International engagement in post-conflict Sri Lanka: lessons from the supposedly “powerless” women of the north

With a recent internal UN report criticizing its operations in the Sri Lankan civil war, international aid groups and donors are grappling with a new way forward. But any reformed policies may be fundamentally flawed if they fail to understand shifting social roles in this 'post-conflict' state.

Raksha Vasudevan
23 November 2012

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced last month that it was closing down operations in Sri Lanka, where in 2009, it had run the world's largest camp for internally displaced people. Hailed as a significant step towards ending displacement within the country, this announcement, along with the nation’s relatively strong economic growth rate and social indicators seem to make Sri Lanka a ‘post-conflict success story’. However, three years after a 30-year long civil war, the government shows little willingness to find a political solution to the original causes of the conflict, and continues to be accused of committing human rights abuses against its own citizens. As a result, the international community has been left struggling to adopt a coherent position towards the small island state.

At the same time, this situation presents a unique opportunity for donor countries to put into practice their own rhetoric of listening to the needs of ‘those most vulnerable’ – a discourse which has emerged strongly over the past few years within humanitarian and development circles. According to this idea, the needs of ‘vulnerable’ groups (once identified) are prioritized in donor nations’ aid and diplomatic policies towards the recipient country. This is in opposition to the way things have traditionally been done, where political and economic engagement with other countries is based on the donor nation’s (self-interested) political and economic agendas. Although most realists would argue that aid and diplomacy will always be based on national interests, multilateral initiatives designed to improve the quality and impact of aid such as The Paris Declaration (2005), the Principles and Good Practice of Good Humanitarian Donorship (2003) and the Accra Agenda for Action (2008) offer some hope against this argument.

The vulnerability of female-headed households in the north

In Sri Lanka’s case, vulnerability –whether financial, physical, environmental or social – is high in the north of the country, the region most devastated by the war. Considered the country’s Tamil ‘homeland’, with over 95% of its population of Tamil ethnicity, it saw the birth of (and eventual control by) the LTTE, and was also the site of the last and most destructive phase of fighting in late 2008 and 2009. A 2011 assessment found that more than 60% of households in the Northern Province remain food insecure, and as of June 2012, approximately 100,000 houses in that area are yet to be rebuilt or repaired. Intensified militarization, oppression of free speech and the so-called ‘economic revival’ of the north (in which resources are devoted to mega-infrastructure projects, at the indirect cost of residents’ food security and housing needs) have heightened the daily challenges facing residents – most of whom have been recently resettled to war-ruined villages and towns following months or sometimes even years of displacement.

Within this context, 40,000 female-headed households (FHHs) are estimated to exist, most of them produced by the loss of husbands and male kin during the war, and are especially impacted in the post-conflict environment. As lone wives and mothers, they are more exposed to the increasing sexual violence in the north, face severe disadvantages in claiming and maintaining control over property, and in securing the few jobs that are available and getting the same wages as their male counterparts. As Malathi de Alwis has observed, the emotional burdens that they shoulder in a conflict or postwar context can also be crushing:

These women have not only been traumatised by the violence they have witnessed and the loss of their loved ones but they have to both financially and emotionally support and nurture similar traumatised and devastated offspring […] The majority of widowed household heads in this country face a constant battle for economic stability, privacy and physical safety and most importantly, for self worth and social dignity.

Responses and resistance to vulnerability

At the same time, it is important to avoid painting an incomplete picture of these lone widows and mothers as ‘helpless victims’: women’s movements, in which FHHs in the north have participated, have a long history in Sri Lanka, and the women’s wing of the LTTE became infamous for using female suicide bombers on high-profile targets, including Rajiv Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India.

Populations perceived as being ‘powerless’ often have near-invisible but nonetheless powerful ways of surviving and even resisting oppression and poverty. For example, this could include acting the part of the ‘helpless victim’ in order to access aid from NGOs, or restricting their behavior to align with the stereotype of the ‘good Tamil housewife’ in order to access aid from kin. Previous research on FHHs in eastern Sri Lanka reveals that maintaining respectability required both social and economic sacrifices, in terms of self-imposed isolation and restrictions on income-earning activities.

FHHs in the north also seem to deal with living in environments of fear and constant uncertainty – inspired mainly by the oppressive presence of the military whereby there is now estimated to be one soldier for every 18 residents – by normalizing such conditions as part of their daily lives. A 2009 study carried out in Jaffna found that the prevalence of common mental health problems experienced in conflict and post-conflict situations, such as PTSD, depression and anxiety, were actually less frequent than those found in similar studies carried out in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Researchers hypothesized that given the protracted period of the conflict in Sri Lanka, affected populations had learned, over time, to better cope with ongoing exposure to conflict and to normalize it in their thought processes as part of daily life. This is in line with the medical anthropologist Ananda Galapatti’s argument that trauma in the Sri Lankan context is not necessarily outside the bounds of normalcy, given that the civil war which endured for three decades effectively dismantled traditional conceptions of what is normal.

Research carried out in IDP camps in Sri Lanka also substantiates the argument that women are generally more adept than men at coping with drastic changes in their gender roles (i.e. from only caring for the house and children to also becoming the primary breadwinner). Perhaps the best illustration of this is FHHs’ ability to find new ways to earn livelihoods, usually through self-employment and other types of informal sector activities. Several scholars have documented how the Sri Lankan conflict has undercut the sexual division of labour, resulting in women engaging in non-traditional vocations such as mechanics, fishing and cement making. Thus, FHHs’ ability to not only perform what they have been ‘gendered’ to do – i.e. household work and taking care of children – but also to step out of the feminized sphere of the home and into the roles and expectations of men is remarkable.

What way forward for the international community in dealing with Sri Lanka?

As it becomes clear that groups such as FHHs in the north are neither ‘fine on their own’ nor ‘helpless victims’, it also becomes evident that donors, aid agencies and the international public must continue their engagement with Sri Lanka, in spite of the World Bank recently labeling it as a ‘middle income country at peace’. International support should focus on helping to create the environment necessary for affected populations to rebuild their lives.

This could be done in several ways: with Sri Lanka being heavily export-oriented, foreign countries have significant leverage which they could use to insist that the government prioritizes meeting urgent, basic needs in the areas that were most impacted by the war, over mega infrastructure or tourism development projects). The international community could also build on the momentum that it created earlier this year by passing a resolution at the Human Rights Council urging Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. In March 2013, progress on the implementation of these recommendations will be reviewed by the Council – and perhaps even a new precedent will be set by passing a second resolution with the same aim. Special efforts to include the participation of FHHs in both NGO and government-led development and reconstruction projects – including in decision-making processes – should also be strongly encouraged by donors.

The current situation in Sri Lanka demands that the international community does not retire its attention from the country if it wants to abide by its own principles of providing assistance based on the needs of those most vulnerable. In spite of encouraging macro-level socio-economic statistics, pockets of vulnerability clearly still exist in Sri Lanka, with FHHs in the north being high among these. And rather than providing the impression that FHHs are either powerless or completely self-sufficient, an improved understanding of both the challenges and the coping strategies that this group is already employing can offer donors a better idea of the kinds of support that are most needed.

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