband and wife would do together, too.”
Kuru-Utumpala has said women’s rights have been a primary concern for the past 20 years, and she’s keen to hear the stories of local women who are championed.
“I will always discuss gender stereotypes and incorporate gender-specific narratives into the narrative, as many boys and girls have approached me and told me that my story and experience have encouraged them to pursue their goals no matter what society says.