Victors not victims

Wednesday, 3 June 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Cabinet last week gave the nod for Rs. 160 million to be distributed among 2,175 internally displaced families in the east. While the measure is welcomed, addressing serious issues of livelihoods and other rehabilitation requirements will require a comprehensive plan, particularly if they are to competently deal with issues such as war widows. 

The Government estimates around 50,000 women-headed households can be found in the Northern Province. Civil society organisations usually put the number at a higher point. There are more than 40,000 widows including 26,340 in Jaffna District, according to Centre for Women and Development. There are 89,000 widows in the north and east of Sri Lanka, according to data previously released by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs – and the issue isn’t limited to just two provinces. 

The Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) 2009/2010, which was conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics, reveals that out of five million households in Sri Lanka, 1.1 million (23%) households are headed by women. Most of the women-headed households are in the 40-59 age group, while 50% of them are widows, and 4.5% are reported as never married. In fact, there are records of women being widowed when very young and facing deep socioeconomic challenges. 

Undoubtedly, the high percentage of widows can be attributed to the prolonged war in Sri Lanka. A research study book published in 2014 titled ‘Invisible Forgotten Sufferers: The Plight of Widows Around the World’ reveals that there are an estimated 245 million widows worldwide, and 115 million widows live in poverty and social stigmatisation. These women are in constant search for a sustainable source of livelihood. Most of these women including those in Sri Lanka are sole breadwinners and face a myriad of challenges in obtaining their rights. 

Women who head households are often absent, working as daily labourers and leaving their children without adequate care and protection. Field reports indicate that in this environment new partners of widows or extended family members are perpetrating abuse against children. Women also face social stigma and struggle to find psychological closure.

Undoubtedly, a strong policy and institutional framework needs to be in place in order to support those left behind. In addition to a system which offers psychological strength for war widows to cope with their losses, of particular importance is financial assistance to these female-headed households. While a fairly good pension scheme does exist in Sri Lanka, it is indeed unfortunate that such widows who wish to remarry are deprived of their pension.

A national plan that would consistently provide for war widows on both sides of the divide is an essential component of reconciliation. Even though the Government’s promised domestic mechanism to investigate cases of people who went missing will assist grieving family members, there is much more physical assistance that can be provided to empower these women who have survived horrors beyond imagining.

State assistance is also crucial to reduce social stigma and allow these women to become fully-fledged members of society. It is time to see them as victors and not victims.