• Thursday, October 2, 2014
  • A program of IPS Inter Press Service supported by the Dutch MDG3 Fund

    SRI LANKA: War-Affected Women Bewail Their Plight

    By Suvendrini Kakuchi
    TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, May 25 (IPS) Although unmarried, Rajini Padamaraj,
    32, is burdened with the responsibility of
    looking after the needs of her entire household, composed of her mother
    and
    two younger siblings.

    The slightly built woman who is of Tamil ethnic origin and originally from
    the
    Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka, found a job last October as a
    sewing
    instructor in a training centre for women funded by a Japanese
    women’s
    group.

    The salary with which she supports her family – equivalent to around
    120 U.S.
    dollars monthly – is augmented by a small state allowance that her
    widowed
    mother receives and occasional extra income that she and her younger
    sister
    manage to make sewing for new clients.

    Their home just before their current one was located in Kuchaweli, a
    scenic
    town on the East that was the site of the heavy fighting between the now
    defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan
    government forces. Today, they live on the east coast, where Padamaraj
    said
    they want to restart their lives as a family. Never mind that home is a
    tin
    shack in Trincomalee, a major town on the east side of Sri Lanka.

    "With the war over in Sri Lanka, there are suggestions from various
    people
    that we go back to our old home. But we will never do that. Whatever the
    hardship, we must start our lives together here, because we need to be
    safe,"
    said Padamaraj.

    Indeed, a year since the bloody ethnic conflict ended in May 2009,
    research
    conducted by local women’s groups on the plight of the South Asian
    island
    state’s war-affected women shows employment and security are their
    top
    priorities as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Many of them lost
    their
    husbands to the war, because they were either killed or went missing
    during
    the almost 30-year civil war with the Tamil secessionists.

    A report compiled by the Association of War-Affected Women (AWAW) in
    August 2009 following a visit to the Jaffna peninsula and the east coast
    showed women continued to feel vulnerable and feared the heavy military
    presence in their areas.

    AWAW represents some 2,000 women across Sri Lanka whose sons or
    husbands were either disabled or killed during the war against the LTTE
    rebels, who were fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority.

    The women surveyed by AWAW also voiced their desperate need for economic
    stability so they could provide for their young children and elderly
    parents.
    Many of them had neither high school nor college education while others
    were younger women who had gone into computer training but still lacked
    jobs.

    "Providing better conditions for women to rebuild their lives as well
    as giving
    them a voice in postwar development must take priority as the Sri Lankan
    government moves into a large-scale resettlement and reconciliation
    process," said Visakha Dharmadasa, head of AWAW.

    Government estimates some 50,000 war widows are living on the east coast,
    including Trincomalee in the north and Batticoloa and Ampare districts
    farther south.

    Widows usually receive around 250 dollars as a one-time settlement and an
    extra 100 dollars from the state when they can produce their
    husbands’
    death certificates. On a monthly basis, they also are given food rations
    that
    barely cover their basic needs.

    A majority of the widows are Tamils, followed by Muslim and Sinhalese
    ethnic
    groups, and belong to rural farming or fishing communities, where poverty
    and malnutrition are major problems.

    Grassroots groups lobbying support for widows have expressed concern that
    the 19-member Presidential Task Force on Northern Development appointed
    by the government in May does not include a single woman.

    The task force is mandated to prepare plans and programmes to resettle
    internally displaced persons, including women, rehabilitate and develop
    the
    economic and social infrastructure of the war-torn northern province.

    Shanthi Dharmaratnam, the director of the sewing training centre where
    Padamaraj works, said the slow progress in efforts to empower conflict-
    affected womenfolk – whether by the state, the private sector or
    even
    women’s activist groups whose movements, according to her, are being
    hampered by stringent security measures on the ground – have made
    the
    women feel that they have no one else to depend on but themselves.

    "Widows and single women find a cruel word out there," said
    Dharmaratnam,
    because they are not getting "financial and psychological"
    support while
    looking after their families.

    Padamaraj’s mother, Savitri, is scared of losing her daughter.
    "I am terrified of
    losing Rajini not only because she is my daughter but because my family
    would loose our leader who has helped us keep our heads above water."

    Padamaraj and co-worker Jothi, a widow with two children, are not pinning
    their hopes on marriage as a way to escape their difficult situations,
    saying
    they are determined to fend for themselves, which they say is the
    "only way."

    "Remarriage is out of the question because a stepfather will not look
    after my
    children," said Jothi, 36, whose husband, a farmer, mysteriously
    disappeared
    five years ago. The widow suspects he was taken in for questioning by the
    armed forces and died in custody.

    Just when all hope seems lost, women have been encouraged by the election
    of the Jaffna peninsula’s female mayor – Vijayalkala
    Meheshwaran – a
    landmark in a traditionally conservative society, where women are expected
    to be homemakers and men to engage in politics.

    Dharmadasa said Meheshwaran’s election is a reflection of how Tamil
    women
    are moving to the frontlines and finding a place in development.

    "The road is long for war-affected widows," she said. Yet
    "the fight for their
    rights must go on."

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