Peace activist Lillian Wald once said that women, more than men, have the ability to strip war of its glamour - its outdated heroisms, patriotisms and perceive it for what it really is; a demon of destruction and hideous wrong.
Sitting on the rough, mud thatched door ledge of her little shelter, Nadaraja Letchchami’ (31) has her eyes fixed on the horizon, as if in a trance. Her trail of thought shatters as her son hugs her. Cuddling up to her warmth, his tiny arms around her neck he asks, “Amma, ende appa engey? (Mummy, where is daddy?)”. After almost three years of whipping-up stories of his father’s whereabouts, Letchchami has now run out of answers.
Letchchami and her husband Wilson Nadaraja never shared a regular life. As if spending every second of their lives in mortal fear wasn’t enough, Nadaraja received orders to join the liberation battle when Letchchami was expecting her son. “He never thought twice about joining the LTTE because either ways he knew it would end in death,” she said.
She gets up and walks into her little shack and comes out with a laminated photograph. It is an image of a young man and a young girl possibly in her teens, coyly posing against a studio backdrop. She says it’s the only picture of them together; the only memoir of the father of their only son. “The last I saw of my husband was in Wanni. When the battles grew fierce we decided we had to flee. My husband arranged for my son and myself, to travel and went to my mother-in-law’s house to help her. We agreed to meet in Trincomalee,” Letchchami says. But they had not reunited as promised.
Today, Letchchami lives with her four-year-old son in a little shack they have built for themselves in the backwoods of Kilinochchi. She works as a seamstress. They had left the IDP camp last year and during the release, she had received Rs. 25,000 for the construction of the shack and sanitation facilities and dry rations sufficient for nine months. “But once the rations ran out, the assurance of a daily meal was little. Now I work extra so that my son and I can have a good life,” she says; an innocent smile lighting up her face.
The little one, without a grapple with the harsh realities around him does not wish to be bothered by the qualms of the adult world. He carefully takes the photograph which Letchchami holds and hugs it. Life is hard without her husband, Letchchami says, but she is not willing to give up her fight to find him. “I have visited every possible government establishment to get information about my husband and yet I still haven’t been able to know whether he is dead or alive. I’ve been told to forget, to give up hope. But I know that he is alive, I know he will come for us someday,” Letchchami says with certainty.
This young woman is one of the many imprints left by the conflict. With no stable income or financial assistance and a child to take care of, Letchchami represents the plight of the hundreds of young widows in the North, living in the depths of poverty. She has no plans or ideas for her child’s future, but eagerly awaits her husband’s return – which may or may not happen in her lifetime.
Robbed of their land
A resident of the Kiliweddi IDP camp (or a welfare centre as the government prefers to call it) in Trincomalee, Naagamma - a mother of two daughters, is worried about the uncertain futures of her children. “My husband used to be a farmer. Our family was quite well-to-do before this unfortunate situation befell us. My husband was very keen on educating the children so we admitted them to schools in Colombo. Everything fell apart when the battles grew fierce,” Naagamma says, relating her plight.
Once Naagamma and her family were compelled to leave their homes in Sampur, their lives had changed entirely. Now, she is convinced its forever. “The shelling grew worse and we were no longer in a state to save ourselves by simply running and hiding.” Their livelihoods cutoff and no certainty of what was to come, the daughters had been made to give up schooling and return to their parents.
This family of four is cramped into one of the temporary shacks in the camp. “Now that the war is over, we wish to return to our homes. But the government refuses to return our lands claiming it is a high security zone. We have been given an alternative choice to settle in the area of Rakkuli. But we have refused because the land is barren and not suitable for any kind of cultivation,” she says.
She is not alone in this quandary; many families residing in the Kiliweddi camp share the same plight. It is their lands that are acquired by the government for the construction of a power plant in collaboration with the Indian government.
Naagamma does not wish to settle anywhere but back in Sampur. “That property is our inheritance. We spent our earnings on those lands and we wish for their ownership to be handed down to our children someday. Besides, I have two daughters and what am I going to give as the dowry during their marriages?” she questions with rage. “We are not asking for money, we are simply asking for what is rightfully ours.”
A young dream
Sinduja (16) isn’t the ordinary teenager in her sweet sixteen. She says the life she led during the past few years has made her tougher and mature. She is currently preparing for her A/L examination.
“My ambition was to be a teacher but I no longer have long-term goals. I have come to realise that what is best for us is to take one day at a time,” she says smiling weakly.
This young girl in the brink of her youth has no fancy dreams unlike other girls of her age. Her dream is to bring some light to the lives of the children affected by the war, to help them understand the value of education. “Life was so easy when we were young, when we were unaware of life’s battles. Things are no longer that simple; life has got tougher. I have realised that if I keep on grieving over what is lost, I would have to continue it for the rest of my life. I will not allow that to happen,” she says with certainty, her face now easing up as she smiles at us brightly.
Although the end of war should ideally bring about a significant change in the lives of those affected by it, these women still remain forgotten; their grievances unheard of, their dreams unrealised.
With such significance and hype placed on returning to normalcy and reaching reconciliation, no amount of reports or projects seem to have brought a change to the issues faced by these women. It is time for the government and its relevant authorities, mainly the Women and Children’s Affairs Ministry to pioneer a movement to shed some light into their darkened lives, before their hopes die within them.
Names have been changed to protect identity.
‘Increase in domestic violence incidents in the North’ – WIN
A non-governmental organisation specialising in women empowerment, women and child abuse prevention – Women in Need (WIN), said the majority of women who seek their assistance are concerning economic difficulties and psychological issues.
“There are a large number of single-parent households and single mothers in the North. The women find it tough to depend upon the welfare schemes provided by the government alone. Therefore, we have introduced self-employment and livelihood schemes for such women, while also providing financial advice,” a WIN – Jaffna official said.
The official claims among other burning issues are the high prevalence of domestic violence. “Most men and women in these areas suffered immensely during the days of the conflict. The abuse these women undergo at homes is an outcome of the psychological trauma the men went through,” the official said.
Speaking further the official stated the issues that should be placed in priority is to provide effective livelihood methods that would guarantee a stable income sufficient to support their families, counselling and other psychological treatment.
Government gearing up to support women
The Resettlement Authority Chairman B.H. Passaperuma commenting on the issue said the Resettlement Ministry in collaboration with several other ministries including Economic Development and Agriculture, have focused their attention on introducing livelihood methods for resettled families and added that focus has been shed on single women households.
He said opportunities will be open in the agricultural and apparel sectors as well as self-employment ventures for the war affected women. “Our primary and toughest tasks at the moment are bringing financial independence to single-mother/war widow households,” he added.
Several programmes initiated for women’s welfare – Women and Children’s Affairs Ministry
Women and Children’s Affairs Minister Tissa Karaliyadda speaking to the Daily Mirror said measures have been taken to initiate projects to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of women in the war affected areas.
“We have appointed counsellors to every district in the North to provide psychotherapy for women. It has been identified that certain cultures and norms prevalent in the area have contributed to the increase in domestic violence incidents. Also, most women are reluctant to seek legal assistance concerning these situations,” he said.
Speaking further Minister Karaliyadda said they have also initiated several programmes to introduce livelihood schemes for war affected women. “Most have been encouraged to initiate self-employment ventures and financial assistance has already been provided. We have now started monitoring these programmes because many who obtained the money have not continued the businesses,” he said, adding the results of these programmes will not be reflected on a short term basis but would be visible in the long term.
‘Alcohol – a menace to peace’ – Psychotherapy unit, Kilinochchi hospital
An official of the Kilinochchi district hospital psychotherapy unit said over 50% of adults in the North are addicted to alcohol and pointed out it had largely contributed to the increase of violence in households.
“Issues such as poverty as well as psychological conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression have led the adults into alcohol addiction. As a result, most of the families are disorganised and the duties of a family unit have not been resumed by its members even after three years since the end of the conflict,” the official stated.