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Everyday Resistance

Raksha Vasudevan

1. Introduction

Texte intégral

Before the war, we were all together. Now, we are widows with no security, and no one sees what we have to live through. But we go on, try to find some money to get us through the day…we have to eat, no? The cooking and cleaning needs to be done, the children have to go to school…that’s how life goes. (Group interview 1, Site 4, 04/04/12)

  • 1  Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

1This matter-of-fact summary of the unavoidable reality of daily life offered by 36-year old Rina1 is laden with significance for social scientists studying constructions of vulnerability, insecurity and survival in post-war contexts. Her statement is even more significant as a “social artefact” when viewed through a “gender lens” and from a perspective that considers how notions of national security can affect the personal security of individuals.

2The situation she describes is unfortunately far from rare: Rina is one of the estimated 40,000 female heads of households (FHHs) in northern Sri Lanka. Most of these situations were created due to the 30 years of civil war between the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the national government. Although many hoped that the military defeat of the LTTE by the national army in 2009 would give way to a new era of reconciliation and cooperation between the Tamil population and the Sinhalese-dominated national government, this has unfortunately not materialized yet. Three years after the end of the war, the Tamil majority in the north continues to face marginalization in terms of political power and, in addition, residents of this region encounter multiple risks to their well-being in the context of state-led efforts to consolidate control over the north.

  • 2  The author acknowledges that these “categories” of vulnerabilities are arbitrarily constructed for (...)

3This ePaper aims to contribute to the current understanding of the various economic, physical and psycho-social vulnerabilities2 that FHHs are subject to in post-war northern Sri Lanka. It investigates whether and how the Sri Lankan state has – both through its actions and inaction – contributed to these vulnerabilities, and also highlights the strategies that FHHs have employed in responding to these multidimensional challenges.

4This ePaper thus addresses two key questions:
1. What specific vulnerabilities and insecurities are produced or exacerbated amongst FHHs as a result of state-led actions?
2. What strategies are employed by these women in response?  

5In answering these questions, this ePaper will also problematize the one-dimensional narratives that emerged during the war of Tamil women as either “powerless victims” or “empowered warriors.” As Giles states, “women are seldom victimized or empowered by war: their experiences are more complicated” (2003, 1).

6The responses to these questions are based on a review of existing literature, interviews with several experts, and field-based, semi-structured interviews with 65 FHHs in 10 villages and towns in northern Sri Lanka. Given that the objectives of the research are admittedly broad in scope, a multi-disciplinary approach is employed, drawing on insights from feminist literature, political science perspectives on national/human security, refugee studies, different vulnerability theories, and anthropological contributions on survival and resistance in the face of oppression.  

7The totality of this work reveals that FHHs face profound, multi-faceted vulnerabilities. Many of these were produced by the war, but have been deepened and entrenched in the context of patriarchy and state actions towards “reconstruction” (such actions were more likely aimed at pursuing national security goals). Financial instability is foremost amongst the vulnerabilities identified, together with concerns over physical health, children’s education and personal (in)security. Furthermore, the research found that these vulnerabilities were simultaneously exacerbated by, and contributed to, psycho-social trauma and an ongoing fear of an unknown future. . The type and intensity of the vulnerabilities faced by FHHs were differentiated based on ethnicity, religion, and geographical location.

8However, it was also found that, through a variety of strategies that they employ in their everyday lives, these women endure, contest and resist the structures of domination imposed upon them. These strategies include creating innovative livelihood opportunities for themselves, accessing alternative support sources, tapping into family networks / kinship structures, various community praxes of solidarity and resistance, and finding ways to normalize both the extraordinary circumstances in which they live and the uncertainties they face. Evidence of these strategies further complicates the idea of FHHs as either victims or agents, and challenges the binary notions of women’s “empowerment” or “victimisation.” Rather, this evidence suggests that the vulnerabilities faced by these women are so multi-faceted, and their strategies in response so complex, that we may not simplify their identities – and realities – down to two opposing categories.

9This ePaper is structured as follows: first, the theoretical framework and the methodology used to design the research is laid out. This includes a discussion of the dilemmas encountered in conducting fieldwork in a politically volatile setting. Next, a brief overview of the civil war and female-heads of households in northern Sri Lanka after the conflict is presented. Thirdly, the ePaper examines state “reconstruction” efforts. In a subsequent section, the findings from fieldwork are presented and analysed with respect to the two research objectives already outlined. Finally, the ePaper concludes by highlighting key insights for various audiences and suggesting directions for future research.

10As a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) states, “one major obstacle to effectively addressing women’s insecurity in the north and east is the absence of information about what they are experiencing, how they are coping and what they need… a more specific study of the needs and experiences of women in the north and east is … needed and should be one of the primary goals of the international community and government for 2012” (2011, 33). Ultimately, this ePaper aims to contribute to filling this knowledge gap.


1  Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

2  The author acknowledges that these “categories” of vulnerabilities are arbitrarily constructed for analytical purposes. They are, in reality, deeply interwoven.


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.


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