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Friday, February 23, 2024

Pathetic plight of war widows in Eastern Province

By Camelia Nathaniel
Despite the fact that it has been three-and-a-half years since the war that ravaged this country ended, the sufferings of thousands of war widows have been ignored. 

These widows continue to live in poverty and suffer from social stigmatisation and economic deprivation, purely because they have lost their husbands.

According to the Assistant Divisional Secretary of Koralai Pattu in Valachchna, there are an estimated 374 war widows in the Koralepattu village in the Valachchenai Divisional Secretariat alone. The majority of them have had no proper education and are struggling to feed their families, said.

According to statistics available in Batticaloa District Secretariat, 184 war widows in five villages (Weligahakandiya, Kopawali, Thumpalochcholai, Kithul and Urukamam), are still forced to live in temporary shelters without water, electricity and toilet facilities. Some of them, who have returned to their original lands with their families, are still living in makeshift shelters while their belongings are stacked up in the open.
On an average, each widow has at least two or three children who have to be fed and looked after with the meagre amounts they earn by doing odd jobs, or engaging in either sewing or making food items, that barely keeps the home fires burning. They also have to provide for the education and healthcare of the children.

Multiple roles

Most of the women had been forced to become the breadwinners of their families, upon the death or disappearance of their husbands. However, they have not been equipped for the role, either with education or job skills and also consequently most of them have become destitute; hardly able to feed themselves or their children. The husbands of some of these widows were combatants under the LTTE, while others had been engaged in fishing activities.
Some of these women had been pregnant at the time of the death or disappearance of their husbands. They claim that their husbands were either taken away by the military, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) or the LTTE. Most of these women are still uncertain as to whether their husbands are still alive or dead, making it difficult for them to put an end to their emotional and mental turmoil.

A widow with children has to play the role of the father and the mother for them. This becomes a challenging task to many who find it difficult to keep an eye on their children, while they are away from home, at work or otherwise. The widows who have grown up girls in their homes dare not leave them alone. Hence, they cannot think of any livelihood activities away from the home, and prefer to engage in cottage industries that will bring them some revenue to help sustain their families.

Sad stories

Ceylon Today met some of these war widows in the Batticaloa District who spoke of their suffering and struggle to keep their families provided for.

Nithyakala Sugandhini said her husband was a trishaw driver, and in 2006 he was abducted and later killed. Until today, she does not know who abducted him or why he was killed.

Sugandhini has three children. “When my husband was killed, I could not bear the grief and my youngest son too was devastated. Both, my youngest son and I, had to be treated at the mental hospital for six months subsequent to the death of my husband,” she admitted.

Another war widow, Kandaiya Rukmani, a mother of four children said she had to undergo untold hardships to bring up her three children. “My husband was taken away by the armed forces and I have no idea up-to-date as to what has happened to him. All my children are girls and it was very difficult for me to leave them and go out to find work. I was afraid of my children being taken away too. My oldest daughter is married, but her husband has left her, and now I have to take care of her son too. I have been making string hoppers and other items in order to provide for my family. We have no one to look into our grievances and have been forgotten by the authorities and even our own families,” she lamented.

Leonis Kusuma, another war widow, speaking of her heartache, recalled the day her husband was killed leaving her to bring up her children singlehandedly. The IPKF soldiers took her husband away on 2 August 1990. She has not heard from him since and has no idea what happened to him. Her son was also taken away, this time by the LTTE. He had been sitting for his Advanced Level Examinations in 2006, when the LTTE barged into their home and took him away, right before her eyes. Today, she provides for her remaining family by rearing chickens and doing some tailoring work for the people in the area; they had to begin their lives from scratch as their house was also burned down by the IPKF.

Velan Chinnapullai too had her husband taken away and later learnt of his death. “The IPKF took my husband away and beat him severely. He was engaged in fishing activities at the time, and he succumbed to the injuries sustained during the beating. I have two children, and they were only two and one-and-a-half years old respectively when they lost their father,” she said. Since then, she and her family have had to endure untold sufferings. She had to take care of her children and provide for them, while not having any source of income at the time. She began collecting coconuts from the coastal estates and selling them in the town to earn a meagre sum to feed her children.

Kadiramalai Kamalan’s husband had also been taken away in 2004 and was later killed. “I have four sons and I was on pins till the war ended fearing that my sons will be taken away too. Our house was also destroyed in the war and now we live in this makeshift shed as we have nowhere else to go. I provided for my family by sewing and selling the milk from the cow we owned. Now my eyesight too has deteriorated and I cannot see to engage in sewing anymore,” she added. Kanawathipillai Thawamani’s husband was taken away while they were at a IDP camp near the Eastern University, along with 148 others.

Skills development assistance

At a stage when most of the war widows were facing the dilemma of having to feed and take care of their families, a German organisation Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) established in the country for a considerable period of time came up with a plan to help these women build their lives. Instead of simply granting them handouts, they joined hands with Sampath Bank and Competency-based Economies through Formation of Enterprise (CEFENET), to assist these war widows on ways of developing their skills in order to provide them with sustainable livelihoods. Furthermore, the bank has also stepped forward to provide these women loans at concessionary rates to help them establish their businesses.

Branch Manager of Sampath Bank in Oddamavadi, Sivasithamparam Neelavannan said, “As a company that takes to heart the corporate social responsibility, it gave us great pleasure to be part of it, and also, we were convinced that it was a viable project. We were especially pleased to be able to assist these war widows as they had endured so much during the conflict period and even now, are in a helpless state, caring for their families and engaging in various income generating ventures at a very preliminary level.” Although the women were working very hard, they were not generating enough to compensate for their effort.
Groups most affected by war

Elaborating on the role played by GIZ in providing the war widows the opportunity, Juergen Depta, Senior Advisor said, “We selected the war widows because they are one of the groups that are most affected by the war. They have lost their husbands; they have children that they have to take care of and they receive very little or nothing from anywhere. Our intention was to improve their livelihoods so that they can support their families, as these women are one of the poorest groups most affected by the war,” he added.

However, these are only some of the war widows in this country and from one particular region. There are many more from around the country facing the same dilemma. A total of 27,953 service personnel have been killed in the war, where a majority of them were married. Around 10,827 civilians have also been killed in LTTE attacks from 1972 to 2008, according to statistics available with the Sri Lanka Army.

Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities share almost equal representation where this problem is concerned, around the country, and all three communities have their share of war widows. Unfortunately, there are few positive developments for these widows, especially in the East, where they are left to cope on their own. courtesy: Ceylon Today


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