Groundviews

Co-operatives as a means to uplift war affected women in Sri Lanka

Photo courtesy UNDP Sri Lanka

(A presentation made on 16th November, 2013 at London at a meeting of Charitable Organisations  working with war victims in Sri Lanka)

The end of the war saw many national plans by  the  government to develop the war affected areas.   But there is none for the women affected by the war who are the worst affected.  An estimate  shows  that  90% of the households in the Wanni Districts are women-headed households.  It appears  that  the Government considers the  plight of these women  less important than the restructuring of the damaged infrastructure such as the  roads, buildings and the military camps.  As has been repeatedly stated in many  fora  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 to the North as tourist and otherwise.  Hardly any of those affected by the wars are employed in these construction works or in the operation of these ventures.  While this so-called development work is going on, rural roads and irrigation works continue to be in a state of neglect.

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.   Visitors to the North are  impressed  by  these newly constructed  roads and buildings and mistakenly consider them as  indicators of development.  They  hardly  realize  that a majority of the thousands who were affected by the war   live in the interior on either side of these brand new  highways, and are struggling for a living.  They are still without any opportunities for fruitful  livelihood activities and do not have even the  basic health care facilities.

This  has  been  confirmed by speakers  at a conference organised   of the Centre for Community Development in London in July, 2013  where prominent Sri Lankan  NGO workers, including two women  heads of such NGOs,  spoke.

It is a  fact  that charitable organisations, especially those in the UK have been providing large amounts of  funds   since the end of the war to the victims of the war, in their efforts to help them according to the respective  policies and plans of those institution.  Yet,  admittedly, they have not been able to  uplift them  to the expected levels.  Consequently, many of these organisations have been considering various options to serve them better.   One of them is to work through the large number of grass-root level co-operatives that are available in the midst of the war affected persons in the North.  A  statement of the Governor of the Northern Province available in the their website  gives the figures of the co-operative thrift and credit  societies in the North to be 1350.   More than 75 per cent of the members of these co-operatives are war affected women and at least 3000 of them are war widows.  Some organisations have already started providing assistance to them through these co-operatives.  Others are toying with that idea.  This meeting aims to take a closer look at this option and listen to some experts in the field who have had experience in working for communities under similar circumstances in other parts of the World.   I am sure the speeches of the Principal and the Vice Principal of the Co-operative College in Manchester would throw ample light on the manner in which they have helped those affected by the wars  in Rwanda, Lesotho , Malawi, Namibia, Eritrea and other places successfully in uplifting the women in those countries.  The problems of the war affected women in these countries are probably similar to those of  such women in Sri Lanka.

It would be appropriate at this point  to  take a look at the positive side of involving women in co-operatives concerned   to uplift their  community.  There is a tendency for many to  look at  women in such circumstances as  a hopeless lot.  We need to look at strengths they have rather than their weaknesses. After all they are the survivors of a rigorous war.   Instinctively they are  thrifty, honest and prudent.  A co-operative which has  a majority of  such members  could  form a formidable group if properly guided.     Fortunately   among them are many who have   links  with the Tamils in the diaspora.  Those who have no such links have an ample measure of sympathy  and  support from those of their community  in the diaspora.  The other more important favourable situation  is that the recently constituted  provincial administration North is has  completely devolved  powers pertaining to the  co-operative movement.  The relevant co-operative institutions are already in place.    With  these  advantages,  all that is needed  is   a push to get  these societies started to make them go  in the correct direction to achieve the goal of uplifting themselves  as quickly as possible.  The steering is in their hands  and  their driving skills need to be refined and given  the knowledge of the road to be followed.

We have with us now at this gathering, experts who have experience in providing such skills and knowledge  to the drivers.  It is for the charitable  organisations working for the welfare of those affected, to avail of the services of these and similar  experts to build up the capacity and the skills of the members of the societies concerned to  effectively  enable them to  uplift  themselves.

Women have a key role to play in the uplift of any community.  Of course they  need to be provided with the skills, knowledge and the capital they need to work  prudently and effectively for their uplift.   It is for donor agencies to realize this and provide these essentials, not just the capital only, to enable them to develop themselves, according to their own home grown  plans  and not according to  the plans of the donors.    If they are equipped with the necessary  skills and knowledge  they will soon become quite  competent to  plan decide on their future.

The key point that needs to be noted is that if instead of donors providing funds to individuals, they could  provide to a group of  organised individuals such as the members of  thrift and credit co-operative societies, the proper use of the funds will be decided not by one person but by a group of persons who will not want to squander the funds made available.   They would then use the funds prudently for essentials and ensure that the capital does not get used up.  It is for  this reason   the standard practice of these societies is to give  loans  for specified purposes through revolving funds of the societies.  That ensures a financial discipline. Providing the skills and knowledge to the members of these societies need should receive the attention of donors  to make these societies dependable partners in the development  of the community.

It should be noted that every grass-root level co-operative society functions according to internationally accepted co-operative principles and  has links with  co-operative institutions  at the national and international level.   Their voice can also be made to be heard loud and clear  both internally and to the  world at large through such links.

Fortunately we have in our midst today, as our guest speakers, persons who  are members of the International Co-operative Alliance.  They will certainly take note of the issues of the war affected in Sri Lanka which we hope to discuss today, show us the options  available based on their experience   and  voice our concerns and those of the co-operatives in Northern Sri Lanka  at the international level, if and when the need arises.

In the circumstances, the vision of the charitable organisations helping war victims in Sri Lanka   should be, to look forward to a day when they could stop  providing funds  for consumption or other recurrent expenditure  and look at them as  a community that has  transformed itself  into  a model of a society that has come out of dependency on its own steam through co-operatives  with a surplus that it could be used  to help the disadvantaged living  among them, meaningfully.