Travails of the Women in the Vanni
Photo courtesy Amantha Perera / Perambara
(Following is a copy of a presentation made by the author at a side event at the UNHRC in Geneva on 11th March, 2013 organised by the Co-operative Society of Netherlands in collaboration with the International Movement Against Discrimination and Racism)
All of us remember the day the war ended in Sri Lanka. While those in the rest of the country rejoiced, to the Tamils, many of whom had friends and relations living in the war zones, it was a very sad day. Thousands of persons had been killed in the final days of the war. Thousands of others walked into the hands of the army waiting to receive them and send them to the hurriedly established camps which they called welfare centres. The 292,000 odd persons who escaped death during the war, had to spend nearly three years in refugee camps in which they were imprisoned till they were re-settled or re-located in various parts of the Northern Districts of Sri Lanka. The video you just saw is about the first attempt to capture on a film of the kind of life the women in the resettled areas to be shown to an international audience. That’s why it is in English.
According to Governments statistics there are 86,000 war widows in these Provinces. The actual number is much more. Among them are young widows and women who have young children to feed, protect and educate. Some have elder parents to care for. Several of them are maimed.
The end of the war saw many National Plans by the government to develop the war affected areas. But none for the women affected by the war. An estimate shows that 90% of the households in the Wanni District are women-headed households. To them the plight of these women and children are less important than developing the roads, buildings and the military camps. The roads are to facilitate the movement of military traffic to the innumerable camps that have been established in the North. And the buildings are to house the many hotels and shops that have sprung up to cater to the thousands of visitors from abroad and from the South. Hardly any men or women of these areas are employed in these construction works or in the operation of these ventures. While this so-called development work is going on, rural roads continue to be in a state of neglect. Irrigation canals are in a state of dis-repair. Access to the principal towns such as Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mannar or Mullaitivu from the re-settled villages in the interior are still primitive. Inter-village transport is no better. Yet, visitors to the North are impressed by these newly constructed roads and buildings. These are not indicators of development. They hardly realize that a majority of those re-settled live in the interior on either side of these highways. They are still without livelihood opportunities and basic health care. The highways and buildings hardly benefit any of the those re-settled. What they need is the reconstruction of the infrastructure in their villages which are still in ruins.
The women in these districts know the value of education and are keen to educate their children. But most of the schools are not functioning. The few schools that are functioning are either under the shades of trees or are in huts and dilapidated buildings. Many students have to trek several miles to get to the nearest school, often without any footwear. Fortunately, some of the non-government organisations are helping a small percentage of these schools to meet their basic needs.
Those re-settled people have no option but to start life afresh in amidst the ruined infrastructure in these villages. They hardly have any resources to make a start. Nor do they have the skills their husbands used to have. Their houses are insecure improvised dwellings. The young women in them are at risk of becoming victims of unscrupulous men, often from the military camps and check points which exist in almost every village. Statistics show that there is a soldier for every five persons in the North. They pry on the lives of these women who live in constant fear of being harassed. Victims have no one to complain to. Most productive parts of these villages are reserved for the army. Many such pieces of lands around military camps are being cultivated by the military themselves. Some plots of land have been ear-marked for commercial ventures.
The village of Keppapulavu is one such village. Most of the settlers here have been traditional fishermen. They had been hurriedly dumped in a jungle far away from the sea and asked to do cultivation. But their own fishing village is now with the military.
Some women found employment in mine clearing operations of foreign organisations. That is a dangerous vocation which many men may dare not to venture into. But these women have boldly accepted such jobs. That proves how desperate they are for a means of living. Unemployment is so acute among these women that any job is good enough. Some have even become three wheel drivers plying for hire.
State sponsored settlers brought from the South to the North, get all the assistance they need to subsist in the occupied traditional lands of the Tamils. Some of them do cultivation while others fish along the coasts in the Wanni Districts. However the sea is out of bounds to fishermen among those re-settled.
In the midst of this, women have to subsist in one way or the other. Poverty has driven some of them to make a living by to letting their bodies to be used by the workers from the South and those in the camps nearby. Such a vocation exposes them to the risk of unwanted pregnancies, disease and frustration. Some other women have been enticed with promises of work in the factories in the South and taken away by human traffickers never to be heard of thereafter. In their desperate search for employment, a few hundreds have answered a call by the military to be enlisted into their ranks. Many of them had soon become disillusioned. Some had run away while others had to be taken to hospital with hysteria. Many attempted to commit suicide unable to bear what happened to them after they were recruited by the military.
Not all the women had been so unlucky. Many others took courage and wanted to face life despite the odds. They are determined to venture into income generation activities. Cash for the inputs is the biggest problem they have. Those who wished to do cultivation need cash to buy seeds and the basic agricultural tools. Most of the families had received a re-settlement allowance of Rs.25,000 from the State. That was like giving a sip of water to a thirsty person. Many had used that cash to purchase their basic requirements they urgently needed. A few non-government organisations had moved in to help them with grants. Even these organisations have had to get permission from the Presidential Task Force to do so. The procedures are cumbersome and sometimes frustrating.
The grants of these NGOs could reach only a fraction of the needy. Without any experience in self-employment activities the beneficiaries could not make optimum use of such grants. Income generation through poultry farming, dairy farming, livestock breeding, cultivation and even home gardening, need skills and knowledge that is lacking among them. Irrigation facilities are minimal. Serious steps should be taken to provide these women with skills they need to benefit from their ventures. Their needs are many but the resources to help them are scarce.
State agencies stepped in and started organising these women into groups. They were encouraged to form rural development societies. The Department of Co-operative Development began to re-activate the co-operative societies that had existed in their midst before they were displaced. Let us hope that these grass root level institutions which are referred to as Community Based Organisations (CBOs) will prove to be effective institutions to uplift the war affected women.
The Government of Sri Lanka is expected to spell out an action plan for the implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission at the UNHRC Sessions in Geneva in March, 2013. Among the recommendations of this Commission are the steps that need to be taken to improve the condition of the women affected by the war. That includes, their right to know the whereabouts of their loved ones who disappeared during and after the war; their right to land with a title; their right to freedom of expression and protection; facilitation of livelihood activities and vocational training of the affected women, and so on. In 2009 the Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) too has urged the governmentto provide houses, pay compensation to these women and to involve them too in the decision making process in formulating livelihood projects for the affected women. Demilitarization is key to the process of reconciliation, peace building and the uplift of these women. Whether the Government would consider these recommendations of the LLRC and the CEDAW Committee in all earnest, is yet to be seen.