Image courtesy Transcurrents

It was a practical examination session for a training of gender trainers in the Jaffna district. The trainees had to conduct a day’s training on gender issues in a village called Thoppukkadu located in Karainagar. The participants were widows who were beneficiaries of a livelihood assistance project implemented by the UNDP.  Watched by the keen eyes of the examiners, the trainees began their training session.  As usual, the first formalities of a typical participatory mode-training program   were observed. The question  “What are your expectations  (of this workshop)?”  travelled around the room.  While the first few respondents  said some mundane things such as “want to learn about gender” , “want to know each other” and so on, one participant decisively got up. “My husband was  abducted in 2008 and is missing since then… I want to find him.” There ensued an uncomfortable silence in the hall. The poor trainee who was conducting the session was clueless as to how he should respond to this rather unusual expectation of a training programme. So he nervously passed his eye to the next participant who answered “I want to learn how to apply gender issues in real life problems”.  Instantly he blurted out, “Good”. The examiners later quizzed him. Of all the words in the English language, why did he choose the word “good”? As if the previous  expectation was bad?

As the group delved in to the deeper meaning of this particular interaction, the dilemmas faced by the welfare oriented  NGOs  working in the war affected regions became  more  and  more  apparent.  On the one hand they  are forced to work with the rhetoric of “peoples participation” and “empowerment”.  They have to accede to the demands made by the donors in this respect. But on the other they have to work within a system that  is unmerciful and relentless in its grip on centralized  political power.   Even the civil administration in those areas has changed a great deal. The transformation is to the extent that the language hitherto spoken only by the military hierarchy,  such as “ granting  permission”  and  “ban on activities”,  is used now  by the civil administration in their day-to-day interactions with  NGOs.  A single wrong move on their part may mean end of the road for  the NGOs. It is  in working with the most marginalized of the war-affected community that these  vulnerabilities of the NGOs  get to be exposed thoroughly.

Take any commonplace problem posed by typical project beneficiaries in the North and East.  “Since I was relocated I have lost my livelihood”, “I get frequent headaches and cannot engage in any economic activities”,  “I do not know where my son is”,  “ I had submitted an application for housing assistance but I am told some Minister reallocated these houses to some other beneficiaries” and  so it continues.  Any attempt at dealing with any one of  these problems  is to go at logger heads with the State,  challenging policies regarding  national security , endangering   the impunity enjoyed by the  military personnel, and  telling on those politicians favoured by the regime. Imagine if it was a war-affected widow. She  faces all of these multiple problems and more at one go. She actually becomes an embarrassment  to  the  project exposing  the big ‘empowerment’ lie.  The scene at the training session is replayed  every day in the field.  In meetings organized by the NGOs  the widows  attend to pour out their  emotions, only to find the  field workers  listening to them in embarrassed silence.

Government  statistics  indicate that there are approximately 89,000 widows affected by the war in the North and East. The  one strategy  under the given circumstances would be to translate these numbers  in to a veritable  pressure group. Mobilizing and organizing them  so as to effectively access local government services, to carry out policy advocacy regarding  delivery of economic assistance by government and NGOs, and to campaign for the protection of  civil and political rights, would mean giving them a collective voice that calls for radical changes.  But the challenge here is, building their confidence and capacities to conceptualize the linkages between  what they term as their personal problems, to the constitutional and governance crisis enveloping the country. That is in fact, the process of their empowerment.

This project has now been initiated  in selected areas of the North and East.  The activity begins with forming     “Forum of women heads of households “in every Divisional Secretary’s Division.  As searching for livelihood options and accessing necessary resources for their implementation  are  constant issues  for them, facilitating their meeting  with financial institutions and donor agencies become invariably the first set of actions.  Often times it has been proved  that  the members of these forums do manage to obtain some loan facility or assistance for their ventures as soon as they directly communicate to service providers. They are also linked to sections of the Tamil diaspora, which are willing to provide assistance for micro credit or education for their children. Other activity related to livelihoods is  to organize the women in to producer cooperatives.  Cooperatives are effective  ways of pooling resources and labour, and providing mutual support in personal ways. For instance, women who have not been able to meaningfully engage in economic activities due to the burden of childcare could seek help from their fellow producers  in sharing that responsibility. They can access markets and marketing services more effectively.

However, as mentioned before, the  real  challenge before us is to initiate the process of empowerment for  them. This entails reaching out to every single widow, and setting in motion a comprehensive civic education programme for her. For this purpose, the strategy of  connecting  each forum  to other civil society networks in the locality, especially the network of  Women’s  Rural  Development Societies (WRDS), is employed.  These networks   not only provide  help in mobilizing financial resources for the forum members, but also a leadership that is prepared to take the responsibility to conduct adult education sessions for them on a regular basis. Basic principles of human rights and democracy, CEDAW, UNSCR 1325, LLRC recommendations, the role of local governments, provisions of the Sri Lankan constitution  are some of the materials prepared for their use. Sometimes  the  unexpected results after these education sessions. After reading on CEDAW and the UNSCR 1325, one women’s group in the North decided that in  future  they would not ask for permission from the local military commander  when they organize  their regular  meetings and functions.

The third level  would be to link the widows’ forums with regional and international networks that could facilitate their voices to be heard at the level of the UN. Lily Thapa is an activist widow in Nepal who has spearheaded the formation of the South Asian Network  for Widows Empowerment and Development (SANWED).  Similarly, Margaret Owen is another advocate of rights of  widows and who has formed  an organization called Widows for Peace through Democracy (WPD) that is accredited with the  ECOSOC. Currently moves are afoot to ensure that  the issue of widows is specifically mentioned in the general recommendations of the CEDAW committee for the year 2013. The widows from  Sri Lanka intend to include  the  recommendations provided in the LLRC report pertaining to women heads of households as part of the agenda  of these deliberations.

Thus, there  are innumerable  possibilities available to NGOs to turn the situation around. They only need to step away from their ‘project’ mode and  be committed to finding genuine solutions, which will pave the way for  immense creativity in their work.

Actually, widows need not weep anymore.


This article is part of an initiative to document and share the progress of the Sri Lanka government’s official reconciliation process. If you are interested in finding out more about the implementation progress of the LLRC recommendations, please visit Vimansa, a website independent of Groundviews.

  • Cyberviews

    Thanks Shanthi, for this excellent analysis which is relevant to development activists and practitioners. It is also a critique of the simplistic project oriented approach to development which is at most rhetorical and seek to skirt around the real issues being faced by vulnerable communities.

  • Punitham

    I don’t know how to thank the author for her service.

    Had there been an election for the Northern Provincial Council, the elected members could have systemically planned the whole process of socio-economic-environmental development for various parts of the province in a coherent way. In its absence the author is doing a tremendous service.

    Preventing the prosperity of the Tamils has been the post-independence agenda:

    .‘’The umpteenth Indian delegation (Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, National Security Advisor Shiva Shankar Menon and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar) went back empty handed: President Rajapakse handed them a flat ‘Nyet’ and for once in a lifetime he spoke the truth. “If I make any devolutionary concessions to the Tamils, 13A Plus, Minus, Divided or Subtracted, it will be curtains for me” – Sri Lanka: Indian Delegates go Home Empty Handed, Kumar David, 15 June 2011,
    ‘’Ethirveerasingam: I like to share conversations I had with Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranil Wickremasinghe 12 years later. On Feb 4th 1985,…. Finally I asked him why not his party with more than two-thirds of majority in parliament propose a federal constitution. He said that SLFP will oppose it. I said that as they have only 7 or 8 MPs their vote will not make any difference, especially with the TULF and CWC votes to add to the UNP. He said proposing a federal constitution, “Will be political suicide.” My older brother later said that, a majority of the UNP MPs will not support, let alone the majority Sinhala voters. On May 13, 1997, after an hour of discussion I asked him why not the UNP propose a federal consittuion. He said: “We are a political party. Like any other political party, we will not do anything that will not get us into power, nor would we do anything when we are in power to lose power” – Rajapaksrized Chauvinism in Flowery prose: Sri Lankan Diplomat’s outright humiliation of Sri Lankan Tamils, Maitree de Silva, 8 Feb 2009,

  • Citizen

    Whilst the govt is developing roads and infrastructure there is no urgency displayed in resettling and rehabilitating the displaced people. Problems of land alienation by the military persist. The number of widows numbering 89,000 gives lie to the claim that there were no civilian casualties.

    The entire process is being dragged by the govt in order to deprive and frustrate the tamil inhabitants. On the other hand hotels and army camps are springing up at a fast pace.

  • joke

    Development is for the Sinhalese to grab lands and livelihood from the Tamils and the politicians who are in charge of development will get their 20%!!

    As far as the Terrorist Govt. is concerned they will achieve their OBJECTIVE of making the Tamils paupers and subservient to the Sinhalese all the time!!! By GIFTING the Tamils properties to sinhala thugs, they can get the votes of the sinhala masses and the thugs will see to that the Tamils are under threat all the time!!!

  • len

    [Reconstructed road in Moothoor to be named after Rizana Nafeek.] So you see every one is to busy working on other big news items.