Travails of the Women in the Vanni

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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.

Facing life after the War from Young Asia Television on Vimeo.

  • Jon

    I’m sure that life in post-war Sri Lanka is not easy, however it never is in such situations. My worry is that many of the rebels are sneaking out of Sri Lanka to countries like Australia and Canada, still with ambitions of a ‘risorgimento’ at some time in the future, continuing their rebellion defiantly, sending money back to re-arm the Tigers. Emigre Tamils were responsible for maintaining funding for the rebellion in the first instance. There’s no reason to think things have changed.

  • truth

    Thank you Rajani, for bringing out the real situation. There is no point in building roads. The roads are for the brutal army to carry on their atrocities and for politicians to make money in the construction business.

    The displaced people do not even have money to go in a bus. They have no livelihood, no savings, no prospect of getting any employment.

    The government is only interested in looking after the Sinhalese. The govt. is purposely making the Tamils paupers. They have killed all the able bodied Tamils. They don’t want the future Tamil generation to prosper either. These are all deliberate acts to ruin the Tamils.

  • http://---- A Concerned Citizen

    I am one of those who attended this event at the UNHRC when the documentary was shown and the presentation was made. Perhaps due to the need to be brief, certain scenes from the documentary have been edited out. But the key issues relating to the war affected women from the Wanni have been dealt with adequately in the presentation of Rajani. The others who spoke on the occasion included Ms. Yasmin Sooka of South Africa and Ms. Soibhain McDonagh a British Parliamentarian. They helped to highlight the issues concerned with their experience and knowledge on such matters. Many among the more than 100 who attended the event were apparently dismayed by the facts revealed. Apparently information on the plight of the war affected women had not reached many outside Sri Lanka, especially as a documentary. It is hoped that the publication of this presentation in Groundviews along with the documentary would help to spread the message far and wide and raise adequate awareness among people who could step in to give a helping hand in the efforts to provide assistance for the livelihood activities of the war affected women of the Wanni Districts of Sri Lanka.