Photo of Indian Housing Project recipient courtesy the Red Cross

Travel to the North and East of Sri Lanka and you may notice, dotted amongst the fields and along the dusty expanses of road, brand new houses, many of them brightly coloured. The roofs bear the names of different aid agencies – the UN perhaps, or Red Cross. These are part of the Indian housing project. This project, initiated by former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2010, will see an estimated 50,000 houses built for IDPs in the North and East.

The project, which is in its second phase, saw 16,000 houses built in the year 2014 according to the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka. This puts the total number of houses built at 27,000, with a further 19,000 still to be built. Four agencies were selected to facilitate construction of the houses – UN Habitat, the International Federation of Red Cross in partnership with Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS) the National Housing Development Authority and Habitat for Humanity. 

However the Housing Project came under scrutiny on Monday, when it was reported that a Red Cross official had demanded sexual favours in return to ensure that a war-displaced widow’s house was built in Kilinochchi.

 Speaking to Groundviews, Mahieash Johnney – Senior Manager – Communications and Humanitarian Diplomacy from the Sri Lankan chapter of Red Cross confirmed that a complaint had been received regarding a Technical Officer working at the SLRCS. The Technical Officer acts as a liaison between the aid agency and the local community. One of their jobs is to grant the chosen recipients for housing with the money on an installment basis, from laying the foundation to building the walls and so on.

The SLRCS was working on the construction of between 1,000 and 1,200 houses in Kilinochchi, where the complaint was made, Johnney said. “As soon as the allegation was received, we began an inquiry, which is still ongoing. If there is any truth to these allegations, we will definitely take disciplinary action, and refer the case to the police,” he added. The Indian High Commission and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are said to be working with SLRCS on the issue.

 As an initial step, all parties involved, from the Technical officer himself to the line manager and the woman making the complaint were being interviewed. “We have to be very careful and take down all sides to the story. We cannot tarnish the name of this Technical officer until we find out if these allegations have any merit,” Johnney said. In the meantime, the Officer concerned has been placed on voluntary leave, pending the results of the investigation.

Johnney was also quick to point out that there had been inconsistencies in what had been reported.

 For a start, the woman in question was not a war widow but a single mother of two who had recently undergone a divorce, Johnney said.

There were other inconsistencies on the facts reported. Johnney claimed that while there were numerous complaints of an administrative nature, this was the first time there had ever been a complaint of sexual misconduct. Yet the print media reported that Sri Lanka Red Cross Society Secretary for the Kilinochchi district – Thampu Sethupathy had received 30 written and verbal complaints regarding demands for sexual favours – 15 of which had been forwarded to the Head Office. When asked, Johnney denied that there had ever been other incidents involving sexual favours. Upon being contacted, Sethupathy said that he no longer had the authority to comment on the incident, and neither did most other personnel from the Kilinochchi Red Cross office.

The issue of sexual abuse in the North and East has always been one spoken of in hushed tones.  In April 2012, I visited the North and met Tisha* and Vararoha* as well as many other women who had been displaced by war. Tisha had left Vavuniya in the 1990s and had returned shortly after the war had ended to settle there. Her parents soon passed away, leaving Tisha on her own. As a lone woman, she wasn’t a top candidate for the housing schemes available (including the Indian housing project) and had to stay with friends and relatives instead. 

Many of the other women I encountered during that visit spoke about the fear they felt at walking alone. The temporary shelters they built while waiting to move into permanent housing wasn’t just inadequate to protect them from the elements – they were also no protection from men on the prowl. Post-war, the number of bars and toddy-shops mushroomed in the North and East, with rising alcoholism leading to a number of social problems. At the time, the women I spoke to also alluded of social problems stemming from businessmen traveling from the South and harassing girls. The net result: most women avoided walking on the roads, particularly past one of the taverns, during late hours. Yet it was significant that these issues were voiced reluctantly, and only after I had assured that I would change their names, in order to protect privacy. Members of the Women’s Development Centre in the North and the International Crisis Group have gone on record in the past talking about the many cases of sexual abuse reported, including abuse by military.

Recently, the Woman’s Action Network, a collective of 8 women’s organisations working in the North and East, called upon the President to ensure that all instances of sexual torture and violence are investigated swiftly and in a gender-sensitive manner. In a statement published October 7, the WAN highlighted several cases, notably the 2001 rape of two Tamil mothers in Mannar, with three police officers and nine Navy personnel highlighted as the perpetrators. Despite a special commission appointed to investigate this case, to date the case has not been resolved. One of the victims was forced to flee the country for her own safety. More telling were the accounts of the harassment and intimidation that those who dared to report such incidents frequently faced.

“These crimes are not committed by the military alone but also by various government officers, politicians and people in power, reflecting the level of impunity that exists within State apparatuses. In such cases, the police often refuse to file a complaint, refuse to arrest or investigate and ensure that the case is prolonged. Hence, often justice for women is not only delayed and denied but remains blind and insensitive,” a statement by the WAN said. 

While the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ certainly holds true, the allegations made against the Red Cross official are serious and shouldn’t be brushed under the carpet, given the stigma that already exists around the topic of sexual abuse in the North and East in particular. Those who come forward often face intimidation and threats, and those persisting despite these obstacles watch their cases languish in court, unresolved.  Will this latest case be fully investigated or will it be quietly forgotten about, becoming yesterday’s headlines? More importantly, what of the numerous other complaints which the Kilinochchi office is said to have forwarded to Colombo?

Over to you, Red Cross. 

*names changed to protect privacy