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Monday, October 2, 2023

Tragic plight of the war-widows in Sri Lanka

by Rajani Iqbal
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. This appeared in freemalaysiatoday.com


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