Featured image from a visit to Sellamma, a Puthukudiyiruppu returnee who sells kotta kilangu to make a living

There has been a marked increase in female-headed households in the North and East of the country as a consequence of the war in Sri Lanka concluded in 2009. Women in Sri Lanka sometimes refuse to identify themselves as “head” of their households as they fulfil a father’s role for their children. They then become the chief householder of their residence. A considerable number of women victims of the war are very young – some of them are those who got married when they were as young as 15 years of age. These households continue to face many problems in spite of the meager attempts made by the government to alleviate them. They remain marginalised, neglected and vulnerable.

Among them are many women who have lost their husbands after having surrendered them to the army during the final days of the war. Among them are ex-combatant women who continue to be under surveillance by the army. There is also another category of elderly women who have lost all their relatives. There are others who have no option but to depend on their widowed daughters who already find it difficult to fend for themselves.

Many of them have been re-settled in their own villages while others are still waiting to get back to their own villages. The rural infrastructure is so damaged that many of them cannot follow the traditional vocations that their husbands did. Quite a number of these women have some sort of disability consequent to being injured during the war.

After the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, women in the island’s North and East are still waiting for justice and truth for human rights violations. Among the bold promises made by the government to the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015, only an Office on Missing Persons has been established in March 2018, two years after the Act of Parliament relating to its creation was passed. There are no signs yet of the promised Truth Commission, a special hybrid court  and an office to provide Reparations. The urgent economic and psycho-social needs of all conflict-affected groups remain unmet. Anger and a sense of betrayal has developed and triggered a new wave of women-led protests. All these happenings made further inroads into already damaged hopes for reconciliation among communities. If Sri Lanka is to address the past in a way that reconciles its communities and builds lasting peace, the government must prioritise the needs and rights of conflict-affected women.

A study by research organisation International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) shows that as many as 50-60% of women have lost their homes or have had homes damaged during the war. Reconstructing their homes is an added financial burden, as housing reconstruction requires significant capital. For women in male-headed households, damage to housing is associated with a 30% increased probability of engaging in market work. The ownership of land and a house is positively associated with labour force participation as it can enable self-employment activities for women.

Another matter that has not received enough publicity is that the war has resulted in a disruption of the educational activities of the women and their children in the Northern and Eastern Provinces due to war and the consequent repeated displacement of the people. Many of the young women were school-going girls during the beginning of the conflict and had to abandon their studies due to displacement and subsequent early marriages which their parents imposed on them to escape forced recruitment by the militants.

With the end of the war many of them found themselves to be widowed and with one or two children. Though a good proportion of them would like to pursue their studies to better their prospects, avenues for them to do so do not exist. Some of these women had to end their schooling abruptly, while others had to run away from their homes, for fear of being persecuted. It appears that there are many more such victims languishing in different areas in these Provinces. Though some of them appear to have been direct victims of the war, others had been victims of the breakdown in social life following the aftermath of the war.

Therefore a need has arisen to increase opportunities for women to re-enter education systems in order to access career paths with higher returns. They also need to be provided with alternative schooling options as they would find it difficult to continue their studies while being the heads of households.  As educational attainment in these Provinces appear to be lower than the national average, there is a need to improve education facilities and services in the region to enhance women’s right to education and make themselves employable.

Many of them who had got married during the beginning of the conflict find themselves with children of school-going age. Though some of them sent their children to the meagre primary schools available, many have dropped out of their schools. It was found that attendance to the few primary schools in the North and the East are very low compared with national statistics. Further, older children are motivated to drop out because jobs to match their education levels are hard to find. So they settle for manual labour jobs available in the area. This adds to the frustration of the women victims of the war who are unable to give a good education to their children.

Despite their activism, women have not been given a significant role in shaping transitional justice policies and other projects for their livelihood. Attempts by diaspora organizations to help them through co-operative societies did not bear fruit. The government largely has ignored the report of its Consultations Task Force on national reconciliation processes. This report has urged the importance of measures to help women to improve their lives. Occasional gestures by the Government by the release of small amounts of land or meetings by the President with the victims of the disappeared have not brought any confidence in the minds of these victims as the Government has repeatedly made statements that encourage the military to continue their occupation of the North and East in spite of the negative role they play in the development of the war victims. A new constitution, which could address the causes of war and help prevent its recurrence, continues to hang in the balance.

These women also insist that the truth and justice they seek must be part of a broader approach to meet their economic, social, psychological and security needs. This is specially so as the continued presence of the military reminds them of the atrocities committed against women during and soon after the end of the war. The military continues to be engaged in civil administration, agriculture and tourism. Military-run farms impede livelihoods.

The ICES study found that losses due to war including the loss of lives and resources have had a prolonged psychological impact on war-affected women. Hence there has arisen a need to provide community-based occupational therapy for women in affected areas, together with counseling facilities in hospitals. Many organisations have arranged for counseling facilities for these women in the Wanni Districts. In addition, encouragement has been given to use community-based, creative initiatives, such as community gardens, arts and crafts circles, and yoga, to address psychological health issues experienced by these women.

It is clear that women in the North and East have been more affected by the conflict and its aftermath than any other group in Sri Lanka. Tens of thousands of war widows and wives of the missing have been forced to become primary income earners, leaving behind traditional domestic roles and entering the public realm to engage politically, economically and socially. They do this in a highly patriarchal context regulated by rigid cultural and social practices, which has been made insecure by the continued presence of the military. That keeps them reminded of gender-based violence and abuse throughout the conflict. The constant reminders include a breakdown in social and family structures, post-war. As has been pointed out most have urgent unmet socio-economic needs and many suffer crippling trauma.

In the circumstances there is a need for a meaningful transitional justice programme to reduce their economic and physical vulnerabilities. Therefore there is a need for a well-designed and empowered Reparations Office to support an expanded and better coordinated programs for livelihoods, pensions, debt relief and psycho-social support. Similarly transitional justice, reconciliation and peace building programmes must be inclusive, gender sensitive and responsive to women’s war time experiences. To make such an effort successful strong political backing from the President and Prime Minister will be needed to overcome political and bureaucratic resistance. The Provincial Councils too should play a meaningful role. Likewise, funding and political support to community- and district-level women’s groups is essential.

In addition to this with the cooperation of donors and Provincial Councils, the economic needs of these women should be assessed and programmes that include an equitable and easy-to-understand pension scheme for victims’ families should be devised. Further funding for their education and of their children should be made available. It should be made possible for them to obtain affordable housing that will enable them to establish ownership or tenancy of land. State lands should be allocated to women who do not have land. In addition to that steps should be taken to reduce the impact of the military on civilian life specially in the North by ending the military’s surveillance of women’s homes, including ad-hoc visits; expediting the return of occupied private land and reducing the number of military camps and checkpoints.

Addressing the specific needs of the victims of the war and involving them more fully in the design and implementation of transitional justice programs are essential steps, both for reducing tensions in the North and for restoring hope that the political transition promised in 2015 can still be realised. The issues faced by conflict-affected women may not be considered a priority because of the political upheavals taking place in Sri Lanka today. Yet the need to attend to these matters should not be forgotten. There cannot be a true reconciliation in the country so long as the women victims of the war in the North and East continue to remain unattended.

Editor’s Note: Also read “We are one but not the same” and “Invictus: Stories of Resilience from Mannar and Mullaitivu“.