The prolonged conflict in the North and East of Sri Lanka has caused massive devastation and displacement in the region. Simultaneously, the fallout from the war in the South has been considerable, affecting families of combatants who died in the war or who are reported missing.
Since the conflict began in 1983, researcher Vishaka Dissanayake of the Rana Viru Seva Authority (RVSA), a government welfare agency, says there are over 5,000 women affected by war in the South.
The RVSA was set up by an act of parliament in 2000. It supports the welfare needs of the families of missing servicemen and those killed or maimed by the war. The welfare needs of families of soldiers still in service are also looked after by RVSA. RVSA, while assisting the women affected by war in dealing with issues like housing, disrupted school education, compensation and inheritance rights, also helps them in their psychological recovery.
In early 2004, RVSA launched the Women's Empowerment Programme in 17 districts in the South. It gave the affected women a questionnaire to ascertain their individual problems. During this exercise RVSA officials found that nearly 40 per cent women were facing problems with their husbands' families. Many have had to leave their homes which they had shared with their in-laws.
In some cases, harassment was acute. Ranjam Marasinghe, who was pregnant at the time of her husband's death, was asked by her in-laws to undergo an abortion or alternatively leave the family home with her other two children.
"Sometimes, women are asked to drink poison or jump into a well by their in-laws. Often they are threatened that their children will be kidnapped," says Dissanayake. Other NGOs working in the area have found that one big problem is the long delay in getting relief and compensation. Some women were forced to work as labourers in rice fields to meet their family's daily requirements. Besides, the women also have to struggle against the trauma they undergo for losing everything.
The Centre for Family Services (CFS), an NGO operating in the villages of Moneragala, helped Seela, a war widow, get possession of her house which had been occupied by her husband's family. When CFS stepped in, it found that in addition to solving the house issue, Seela also had to be counselled, and trained to become the breadwinner of the family.
"This was no easy task," says Dharma de Alwis of CFS. "Seela, like all the women of the village, had lived a sheltered life. She and her son were dependent on her in-laws. The shock of being displaced from her own home and the trauma of facing life alone was unbearable for her." CFS played a major role in collceting evidence to prove Seela's ownership over the house.
In many instances, war widows have been pushed into the unfamiliar role of being breadwinners. "Many of these women have broken free from the accepted sociocultural norms: they are the chief wage earners in the family and look after their ageing parents as well," says Alwis.
In some cases, male family members - like the father-in-law - have tried to take advantage of the women and sexually harassed them. If the women have rcsisted, they have been thrown out of the family home.
For women whose husbands are reported 'missing in action' life is full of uncertainties. They have no death certificates and are not entitled to any benefits. In some cases, women have not even performed the last rites, in the hope that their husbands will come back. However, these women are ostracised from the community, which sees them as widows. RVSA research found that such women were even scared of speaking to another man as the villagers would spread rumours about them.
However, despite the odds, some women have started life again with fresh hope. "Besides the practical assistance given by the NGOs, I have been inspired by the television programmes on women's issues," says Sreema, who now writes poetry, something she did as a teenager, to cope with her loss.