At a time the blazing sun’s heat was boiling the still waters of Nandikadal lagoon situated in the South Eastern part of mullaitivu, we arrived at Salewaraji’s residence. Through the walls of her shabby and small house, dark shadows of a sad past were thoroughly visible. “During the height of war my husband and three off my children were killed by shell fire. Now with the remaining three children I have been compelled to make a living with utmost difficulty” she said.
47 year old Salevaraji (assumed name) who lives in Kapopilaw, Mullaitiu, along with her three children had lived in IDP camps for over two and a half years after the end of war. During the war her husband had provided for the family by selling sweets in LTTE bunkers in Walliyamulliwaikkal. Unfortunately on the 29th of May 2009 her husband along with three children had perished from a shell attack. Two other children who had survived the blast have become disabled. At present Salevaraji has been compelled to make a living along with these two disabled children and one other child. The never-ending burden of life and unemployment
“Only one of my children is doing a job. He is earning some money by fishing. Our whole family depends on what he earns. Even he is carrying out his work without any facility. Although the government promised to give us fishing nets so far we have not received anything. The disabled children cannot do any work. I cannot send them away. Selvaraji puts out her sorrow without a pause. From time to time she wipes off tears from her eyes.
“ We need money to live. We need money to buy medicine for the children. Previously they were treated by the Army. I too am earning a little money by preparing food for villagers. Even that is hard to continue as we all are ridden by poverty”.
This plight is not confined only to Mullaitivu. According to investigations carried out by various civil society organisations it has been uncovered that around 40,000-60,000 women have become widows in the North. In a recent survey conducted by the government 50,000 families have reported that they are headed by females. According to the 2012/13 Domestic unit income and expenses report of the department of statistics the majority of the female heads of household belongs to the 40-59 age group. Half of them are widows.
The 30 year war has destroyed the lives of widows in the North. “Even after the conclusion of the war, the problem of war widows has become a serious issue. It is only now that its true impact has started to emerge. Economically they have faced various problems,” Additional District Secretary of Mulllaitivu District Mr. M. Mohandas says. The biggest problem is that these women do not have sufficient means to provide for their families. Although the North has witnessed some infrastructural development after the war, it has not done much to thousands of poverty-ridden women such as Selvaraji. “Even during the war we had no means of employment. That is why my husband tried to sell sweets. Even now there is no favourable condition to earn money. I am only able to find some money by cooking meals for neighbours,” Selvaraji said. This problem of unemployment among women in North was confirmed by Mohandas as well.
Is the Govt support on widows adequate?
According to 2014 Govt statistics unemployment among women in Sri Lanka is 65 percent. Out of the four districts that have the most number of unemployed women, Killinochchi and Mulliativu are at the top. At present a project has been initiated to empower the war widows here. The Ministry for Women and children’s affairs has allocated Rs. 5.43 Million to provide self employment facilities to war widows. Under this project 181 families would receive a monthly allowance of Rs. 30,000. Further, over 54000 families in Jaffna are receiving Samurdhi benefits. However, when queried as to how many war widows are receiving Samurdhi benefits, the Samurdhi officer at the Jaffna District secretariat office said that he was unaware of the number. Apart from this the government has also initiated a programme to grant a monthly allowance of Rs.3000 for families affected by the war.
However, Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Vigneshwaran points out that this programme is not something that is focused on war widows and that the government officials do not have any clear idea as to what type of families that can be admitted to the category of “families affected by the war”
“Even having enough funds at hand, these officials do not give them to those who are in need. When asked why they are not giving away the funds, they said that they had not yet identified the various need groups. When asked as to how they are planning to dispense the funds, they said that the families must personally apply for it. Then I explained to them that the people would never do such a thing,” Vigneshwaran said. Claiming that he had instructed development officials to look for families in need by engaging in field visits, the Chief Minister further claimed that the Prime Minister has also listened to his proposal of increasing the allowance to Rs 6000 Rupees. “We have decided to allocate the majority of the Rs 6 Million funds that we have received from the consolidated fund, for the benefit of war widows. Up until recently there was no ministry for women’s affairs in the Northern provincial council. Now we have set up such a ministry. We did not receive any government funding for this. We have requested funds from international organisations” he said.
Expressing his views on the matter, Northern Province Governor Reginald Cooray said that although the government and the international community have spent a fortune on rebuilding the North, it has still not been able to cure all the wounds of war. “There are two main reasons that have aggravated the problem of widows in the North. First, as a percentage from the entire population in the area, the number of women is very high. Since a lot of lives have been lost in war the situation has become even worse. The second reason is the added burden that has fallen on these widows such as feeding and teaching the children while having to provide for the family. These reasons have pushed these women in to misery. “ the Governor said. Meanwhile the chairman of the national committee for war widows Mrs. Shantha Abhimanasingham PC points out that the small scale projects initiated by the central and provincial government aimed at the welfare of war widows, they are inadequate to address the issues faced by them. “During the LTTE insurgency most of these women had lived by cultivating in government and other deserted lands. However, since many of the land had fallen in to the hands of the military as well as the owners who had gone abroad a long time ago, their way of living has been threatened. They have even lost their houses. Since the prices of necessary commodities are still high, they have faced many difficulties in surviving,” she further said.
“This has prevented them from sending their children off to school. They are not able to bear the expenses of books and transport. If this continues, there is a danger of uneducated youth falling into dangerous ways” Abhimanasingham said. At present, for a woman to live alone in society is like getting stranded in the ocean. Especially women who are left helpless due to the burden of providing for their families often become easy prey for wrongdoers. Re-marriage is frowned upon in the Sri Lankan culture, especially in the North. Therefore the widows in the North have faced an immense problem of survival. Unemployment, economic hardships, education of the children, sexual abuse and mental stress are some of the problems faced by these women. There are 1237 war widows in Killinochchi alone. Out of the 4967 widows 1442 have suffered their fate from the war. 985 families are headed by women below 40 years. In the Jaffna district there are 13000 families that are headed by women.
34 year old Parameshwari’s husband had died in 2009 from a landmine. Being a mother of four children she is living a hard life. “When my husband died our youngest daughter was only two months old. My husband was the sole provider for the family. He was a fisherman. I got married at the age of 16. My father had also perished in the sea. After my husband’s death I could not figure out how to survive alone. There were many problems. Even though I wanted to send my children to school it was not possible. I had given up all hopes of living, but I had to hold on for the sake of my children. In 2010 an NGO came to help me. Now I make my living by selling sweets but that is not enough to provide for my children. Now my eldest son is working as a labourer. “Parameshwari is living with mental stress. Although she is receiving help from her relatives, the loss of a father and a husband has become a serious problem. She expressed her dislike towards getting married again.
“I thought of getting married again but I cannot do so while the children are around. There was such a woman in our village who got married again but the villagers spoke ill of her. I do not need to suffer such insults. It would not be good for the children too. What would happen to them if I could not look after them after getting married?”
This is how Parameshwari sees the issue of re-marriage. Is re-marriage off limits to a widow? For most widows in the North it is against their religious culture and they continue to live alone and bear up the hardships of life. Furthermore they have doubts as to whether the new husband would be trustworthy and whether the children would be looked after.
In a survey conducted by the Jaffna Women’s Development Center it has been revealed that 52 percent of the widows have consented to a re-marriage but 42 percent have refused to comment. Many have not spoken about getting abused. Hence the Tamil community must be more sympathetic and humane towards these war widows.
The problem of dowry has also prevented many widows from thinking about a re-marriage, the Center says. For a woman who is making a living out of scraps, finding a dowry would be like falling into the fire from the frying pan. There is an urgent need of providing physical and mental health support to these women. Not only the widows, but also their relatives must be made aware of these problems.
“The majority of war widows are young women. In order to rebuild their lives the cultural bonds must be relaxed, former dean of the Jaffna University Art Faculty and the head of the Social Sciences department,” Prof. R. Shivachandran says. He pointed out that Tamil political leaders including the TNA must make a request from the public to allow these widows to re-marry. “Even at the height of war these women had means of earning an income. Some were even proud that their relatives were in the LTTE and since all such things have now been wiped off they have faced a serious mental collapse. Even though it is not shown these are the reasons why some widows are prone to prostitution, narcotics and even suicide.
“Getting married at an early age due to the war, getting abused and cultural barriers have aggravated mental problems among these women,” Psychiatrist at the Mullaitivu hospital Dr. C. Wijendran says. Many political parties and NGOs have raised their concern about the rising level of prostitution in the area. So far accurate data has not been received. Under this crippled social system, there is no wonder why these women turn into such darker ways. The lives of thousands of widows living in the north and the lives of their family members cannot be cured just by bags of cash.