By Feizal Samath
On May 18, some 800 women in Sri Lanka’s northern region will hold Hindu religious ceremonies for the welfare of thier husbands who disappeared or surrendered to the military as it moved in to mop up nearly three decades of armed Tamil separatism.
“These women continue to live in hope even though many of those Tamil men may have died in the last days of the fighting,” says Shreen Abdul Saroor, a prominent rights activist working with conflict-affected women in northern Sri Lanka.
“On the other hand, even if they do acknowledge that their men have died, they don’t want to be known as widows as that could result in them being seen in a negative light in the community,” Saroor explained to IPS. “They prefer to be known as single women or as women heading households.”
Traditionally, Hindus consider widows to be inauspicious and the religion does not favour remarriage. Tamils, who form 12 percent of Sri Lanka’s 20 million population, mostly follow Hinduism while Sinhalese, who make up 74 percent of the population, are predominantly Buddhist.
According to government estimates, the ethnic conflict has widowed 59,000 women, the bulk of them in the Tamil-dominated north and east.
With rehabilitation tardy and options to earn money few, many women have been compelled to resort to sex work to earn a livelihood and provide for their families.
“We try to wean them away from sex work but they say they have no choice,” says an activist asking not to be named for fear of reprisal. “We provide the women with condoms and give advice on contraception as protection.”
The government is selective about permitting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to work in the north. Only NGOs involved in development work – housing, livelihood development and infrastructure – are allowed in, while those that raise awareness on issues like peace, trauma or women’s rights are discouraged.
“The moment you say you are from an NGO, there are issues,” says Saroor who is founder of the Northern Mannar Women’s Development Federation and the Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy.
Saroor, one of four winners of the first ‘N-PEACE’ award, instituted by the United Nations Development Programme last year, says abuse of girl children is now a major problem in the north and with 26 cases recorded in the last three months alone. Many more cases go unreported.
The N-PEACE (Engage for Peace, Equality, Access, Community and Empowerment) strategy supports women in leading community recovery and peace building in the networked countries of Nepal, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste.
There is concern that the atmosphere of uncertainty, caused by lack of resources, broken families and the absence of responsible males, has impacted the security of young girls.
“In one case, a nine-year-old was abused. Women say they are scared to leave their homes fearing for the safety of their children. So how do we provide them a livelihood?” Saroor asked.
The problems of women in northern Sri Lanka are enormous with their inability to speak out a major hurdle in the post-conflict healing process.
“They have no opportunity to tell their stories,” says Shanthi Sachithanandam, executive director of the Viluthu Centre for Human Resource Development that works with conflict-affected women. “There is an urgent need for counselling.”
The government has repeatedly denied charges by Western countries and international human rights groups that large numbers of civilians were killed in crossfire and aerial bombing in the months leading to May 2009.
Journalists were not permitted into the war zone and NGOs and humanitarian agencies asked to leave, with the result that there are no independent versions of what may have happened in the killing fields of the north.
In March, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council passed a United States-proposed resolution calling for implementation of recommendations made by Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as a measure of accountability.
The LLRC, appointed by the government to look into issues relating to the conflict from February 2002 to May 2009, called for a probe into allegations of deliberate attacks on civilians and the prosecution of those responsible.
Rights groups working with war widows and mothers who lost their loved ones, fear repercussions if they dare to speak out publicly on sensitive issues.
When Seela (not her real name) spoke to reporters some weeks ago about a northern village where women have turned to sex work en masse, she and other members of her organisation received threats.
“These women are very vulnerable. We are very concerned about their plight and want to help them liberate themselves from this trap but there is not much we can do without support from the state,” she told IPS.
Seela said the lack of awareness of birth control methods has led to illegitimate babies being born and reports of spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Visaka Dharmadasa, founder and chair of the association of war affected women and parents of soldiers missing in action, said a clearer picture would emerge when a survey being conducted by her organisation is completed in June.
“No comprehensive study has been done on the software issues (fate of the missing and trauma) in the north and the east. Only the hardware (infrastructure and development) is being addressed,” she said.
“Widows of (government) soldiers are better off economically than widows in the north and the east, but in both cases social and psychosocial issues have not been tackled. These are major challenges,” Dharmadasa said.
According to Sachithanandam rehabilitation in the north has been difficult with loans for livelihood development and empowerment failing to reach the intended beneficiaries.
“Multilateral agencies say women are key to post-war reconstruction. But the women are confined to the house because of young children,” said Sachithanandam. “Small loans given for goat-rearing or poultry-raising vanish when the animals die and the women are back to square one.”
That, says Saroor, is the point when women look at sex work as an option.
The LLRC report drew attention to the plight of Tamil widows. “Their lives are often lonely and insecure, and they are treated as a symbol of bad omen in their own social circles.”
Problems start with the definition of widowhood. While widows elsewhere in the country have marriage certificates to prove marital status, women in the north are unable to produce documents because of the destruction of official records during the war.
Military spokesman Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya told IPS that of 11,995 suspected rebel cadres who surrendered in May 2009, with 10,874 have been rehabilitated and reintegrated into civilian life.
Another 852 are in detention with investigations continuing or undergoing rehabilitation ahead of release while 13 had died of natural causes, the spokesman said.