Pakkeer Mohideen Mohamed Feroz
[Works at the Human Rights Centre for Social Justice, Sri Lanka]
The protracted armed conflict in Sri Lanka between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in May 2009. The massive displacement of the population in the north of the country which took place in the final stages of the war, nearly 684,276 people have experience in displacement as IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers. Significant numbers of the people who were allowed to return to their areas of origin in late 2009 from the IDP camps in north and east. In western Sri Lanka, over 70,000 Muslim IDPs remained in displacement in Puttalam. 20 years after being forced out of the north and north-west by the LTTE in 1990. According to the government between 8,000 and 10,000 have returned; Many still faced poverty and difficult living conditions. With the end of conflict, the older generation of IDPs was keen to return but the younger generation, which had not known life outside the camps and the region, was uncertain about this option. The women who were living in IDP’s camps or return areas, their position in Sri Lankan society is extremely vulnerable because they are dependent on the state and humanitarian agencies, with little ability to determine the course of their own lives.
Causes and Consequences of Vulnerabilities
Armed Conflict: The armed conflict affected women and men differently. Men were the main casualties of the war. Of the survivors, women were the most affected by the loss of family members, death and disappearance of income earners, migration of young men and displacement. All women were affected by the conflict though they experienced different effects based on their ethnicity, location, class and socio-economic status.
Women’s physical mobility was restricted during the conflict. And the war has resulted in large numbers of female-headed households where women have to carry out the farming and fishing activities and support parents and children. Poverty and hardship have been increased among the women.
Displacement: A large majority of the women were living in camps and return villages in Sri Lanka have lived in displacement for 10 years or more under conditions in which basic dignity and fundamental rights are merely ideals. Also the ability of women to freely make decisions about their own best interests has been curtailed nearly completely. Privacy is difficult to obtain even for toileting and bathing even after the return. The Muslims evicted from the North were living as displaced persons in other parts of the country, some on their own and some in welfare camps, some were returned to their place of origin after 20 years. Sinhalese women and their families fled the conflict areas to the South, all of the displaced either having lost their spouses or children or livelihoods; Women’s responsibilities increased in the absence of income sources. Poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and domestic violence are widespread in the return areas. Due to cultural and social factors the victims are fear to report it or hide the abuses; it makes them more vulnerable even in post conflict situations. Even though, there are lacks of data available in this regard, it could be observed that more number of victims get treatment from the hospital in case of serious (for instant it could be observed in Batticaloa Teaching Hospital). The Refugees who returned Sri Lanka from India are helpless to rebuild their life after return beyond the end of war. The refugee women are more vulnerable while they lost their spouse, family members during flee by sea.
Loss of Income Source: Rural women’s lives are tied to the natural resource base. Collapse of the agricultural sector during the conflict impoverished rural women and their families.
For instant the people from Keerisuddan return village of Mannar District had half acre land which was provided by the government with land permit, under the settlement programme in 1977/78. It was highland crop lands and the people were engaging in crop cultivation, livestock activities and poultry, home gardening and wage laboring during the harvesting in suburb villages before the displacement. After the return, they lost all the income resources, now depending on dry ration for food for survival. Each family of the 35 families who are presently living in the village were provided Rs. 35,000.00 valuable livelihoods supportive items such as sewing machine, water pump, knife and axe by a NGO function under the Madhu Church. The women headed families mentioned that the dry ration will be stopped in coming end of April 2011, after that they will face difficulties getting food for their survival.
Women have limited livelihood options in return villages. Although their main occupation was home gardening and high land crop cultivation, inadequate profits and risk of crop failure made livestock rearing preferable. Except for preparation of cooked food and a few other income-generating activities such as dress making, women had few skills for self-employment activities. Lack of employment opportunities compel many women to depend on government and nongovernmental relief while Muslim women, especially from the welfare camps, increasingly looked to overseas contract employment as a survival strategy. Further, it could be seen that presently women were engaged in domestic workers for low wage.
The women were paid less than men for equal work and experienced difficulty in rising to supervisory positions. For instant, the women farmers who were engaged in paddy harvesting in Chenkalady and Kiran DS division of Batticaloa district have been paid half of the wage of male workers during the last harvesting. The reason was gender perception. The women farmers were paid 2000 LKR per acre while men received 4000LKR for same work.
On the other hand, it is obvious in print and electronic media about the abuses and hardship faced by the housemaid who went to Middle East for the foreign employment and domestic workers within the country ( there is a need to have a study on this issues).
Domestic violence: Physical and psychological abuse within the home resulted from increased incidences of alcoholism in return villages. There are some individual incidents took place in the return villages in Batticaloa district that the male family head used to have alcohol after selling dry ration given by the state or NGO. It caused to create domestic violence against women in return villages. Due to the cultural and social factors the women family members not interested in reporting to the law enforcement mechanisms. This kind of activities makes women more vulnerable in post return situations.
According to a field study carried out by a university student in Eastern Province, the women are under mental stress due to domestic violence, difficult living conditions and the burden of household management, loss of family members, displacement and loss of assets. In Vavunatheevu Division of Batticaloa district women identified men’s alcoholism as a major issue.
Women Headed Families: Women who became heads of households with the loss of their spouses are the most visible victims of the conflict. Abandonment, separa¬tion and divorce also resulted in female-headed households. The inability of the spouse to engage in income generation pushed women to become principal income earners.
For example there are 10.52% of population is women headed families in Keerisuddan return village of Madhu division of Mannar District. The 04 women headed families consisting 06 members are living in this village. Out of these families 75% of families do not have income resources. Only one young widow (27 years old) engages as a preschool teacher for a sum of 3500.00LKR monthly remuneration, others living with relatives and surviving by getting dry ration. There is no any income generating opportunity in this village. Because they lost their all income generation sources such as live stock, home gardening, poultry due to war and displacement. Also there is no paddy cultivation done due to displacement. Due to cultural / traditional habits no widows got married in second time. 02 young widow families out of 04 widow families (50%) do not have legal document for their land. Also all the widows do not have permanent shelters. But these families were given temporary shelters by a NGO.
Poor Access to the State Mechanism: Gradual subside of public service systems due to conflict and displacement and migration aggravate women’s problems. Government services are limited and there is acute shortage of public servants and medical officers in return areas. Local representatives are ineffective. The women had no legal protection against discrimination in the private sector, where they sometimes were paid less than men for equal work and experienced difficulty in rising to supervisory positions.
According to the returnee women in Mannar District, after the return they do not suffer any attacks, harassment or any other form of punitive actions. And all the returnees who were staying at village were given temporary shelters and they enjoying by getting this without discrimination. An adequate standard of food /dry ration were providing for all the returnees families even for short period after the return. And all the returnee persons have been able to reunite with family members if they choose to do so. They are able to exercise the right to participate fully and equally in public affairs in the villages.
Although, people in remote village do not have full and non discriminatory access to national and divisional protection mechanisms, such as services from Assistant District /Divisional Registrar, Social Service Officers and Medical Officer of Public Health. Further, children who born during the displacement at the security zone which were declared by the government in the LTTE control area in the time last war do not have access to personal documentation, which typically is needed to access public services.
Lack of Commitment of Public servants: The domestic violence, spousal abuses were prohibited by the law but it was not effectively enforced. The systematic violence, discrimination during the public service was also thought to be widespread. However, enforcement of the law was not effective. While the protective measures taken by the State party for women who migrate from Sri Lanka, these women remain vulnerable to illegal employment agencies, and that many work in exploitative situations and experience violence and abuse at the hands of their employers.
Lack of knowledge among the Women : Most of the return areas were under controlled of the LTTE for two to three decades, thus there are bare about available legal protection systems in the country among the women in return area. There is a need to make aware the women & men on gender awareness, rights based approaches, legal protection systems. There is a requirement to work toward women’s participation in local governance and local level representatives to ensure attention by political leaders and government officers.
Overall, the conflict changed women’s circumstances by they have assumed roles in sharp contrast to notions of femininity and cultural values by becoming of the breadwinner of the family. Although, they are negatively affected by the poor condition of access roads, minimal transport facilities, inadequate housing, poor water supply and sanitation and limited access to health care services. The rehabilitation of infrastructure facilities and restoration of services will enable women and their families to improve their quality of life. And all programmes and projects in returnee area should include mandatory provision for a gender responsive strategy to mobilize women, overcome constraints that limit their participation and improve their capacity.