Sri Lanka: War Heroes Were Needed, but War Widows Are Discarded

The genocidal war in the north and east of Sri Lanka, which ended in May 2009, has created more than 68,000 widows. On the other hand, there are another 30,000 widows in the southern part of the country due to the demise of soldiers of the government forces.

Though originally their spouses fought the war from opposite camps, now these women who are surviving war victims face a common fate of penury, poverty and negligence. While government of President Mahinda Rajapakse boasts loudly of the war victory and war heroes, it is keeping mum over the women and children who have become destitute due to this war.

The widowed women in the North of Sri Lanka are in a desperate situation as they are left with no proper means of livelihood. Even day-to-day living has become unbearable for them and especially upbringing of children is a nightmare in the true sense of the word. A large number of women with their children were herded in IDP camps under the control of the government forces under minimal facilities after the war and now they have been nominally resettled without any means of livelihood or economic program at the base. Although these women are out of IDP camps now they have become refugees in their own villages. They have been made to live in tent like dwellings made of several metal sheets and compelled to live like slaves without water and sanitation facilities and any income or security. The Sri Lankan government has appointed a Commission called ‘Lessons learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ to inquire into the final stages of war. This Commission seems to eyewash and it meant to deflect the world outcry about the war crimes allegations against the government and its security forces. Nevertheless most of the women affected by the war came before this Commission to air their grievances’ as this was the only forum available for them in their own areas to unravel their unfortunate situation. Most of them disclosed that their husbands and sons surrendered to the Army and they were taken away and that they have not heard from them in nearly two years. They demanded that the government should account for those disappeared and provide details of those who are in detention. Government has not responded officially to these allegations. However, the Bishop of Mannar (North of Sri Lanka) Rayappu Joseph has stated that around 140,000 people have either gone missing or disappeared. These women in coming before this Commission and giving evidence in the open have shown the courage and brevity, which was latent in them and determination to fight for justice.

These Women not only expressed their grievances to the world but also their fighting spirits in the face of many odds. Majority of the women who came before this Commission were women whose husbands or parents were killed or disappeared during the war. Though the government has stated that they would draw special attention to these women to uplift their condition these are mere words, since no meaningful action has been taken towards this plight of war victims. The North of Sri Lanka is still under full military control. Psychological effects of these women due to the war and continued military pressure have not been properly addressed. Children’s education has also been gravely affected, whereas only the schools in cities are functioning.

Widows of the security forces personnel in the south also face this predicament. Many of them do not have a house of their own. They face immense hardships in respect of upkeep of their lives and education of their children. Social attitudes towards these widows are very negative in the Sri Lankan society irrespective of their ethnicity and it is immaterial whether their husbands are considered as ‘war heroes’. Sometimes these women are targets of sexual harassment in their day today lives.

It has been reported that majority of these women are unable to get the pension of their dead husbands, which is legally available to them. Many of these war widows have been humiliated and times have been asked for sexual gratification for arranging these pensions, getting their children admitted to schools and obtaining housing etc., for some time these widows were deprived of getting re-married on the basis that if they re-married, they would be denied the pension. Due to the struggle and agitation of many human rights groups this rule was abolished recently.

Sri Lanka is in the midst of a local government election at the moment. As the local government intuitions are the closest political institution to the ordinary people, there have been an outcry by the women’s groups, a certain quota be allocated for women in these Councils and nomination lists of the political parties for these elections. Though some neighboring south Asian countries have enacted such legislations, women’s organization and left parties have been agitating for quite some time. The present government has only paid lip service to this demand and has not taken any positive step in this regard. At the same time the main political parties have given nominations to only a handful of women, merely as a face saving mechanism. The political establishment in this country is not ready to enhance the political representation of women even at the grass root level let alone the top.

Subjugation of women in our society is most visible in the paddy fields to political arena. All the major parties are under male domination even when their leader has been a woman. Almost all the women higher up in the political ladder are and have been wives or daughters of male politicians. Although many women holding higher positions are in the public and administrative services, women have no place in decision making. Politics in Sri Lanka is infested with corruption, fraud and thuggery which keeps women off from engaging in active politics, this forced apathy leaves the field free for the corrupt male politicians to dominate the politics of this island country.

There are many other sectors in our society where women play a key role but their contributions are not recognized properly. Women constitute 52% of the population. However, they have been forced to go behind men for everything. Under the constitution men and women have equal rights, but in practice women have been subjected to subjugation. In the political establishment it is evident that there is a lack of will to recognize women as equal partners in the country’s development. Social progress cannot be achieved without the proper participation of women. However, only the socialists are fighting for this to make it a reality. The real meaning of the international women’s day could be only achieved when this capitalist, anti-people and anti-women regime is replaced with government workers, women, youth and peasants under a program of socialism with equal rights to all genders and nationalities. We urge all the women who advocate equal rights and also those who have been discriminated during war time as well as suffering widows and children to join hands with socialists under the banner of United Socialist Party (CWI-Sri Lanka) to win their rights.

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March 2011