TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, May 25, 2010 (IPS) – Rajini Padamaraj, 32, is burdened with the responsibility of looking after the needs of her entire household, composed of her mother and two younger siblings.
The slightly built woman, who remains unmarried, is of Tamil ethnic origin and originally from the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. She found a job last October as a sewing instructor in a training centre for women funded by a Japanese women’s group.
The salary with which she supports her family – equivalent to around 120 U.S. dollars monthly – is augmented by a small state allowance that her widowed mother receives and occasional extra income that she and her younger sister manage to make sewing for new clients.
Their home just before their current one was located in Kuchaweli, a scenic town on the East that was the site of the heavy fighting between the now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government forces. Today, they live on the east coast, where Padamaraj said they want to restart their lives as a family. Never mind that home is a tin shack in Trincomalee, a major town on the east side of Sri Lanka.
“With the war over in Sri Lanka, there are suggestions from various people that we go back to our old home. But we will never do that. Whatever hardships we face, we must start our lives together here, because we need to be safe,” said Padamaraj.
Indeed, a year since the bloody ethnic conflict ended in May 2009, research conducted by local women’s groups on the plight of the South Asian island state’s war-affected women shows employment and security are their top priorities as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Many of them lost their husbands to the war, because they were either killed or went missing during the almost 30-year conflict with the Tamil secessionists.
A report compiled by the Association of War-Affected Women (AWAW) in August 2009 following a visit to the Jaffna peninsula and the east coast showed women continued to feel vulnerable and feared the heavy military presence in their areas.
AWAW represents some 2,000 women across Sri Lanka whose sons or husbands were either disabled or killed during the war against the LTTE rebels, who were fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority.
The women surveyed by AWAW also voiced their desperate need for economic stability so they could provide for their young children and elderly parents. Many of them had neither high school nor college education while others were younger women who had gone into computer training but still lacked jobs.
“Providing better conditions for women to rebuild their lives as well as giving them a voice in postwar development must take priority as the Sri Lankan government moves into a large-scale resettlement and reconciliation process,” said Visakha Dharmadasa, head of AWAW.
Government estimates some 50,000 war widows are living on the east coast, including Trincomalee in the north and Batticoloa and Ampare districts farther south.
Widows usually receive around 250 dollars as a one-time settlement and an extra 100 dollars from the state when they can produce their husbands’ death certificates. On a monthly basis, they also get food rations that barely cover their basic needs.
A majority of the widows are Tamils, followed by Muslim and Sinhalese ethnic groups, and belong to rural farming or fishing communities, where poverty and malnutrition are major problems.
Grassroots groups lobbying support for widows have expressed concern that the 19-member Presidential Task Force on Northern Development appointed by the government in May does not include a single woman.
The task force is mandated to prepare plans and programmes to resettle internally displaced persons, including women, rehabilitate and develop the economic and social infrastructure of the war-torn northern province.
Shanthi Dharmaratnam, the director of the sewing training centre where Padamaraj works, said the slow progress in efforts to empower conflict- affected womenfolk – whether by the state, the private sector or even women’s activist groups whose movements, according to her, are being hampered by stringent security measures on the ground – has made the women feel that they have no one else to depend on but themselves.
“Widows and single women find a cruel word out there,” said Dharmaratnam, because they are not getting “financial and psychological” support while looking after their families.
Padamaraj’s mother, Savitri, is scared of losing her daughter. “I am terrified of losing Rajini not only because she is my daughter but because my family would loose our leader who has helped us keep our heads above water.”
Padamaraj and co-worker Jothi, a widow with two children, are not pinning their hopes on marriage as a way to escape their difficult situations, saying they are determined to fend for themselves, which they say is the “only way.”
“Remarriage is out of the question because a stepfather will not look after my children,” said Jothi, 36, whose husband, a farmer, mysteriously disappeared five years ago. The widow suspects he was taken in for questioning by the armed forces and died in custody.
Just when all hope seems lost, women have been encouraged by the election of the Jaffna peninsula’s female mayor – Vijayalkala Meheshwaran – a landmark in a traditionally conservative society, where women are expected to be homemakers and men to engage in politics.
Dharmadasa said Meheshwaran’s election is a reflection of how Tamil women are moving to the frontlines and finding a place in development.
“The road is long for war-affected widows,” she said. Yet “the fight for their rights must go on.”