Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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War Ends, Women Struggle On

by Abdul H. Azeez, The Sunday Leader

For most women of the North and East, rebuilding their lives after the war effort has been an uphill climb. No sooner did their struggles with the LTTE and the armed conflict end; a new struggle to meet their basic rights and needs began.

In the regions newly liberated from conflict, the struggle still continues for women. Having had to go through hell in order to raise their families after losing husbands, livelihoods and basic services in a daily environment where unpredictability was the norm, they no doubt expected some quick relief, some panacea to their suffering once the conflict ended. Instead, the end itself put most of them through one last grueling, back breaking ordeal. And so far, the ‘peace dividend’ has failed to materialise.

For most women of the North and East, rebuilding their lives after the war effort has been an uphill climb. No sooner did their struggles with the LTTE and the armed conflict end; a new struggle to meet their basic rights and needs began. The travails of the war saw the number of men in the war torn areas diminish. As a result an increasing number of widows found themselves taking care of families alone, providing an income by whatever means possible to their families and trying to survive through the war.

The final stages of the Eelam war ensured that even the small amount of sustenance and basis of existence they had built up was completely destroyed. Houses were damaged and possessions were lost as the LTTE were overrun. Their savings were lost as banks closed down. What little business infrastructure that existed at the time disappeared overnight only to be replaced by the harsh ‘reconstruction’ process. Any agricultural and other livelihoods were also crushed under the retreat of the LTTE and the advance of the armed forces.

Now, in the midst of the settling dust of the war, the women of these areas have been met with a host of new challenges and threats to their existence. Most of these threats unfortunately, have stemmed from a post war process too patriarchal and bureaucratic to suit the sensitive, precarious position they have found themselves in.

“Most of the post war activities have now been taken over by men” says Jansila Majeed, a leading women’s rights activist. “They have emerged out of relative inaction to snap up all roles in the reconstruction process from the village level upwards. This has entirely disenfranchised the women from the post war rebuilding process.” Majeed adds that the non-inclusion of women has resulted in their needs largely being ignored in the broader spectrum of post-war development as well as at the ground level.

This trend has played out in different ways in different parts of the country. But most of these problems have common aspects and the common unaddressed issues are the provision of justice, security, equality and inclusivity for women.

Backbreaking work

In Mannar, long term IDPs are returning home. To them, ‘home’ consists of villages overrun by jungle and houses long demolished by weather and war. The people, mostly Muslims, who left Mannar in a mass exodus instigated by the LTTE in 1990, did so with barely the clothes on their bodies. They settled in other areas of the country and mainly in Puttalam. These families have now been told that they can return to their former homes. But this is easier said than done.

“A man can easily take a bus to Mannar and rough it while he rebuilds his family home. But can a woman do the same?” asks Juwariya Mohideen, herself an IDP from Mannar trying to relocate to her ancestral lands. She says that her own home is nothing more than an overgrown jungle now and that she can’t figure out how she is going to go about it.

“Most of the women suffering in the resettlement process are widows,” she says. Their husbands have been lost or missing during the war and now they are faced with supporting their families financially as well as taking care of household duties. “For a widow in a position like this, how is it possible to also construct a new home while she takes care of her other duties?” asks Juwariya.

Insensitive

The ignorance of the authorities when it comes to issues like this is apparent even in the smallest things. For instance, homeowners are given free cement that is supposed to be collected from the grama sevaka’s office. But these supplies are only given during morning hours, when the women are at their busiest. “The men have no problem with these things, but they don’t stop to think of the plight of the widows,” says Juwariya.

“They have to collect cement, build foundations and do a lot of other things to build their houses but they simply have no time nor the ability to concentrate on these tasks,” says Jansila Majeed. She said that some women have also fallen into debt in the process, because often new grant installments are only given after a certain amount of work is done. “Some get loans, while some do not, there are not many people who will give a widow credit,” says Majeed.

Selling and disposing of existing property has also proven difficult as most of the properties are registered in the names of husbands long pronounced dead or missing; the main problem being the extreme difficulty in procuring death certificates and other documents attesting to their deaths.

Staying awake at night

Security is also another big issue. Women trying to resettle their families often find that the security situation in the newly settled areas is very weak. For this reason they often leave their children with friends and family. This means that they have to travel long distances to see their children, causing additional stress. Jasinda from Mullaitivu says that the houses that they have been given are barely more than sheds. “We have no proper doors to speak of,” she says

The women in these areas of Mullaitivu have found it necessary to sleep during the daytime and stay awake at night, guarding their houses. Several robberies have been reported, along with more serious cases of rape and other abuse. More distressingly these houses also lack basic facilities such as bathrooms and toilets; forcing them to bathe in public places and go into the jungle for calls of nature. “The jungles are full of check points and armed forces. None of us feel comfortable in this environment,” says Jasinda.

A recent ‘shramadanaya’ or work programme organised by the government again displayed the level of insensitivity prevalent when it comes to women. Workers were paid Rs 35,000 for 55 days of grueling work and only people between the ages of 18 and 50 were allowed to participate. Obviously many widows signed up to work, but they were soon put into extreme difficulty when they were told that they could not bring their children along with them. This, for a widow who is the sole caretaker of her family, is devastating news.

Violence at home

In the midst of all this, domestic violence is on the rise and continues unpunished. Mahalakshmi, from Mannar says that “Tamil households are traditionally male dominated, but some of these men get very abusive and when this happens there is no way for the woman to find justice.” She adds that even if the parties go to the police they are simply told to go back home and “make it work”. “But how can these women continue to survive in abusive environments, they are being beaten and put under untold amounts of difficulty and stress because they can’t turn to the law for help”.

These wives, mothers and daughters are in difficulty and there is no one to help them. Yet they plod on with remarkable determination. Most of them say that the situation has improved only slightly since the arduous first few months after the war. They are happy about having peace, but they would be a whole lot happier if justice and equality were part of their daily life. Their husbands are missing, dead or simply uncaring. Their villages and local institutions are unsupportive and insensitive. Won’t the government step in to help?