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.