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Plight of the war-widows in Sri Lanka

July 4, 2011

FMT LETTER: From Rajani Iqbal, via e-mail

A recently published book – Invisible, Forgotten Sufferers: The Plight of Widows Around the World – reveals that there are an estimated 245 million widows worldwide, 115 million of whom live in poverty and suffer from social stigmatisation and economic deprivation purely because they have lost their husbands.

Following  a proposal introduced by President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon  on Dec 21, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted June 23, as International Widows Day. It was also the day commemorated by the Tamil Women’s Development Front (TWDF).

The TWDF rightly decided to use this occasion to  highlight  the plight of the  large number of  Tamil women who have been made widows following the  death or disappearance of a large number of  Tamils during  and following  the brutal war  that ended in May, 2009.

Though  these widows  form  a  large majority of the widows in Sri Lanka today,  other calamities such as the tsunami of 2004 also contributed to  boosting the   numbers  of women who  became  widows during  recent times. To this number we must also add the wives of the large number  of the combatants, both  of the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Army, who  were killed   during the fighting .

Though for various reasons it is not possible to get the actual number of the widows in the respective categories mentioned above, we can estimate the numbers from  the speeches made, time to time by government officials, politicians and others. Some NGOs that have done an informal survey have also released some figures.  But none of them could  provide  any exact numbers.

The Deputy Minister of Women’s Affairs of the Provincial Council of the East has stated recently that  there are  86,000 widows in the North and East of whom 40,000 widows are in the North and 46,000  are in  the East. Among these categories of widows are those who are young and old, sick and  the disabled. There are others  who do not know the whereabouts of their husbands.

This is especially because  the government has detained a large number of persons who  came out of the Wanni  and have not  provided the names of those who are under detention even though  more than two years have passed since they were taken into custody. Consequently there are many Tamil women who do not know if  they should consider themselves as widows or wait for the return of their husbands  on being released from detention.

Many of the  families have become female headed households. A report published by the  UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has issued a statement to the effect that women have taken over as bread winners in the North. A survey conducted by the Jaffna-based Centre for Women and Development revealed that  the Northern region has, as stated earlier, 40,000 female headed households  includes more than 20,000 in the Jaffna District alone.

In this district in the villages of Anaicottai and Chavakkadu of the total population  30 percent are  war widows.  On an average each widow has at least two or three children who have  to be fed and looked after by each widow  with the meager amounts they get either as a re-settlement allowance or a donation by well wishers.  Besides they have to provide for the education and health care of the children.

It needs to be noted that a majority of the war affected widows  are those who had been re-settled  in their own villages or  near about after they had lived in  the so-called  ill-equipped  welfare centres after the war was concluded. Many of them had been living in the Wanni before and during the war  while others had been displaced  from their villages during the war and had moved to other areas for security reasons. Once the war was  concluded  they had to  start life afresh in the locations where they had been resettled.

But soon they realised that this was not going to be easy  as  they found that  most of the infrastructure that existed in their villages had been destroyed. The roads, markets, houses and other buildings, schools, irrigation facilities and even their wells and canals  had all been either destroyed or are not in a usable condition. Though the government had promised to provide them with houses and reconstruct damaged infra structure,  those promises are yet to materialise. To make matters worse they found they could not resume their livelihood or social  activities. Nor could they send their children to schools as there are no schools and  the usual health care facilities are non-existent. To cap it all they have to live with the menacing presence of the army  who are having a watchful eye on every one of their activities.

It should be noted that since  the husbands of these widows were their breadwinners  are now no more.  So it is these widows who have to earn and provide for  the living of the family. Most of them  have not learnt any skills that could be used to earn a living. Consequently most of these widows  have become destitute hardly able to feed either themselves or their children. The husbands of some of these widows were either combatants  under  the LTTE  while others had been doing odd jobs in the Wanni.  Hence  almost all these widows are looked upon as members of the families of  those in the LTTE.

Some  of these widows  are under 25 years of age while there are others who are over 50 years of age.  These two categories have exclusive  problems. Those under 25 years are the ones who had been compelled to marry by their parents to enable them to escape conscription by the LTTE. The widows over 50 years are the ones having grown up girls whom they have to secure from  becoming victims to the sexual advances of the military or the other  unscrupulous men in the village. While these widowed mothers are having a tough time protecting their daughters, the young widows are having an equally tough time protecting themselves from the risks they run of being molested by the military or the youth of  their respective areas.

At this juncture I wish to mention that even  Dr Nimalka Fernando, the head of the International Movement against Discrimination and Racism, had confirmed the above stated situation of the war affected women in the North and the Wanni at a meeting held in Switzerland  this month. That the cost of living in Sri Lanka has reached  unprecedented levels today is known to everyone. On an average a lower middle class family with two children  would need  at least Rs.1000 per day for their living expenses. In such a situation one could imagine the kind of life a widow who has no income whatsoever,  must be leading. Some of them go in search of  odd jobs locally,  while others have been enticed by those seeking cheap labour for their factories in the free trade zones in the South of the country.  I need not stress here the risks they face while working in a male dominated  environment in such places. In desperation,  there are others who  have ventured  out to do jobs which women do not usually do.

The landmine clearing operations in the  North is one such field to which many women have moved in. A video on the life they are leading as landmine sweepers is to  be shown to you later today. I am  constrained  to mention here that shear force of circumstances have compelled  some of these widows  to take up  a vocation that could  put us all to shame and bring disrepute to our  community.

It is reported that there are nearly 40,000 women in Sri Lanka  who are professional  prostitutes. Some of  them are  said to be  young war widows from the North and the South.  While  I understand  their dilemma,  I feel sorry for  them. We all should  bear responsibility for letting this happen.

I think it would be appropriate  at this point  to  read to you extracts  from a  translation  of  a news item in the Veerakesari of June 3, 2011,  under the caption  “It is  important to curb the  increase  in crime in the North”: –

“Of late  there  has been  an  increase of  crime in the North. Incidents such as murder,  rape, robberies, etc. continue. … A large number of these incidents have occurred in the Kilinochchi District.

…Many incidents that  bring shame on Tamil culture, have continued to take place. Last Sunday there had been an incident of a wife and two children  stabbing  to death, a women who was suspected to be a mistress of  her husband.  The woman who was so killed,  is a widow with three children. …”

There had been news  reports which speak of an unspecified  number of women  from the war affected areas committing suicide almost every day. No  statistics of such incidents are available.

A research done by the undergraduates of the Jaffna University recently has indicated that a large number of children of  such destitute women in the North  are being sent to orphanages  and  other women are sending their children to work  as cheap labour for those who need them.  This has exposed  these children to being abused
sexually  or otherwise  by some of those who avail of their services.

Dr S Yamuna Nanthan,  a psychiatrist who is working with  these women stated  that most of the women are suffering from psychiatric disorders.  Such women can easily become prey to  the advances of designing individuals  while  others could be led to  commit suicide.

Another issue that these widows face is the absence of a male  in the household  which  makes them feel insecure. Besides,  the so called houses in which they live  could hardly be locked up and made safe from  intruders who come in the night  under  various excuses.

Consequently  they become easy prey for  those who come in the night looking for women. There had been many reports of such incidents.  In one such case, when the victim went to the military camp nearby to make a complaint of such an incident found the intruder was  the person who was in charge of receiving complaints in the camp.

A widow with children has to  play the role of the father and the mother of her children. This becomes a challenging task to many of them  who find it difficult to keep an eye on their children  while they are away from home for work or otherwise.  The widows who have grown up girls in their homes dare not leave them alone.  Hence they
cannot think of engaging themselves with any  livelihood activities away from home. In addition to all this,  it has been reported that many of these widows find  members of their own communities distancing themselves from widows whom they believe to be wives of  dead LTTE combatants. This could be perhaps due to the fear that the military who is all the time observing the activities of these widows may suspect the members of the community which endears these widows to be supporters of the LTTE itself.

One of the other issues facing these widows, especially the young widows, is  a matter which is rarely  spoken of. As widows their biological needs  remain unfulfilled.  Many of us do not  realise how serious this problem is.  How could  we expect these sex-starved widows  to lead  a normal life in the absence of  any other diversions
or pastimes to sublimate their natural desires. Instead of  treating such persons with  empathy, our  society  looks down upon widows as ‘unlucky’ persons who should take the back seat at  any social function. They are expected to dress modestly at functions and not wear  any embellishments.

Our outdated cultural practices  are  a curse to these women.  Not only are they looked upon with scorn,  but  they  are  also considered to be persons who could lure away  the husbands  from families in the areas where they live. Consequently  many a wife keeps a watchful eye on her husband when  in the company of widows. To cap it all,  our culture does not  permit a widow  to re-marry  without  a hassle.  In view of all these cultural barriers,  these widows are bound to  live a life of misery.  Though the dearth of men in the community has made it difficult  for young girls to find husbands,  it is more difficult for a young widow to find even a widower to marry. It is left to our society to give serious thought to this aspect of the life of the widows and think of bringing about a  change in our cultural approaches to this problem and make way for  a better place for these widows in the community.

It needs to be made clear that the war widows in the North are not a group that is politically significant. It is also true that the plight of the widows is not a matter of priority  either for the  Tamil people in the North or for  the politicians who represent them.  They have other priorities due  to the fast changing situation of  the Tamils in general. Though many have urged the Government of Sri Lanka to prepare a National Policy document  based on the  humanitarian needs of the widows,  this matter does not appear to have received due consideration by the government.

Besides,  the humanitarian and other related laws in Sri Lanka are male centred.  There does not appear to be any laws which are specifically aimed at relieving humanitarian  issues relating to women.  This is an obstacle that is standing in the way of  the issues of the widows being given legal recognition.  The absence of adequate representation of women in the legislature  is another reason why the issues relating to the war widows have not so received the attention that is due.

The few women who are now in the legislature  do not seem to be powerful enough to  draw the attention of  the Parliament to the dire circumstances of the war widows. In the circumstances it has become necessary for  the local and international  NGOs to step in to provide whatever assistance possible for these war widows who  have
none to look up to.

However, it appears that the local NGOs which  are aware of the plight of the widows have not shown adequate concern  for the issues facing these widows. The women leaders in the NGOs of Sri Lanka have merely looked at this problem as a social problem. This is the time for them to get together and raise their voice on the problems of the widows.

Instead  these leaders are silent about them perhaps because  the political climate in the country  does not  appear to be  favourable for such issues to be raised. They may even fear that the  same consequences that befell on the journalists and others who had been openly  speaking on the problems of the people,  may happen to them also.  I recall how in 1995  at a village in the Kalmunai District  there were 56 widows  who got together and formed a pressure group  which was able to attract the
attention of  International NGOs who stepped in and provided them meaningful assistance to enable them to eventually stand on their feet. Unfortunately the political environment  in the North is not conducive for the widows there to form themselves into any group whatsoever to make their voices heard.

However, it is a fact that there are a few NGOs which have direct or indirect links with the government have been permitted by the State to  handle projects for the welfare  of the widows within the frame work of the existing regulations  imposed by the government. It should also be noted that the government is averse to  the registration of any new organisations that have the welfare of the war affected in its agenda.

In the circumstances, the only feasible option that is available to NGOs or  those in the Tamil diaspora to help the war affected widows is to collaborate with  one or the other of the existing NGOs in Sri Lanka which  have been allowed to work in the North.  Such collaboration could be  either by feeding funds into an existing program of such an NGO or  by preparing a feasible project for the welfare of  the  widows and sell it to  a chosen NGO and seek collaboration with it.

Those of us who have lived in Jaffna during  better times, know, that there were a large number of  thrift and credit  co-operative societies in almost every village in the Peninsula.  We also know that those days these societies did not only promote  thrift and savings, they also developed  into a mini-bank in every village from which the
members were able to obtain loans on easy terms to meet exigencies such as for child birth expenses, purchase of agricultural equipment such as water pumps and even for  self employment activities.

Though the recent war would have disrupted the activities of these societies,  many would have survived it and should be in operation now.  We could do a quick survey and find out  which of these have widows as their members and channel assistance  to such societies  to provide assistance to the war widows who are its members.

Since Co-operative Thrift and Credit Societies are registered legal bodies, they have bank accounts and  function under the supervision and guidance of  the  Department of Co-operative Societies. In these circumstances,  this could be another option available to the diaspora to help the war widows in the North.

It should be noted that any project for  the welfare of the widows should  be focussed to  uplift the widows and make them stand on their own feet and should not be  projects to provide consumption items tothem.  It would be a grave mistake if  a project is aimed only to provide relief as that would  make  the widows  live with the begging bowl right through their life.

In identifying projects for  implementation,  the feasibility of the project should be carefully examined. I have come across many in the diaspora wanting to provide  sewing machines,  funds to  indulge in livestock keeping such as  poultry and cattle, without  any examination of the  possibility of marketing their produce  and making a living  out of such ventures.  Besides, these widows  do not even have  much experience in such ventures and do not have any place to keep the  sewing machine or the livestock secured from thieves  who thrive in these areas. Therefore before providing  funds for such projects, a survey of the skills, the needs , and the marketability of their produces  should be done,  if the expected objective is to be achieved.

The other option that could be considered is  to provide infrastructure needs of  the  villages where such widows are living in large numbers.  They could  be provided a common well  that would benefit many families , or  a  structure for a small school which had been damaged  during the war. This would provide the children of the widows,  the opportunity to study.

We should not forget the many widows who are immobile  due to their legs being amputed or maimed by the war and others who may  have lost one or two hands.  A survey should be done and  serious consideration should be given  to providing them with mobility assistance to enable them not just to move about, but also to see if  they could eke out a living in one way or the other.

Another thing I would like to mention  is  that we need to make sure that we don’t duplicate assistance. We must reach out to the widows in the far off villages  than  to those villages closer to the main road.

We should give priority to those widows who  are less likely to get any assistance  due to the inaccessibility of their villages. It would be appropriate here to mention that many in the diaspora have  already adopted families of widows and are  providing assistance directly  to them as their foster family members.  Though this method would provide some immediate benefits  to such families,  it is likely that they would continue to be dependants of  their benefactors  in the diaspora and are less likely to  make any serious attempt to stand on their own feet.

But the very fact that  organisations like the TWDF and many others have already started devising various ways in which the war widows  in the North  could be helped,  is an indication that these widows  have not been forgotten,  especially by those in the diaspora.  In spite of the adverse political climate, action is being taken by various organisations and persons  to provide  help to the widows.  However more work needs to be done to ensure that the  most  needy is given preference while  the weak and the infirm get their share of the assistance.

Whatever assistance or projects  that are put in place  for the widows, there  should be an effective monitoring mechanism to ensure that  the project  activities are in line with the project objectives.  There should be a flexibility in these projects to enable on course changes to be made to  overcome obstacles that may occur. Funds disbursed should be  systematically managed  to minimize misuse. Provision should be made for  an evaluation of the project  at regular intervals.

I hope  the TWDF would be able to take into consideration  all the matters referred to in my presentation and  launch on a carefully prepared project to expeditiously bring these widows to the main stream of our society as quickly as possible.

The writer is an independent researcher and training consultant


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