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8th August 1999

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Villages in these jungles

And the women who live there

Life for women in these villages is a nightmare. But
the State ignores the problems
By Farah Mihlar

"In 1994 my husband was abducted by the army and we never discovered what happened to him. After a long wait I obtained a death certificate for him. I have applied for compensation but I have not got it yet.

After my husband died I faced a lot of difficulties. I handed over my third child, a girl, who was then about 13 years old to a police constable…. There was no news from her for a long time when I went to see her; the girl was not there. They told me she had run away but there is no police report on this."- Devamalar from Namalpokuna.

It may be a cliché to say women and children are the most affected by a 16-year-old war in the north and east of Sri Lanka, but it is the reality. Today this country has more widowed women than married women and the role of a mother has changed drastically in most households. The Movement for Inter-racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) a few months ago appointed a fact-finding citizens' commission to study the problems of people who live in the border villages close to the war zone.

The stories, especially those from women, were horrifying. Border villages, or the area that came under scrutiny, are villages lining the conflict zone. Most of these villages house army camps or police posts and are caught up in confrontations between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil Tiger rebels.

The women in this area suffer the same plight of being affected by the war, but face other peculiar problems as well. "The people who live in border villages are a vulnerable group because they face attacks from both armed groups, so there are peculiar problems that women face," explains Selvi Thiruchandran, author of the book 'The other victims of war' and executive director of Women's Education and Research Centre (WERC).

Primarily among them is the increase in prostitution. Abject poverty and the lack of proper employment in these areas have made it a profitable business. More and more women are taking to prostitution and the large clientele of soldiers ensures continuous income for them.

"There is an increase of prostitution in these areas. Anuradhapura is known for this increase and there are certain people who have commented that prostitution should be legalised in these areas," says Thiruchandran. She says "In Anuradhapura alone there are some 60 brothels operating, catering to soldiers who are either going or coming from leave and travelling through the city.

The prevalence of army camps or police posts in most villages in this area that line the conflict zone has also resulted in a lot of sexual abuse against women. According to the MIRJ commissioners most women are reluctant to come up with the truth but stories of women being harassed by armed personnel were floating amongst villagers.

"A monk in one of the villages said 'We have to protect our girls from the armed forces.

"Today our girls can't even go to the temple freely and we are very afraid they may get into all kinds of situations," says Nimalka Fernando, president of MIRJ and a member of the commission.

Fernando says most villagers are concerned by the problem but can do little to change the situation.

The commission found that like in the conflict zone in the border area too women were predominantly widowed or single. Most women had either lost their husband in the war or their men had gone out to fight with the army. "What you come across in most of these villages are single women whose husbands have joined the war or become gramaarakshaka. Most of these women are engaged in servicing the army personnel," says Fernando.

"If you want to get something done in an office, when a woman goes, the guy in the office knows whether she is a single woman or a married woman and even if you want to get some of your social provisions the discussion is, you have to do favours for me. So this is the kind of culture," she says, adding that it is the peculiarity of having so much military presence in the village that has led to this situation.

"They have to keep them happy and their households are protected and these army people know these women's husbands have died.

"These kind of situations are common. It is not forced, but circumstances have compelled these women to use there bodies, use there womenhood in some form to look after their children," says Fernando.

The commissioners found that relationships between soldiers and young village girls were common and there were even cases where the girl would get pregnant and not be able to trace the father of the child." There is a promise of marriage and the parents will go in search of the soldier and the officer will say the soldier is transferred," says Fernando.

Poverty though remains the biggest problem amongst women in these areas. Most of them widowed, women find themselves having the task of being the sole income earner.

"In our village there are 38 widows. Their husbands were taken away by the army as suspected LTTErs. They have not got any compensation yet.

"I am too a widow. My husband was killed by the LTTE so I didn't find it hard to get compensation,"-statement made to the commission by Somalatha from Soriwila.

The complete breakdown of infrastructure has left few opportunities for women to earn a living. Some of them either cultivate or fish but most others work as hired labourers in nearby cities.

"The important thing to remember is these areas which are in the border are already poor economic areas where now things have got worse, so their livelihood has been cut off. The fisherman can't go out to fish, people can't go to the forest because it is mined," says Bernadeen Silva, MIRJ commissioner and assistant director of the Centre for Society and Religion.

Silva says that economic conditions in these areas are bad but the women are not seeking state aid.

"Most of the women we met, their problem was they wanted to be equipped in order to learn, they sometimes produce fruits and there is no way of sending them out so they are asking for training skills in order to learn how to preserve the food," she says.

"These people are not asking for money, they are saying please repair the tanks so we can cultivate," says Fernando. She says most of the villages are badly neglected despite still being under state control. "The government, the provincial councils, the pradheshiya sabhas all have a duty to develop these villages. They may be war-torn but are still under state control," says Fernando. The commission found a high level of malnutrition amongst women and children in these areas and the lack of proper health facilities barred a healthy lifestyle.

Poverty, abuse and threats to life are a part of the everyday scenario for women who live in these border villages. They are constantly insecure afraid that they may be caught up in fighting between the army and LTTE. Few of them have the opportunity to lead a normal life and most of them head the household.

"From a middleclass point of view we might say there is trauma but I think we have created a society that learnt to cope and live for the day," she says.

What is most alarming is the negligent attitude that the State appears to have towards these people. Their misfortune of having to live in an area that makes them vulnerable to attacks, has become a convenient excuse to ignore them.

According to the commissioners, people in this area strongly voiced their opinion against the war and demanded an end to it. There was also a strong sense of betrayal and anger expressed towards the government for its lack of interest over the problems they faced.

"They said enough is enough. We are willing to live happily they are very radical in their views saying it is an unnecessary war," says Thiruchandran, adding "They are biased against the State but not against the soldiers or the LTTE they feel the State should pay them more attention."

These women ask for such little, they only want normal living conditions so they can fend for themselves and live a decent life. But, few are even concerned of their plight.

"There are so many single women why haven't the Women's Affairs Ministry thought of having income generation projects?

"What do they mean when they say they are looking after the problems of women?

"What kind of voice has the minister raised in parliament?" asks Fernando, "All these areas have representatives in parliament, but I have never seen a single Hansard referring to their problems."

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