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Everyday Resistance

Raksha Vasudevan

5. Key vulnerabilities of FHHs in the north and the role of the state

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1FHHs in the north face a range of common economic, physical and psycho-social vulnerabilities, differing in intensity based on several factors1. In almost all cases, these difficulties appear to be compounded by – and in some cases, the direct result of – the national government’s aim to consolidate control over the north and oppress any potential future dissent.

5.1 Economic vulnerabilities

2With very few exceptions, financial survival was the foremost concern for FHHs consulted. The lack of steady, decently paid employment was endemic, with this having a direct negative impact their dependents’ emotional and physical health, and sense of security. When asked about the biggest challenge that they faced, participants typically either directly mentioned money, or said “allamey kashtun than” (everything is difficult), alluding to the fact that the scarcity of money prevented them from maintaining control and carrying on with almost every aspect of their daily lives:

Everything is unaffordable…what I earn [from doing seasonal labour] has been the same for years, but prices are going up, day after day. I do not know how I will be able to keep paying the children’s education, how to feed them. I have stopped taking the medication for my heart condition, it is too expensive. (Individual interview 2, Site 5, 09/04/2012)

There are no jobs…we look for them, but they do not come. Somehow we survive…sometimes just a tea for dinner.(Individual interview 1, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

The house we live in is just sticks and a sheet. But how can we build anything more? It is already so difficult to pay to educate the children, to feed them. And I never know when I will be able to earn depends completely on my employer, when he calls me to work…I have no control. (Group interview 1, Site 2, 02/04/2012)

3From the literature review and interviews, six key sources of FHHs’ economic vulnerability could be identified: 1) the loss of assets during the conflict, 2) the lack of steady, decently paid employment, 3) the rising cost of living, 3) high costs of educating children, 4) the lack of direct compensation or assistance to FHHs, 5) dependency on kin for some or all of their income, and 6) physical vulnerabilities, particularly ill health and the fear of leaving children alone to pursue livelihood opportunities. Although some of these factors are rooted in the structural vulnerabilities which characterize FHHs (eg, trying to find a source of income in an environment where most paid workers are male, or the lack of physical protection that male family members offer), fieldwork also showed that the government had a significant influence on FHH’s experiences of economic hardship.

5.1.1 Loss of assets during conflict

4Several factors, most notably the physical locations of their towns, led to FHHs losing assets during the conflict. Such losses ranged from petty theft of small furniture, other household items and cash in moments when FHHs were displaced from their homes, to the full-scale physical destruction of their homes and land (see Figure below). In a number of cases – especially in areas that faced heavy shelling – women fled with little more than the “clothes on their back” and their children.

Figure 3: Home destroyed by shelling at one of the fieldwork sites

Figure 3: Home destroyed by shelling at one of the fieldwork sites

Source: Photo taken by Vasudevan, Raksha. 2012.

  • 2  McGilvray further explains the importance of dowry in securing the financial future of Sri Lankan (...)

5Such losses of assests, including their agricultural land and the accompanying local natural resources, render it difficult – to say the least – for all affected households to continue earning their traditional livelihoods. It must, however, be noted that such losses principally affect women since, in Tamil culture, family assets – especially the “core” assets of land and house – are inherited by female children as dowry (Amirthalingam and Lakshman 2010). Thus, FHHs are not only rendered more economically vulnerable in the short-to-medium-term as a result of the destruction of productive assets, but such losses also severely threaten their long-term economic survival by making it significantly more challenging to eventually “marry off” their daughters –which would provide significant financial security through the presence of sons-in-law.2 As McGilvray explains, “the absolute minimum dowry a woman must have is a house; without it, or without at least a firm pledge that one will be built, a marriage is usually impossible” (1989, 201). Thus, in the post-war context, families whose houses survived the destruction and which can prove ownership of land are have multiple advantages over those families that lost their houses in the conflict. The lack of access to adequate housing and the resulting consequences for FHHs are discussed further later on.  

5.1.2 Lack of decent employment

  • 3  As one example, the entire northern network of railroads was destroyed and out of use for more tha (...)

6The current economy of the north, which is a testament to the ravages of war, is characterized by a lack of steady, decently paid employment. Major infrastructure has been damaged or is simply non-existent,3 capital assets such as land and equipment have been destroyed, restrictions on trade and mobility of persons between the north and other parts of the country have endured for decades, the LTTE imposed taxes on local businesses and high income earners, and these contributed over time to an exodus of the province’s wealthiest and most educated individuals (and therefore those most likely to have created businesses).

7Against this backdrop, the government must be credited with having taken some steps to create employment opportunities in the north, including investment in major infrastructure and other projects to exploit the economic potential of the region. However, the short-term distribution of gains from these initiatives is unclear,4 in particular due to the lack of a disaggregated labour force and salary statistics for the Northern Province. This makes it difficult to predict how much of these gains currently are, or will in the future be, beneficial to FHHs. It seems likely that in the long-run, these efforts will indeed promote the area’s economic development and usher in private sector investment – the benefits of which are expected to eventually “trickle down” to the local population.

  • 5  Asian Development Bank (ADB). “Conflict-Affected Region Emergency Project: Sri Lanka”, http://pid. (...)

8On the other hand, it is also true that three years after the end of the war, the government has been slow to re-build infrastructure in certain parts of the north, especially in the interior Vanni. A significant difference in lifestyle, consumption and access to assets such as adequate housing was clearly observed between those FHHs who lived in or near towns that were better connected to roads (especially those close to the A9 highway), and those FHHs living in more rural areas in the interior Vanni, where roads remained poor and distances to the nearest towns could not be covered by foot or bike. Furthermore, although new construction and road development projects are taking place along the main roads, few plans to further develop the transportation options to or within the interior regions of the north seem to be in place.5 For example, The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is funding a three-year $150 million “Conflict-Affected Region Emergency Project,” which includes the rehabilitation of 265 km of national, provincial and municipal roads in the Northern Province (ADB, 2012). However, this work does not seem to focus on the interior Vanni which was the most affected by the conflict: the interior areas visited in the course of the research remain very poorly connected and participants did not report recent improvements in accessing other villages or towns. A higher proportion of FHHs who fell into the first category (of living in or near towns) had found some means of employment – unsurprising, given that businesses (which can employ FHHs) usually set up in areas where they can access infrastructure such as electricity, banks, and water were also more easily accessible in those areas.

The closer you are to big towns, the easier to find a job. Here, there is nothing, no businesses, no jobs at all. I wish I could go to Colombo to get a job, but I cannot leave my children and the home. (Individual interview 2, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

Yes, there are some jobs in the town, but the cost of taking the bus into the town has gone up so much. It used to be 30 rupees two years ago, and now it’s 60…that means I would spend 120 rupees each day just on the bus. I would not earn much more than that at any job I could find. (Group interview 1, Site 5, 10/04/2012)

9While it has been noted worldwide that “urban biases” for private sector investment and employment lead people to move more readily to urban centres (cf. Bezemer and Headey 2006), this reality in northern Sri Lanka nevertheless betrays the government’s efforts to portray itself as having already taken the necessary steps to build the critical infrastructure needed for the north to recover and prosper economically.6 As illustrated earlier,7 such efforts have also led donors and NGOs to re-direct their aid to more “critical” humanitarian situations, leaving FHHs in northern Sri Lanka with few sources of assistance.

10The lack of employment opportunities has also been exacerbated by government-supported “Sinhalisation” and competition from the military,8 which has created its own commercial ventures, acts as a labour force for government projects and blocks access to land and other resources which were the mainstays of local livelihoods.

How can we compete against the big restaurants that the army has opened? All the buses going to Jaffna stop there, they are bigger and there is more space to sit. Even if I had money to open a small shop, how can it compare to what the army is doing? (Group interview 1, Site 2, 02/04/2012)

All the workers on those [infrastructure] projects are Sinhala, they are from the south. It is not fair, we have no jobs here, and they are bringing men from the south? Why not give the jobs to us? We can do it as well as they can. (Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

11There is ongoingdiscrimination against women in both the formal and informal labour markets. In particular, there is a concentration of women in low-skilled, low-paid, informal sector jobs (in spite of the equally high educational levels of women and men in general) and this trend is widespread across Sri Lanka. For similar work, and controlling for factors such as age, work experience, place of residence and education, women are consistently paid less than men across Sri Lanka (Arun and Borooah 2011). Such discrimination is symptomatic of both Tamil and Sri Lankan cultures, going hand-in-hand with the traditional narratives of women as caretakers of the home and children (Thiruchandran 1999). Even though the post-war context has compelled FHHs to step outside of these roles, cultural gendered norms have remained largely unchanged, resulting in “automatic” preference of men over women for the jobs that are available. As Ruwanpura argues, “their occupations reveal the extent to which gendered structures are embedded in a larger political economy that continues to reinforce a distinction between productive and nonproductive labour spheres […] women’s overwhelming engagements in the informal economic sector reflect the lack of viable economic opportunities in a political economy marked by war, economic deprivation, and recurring political instability” (2008, 330).

12The state’s failure to take action to eliminate such discrimination against women has been criticized by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (2011). Moreover, in 2010, the gender income gap in Sri Lanka actually increased (World Economic Forum 2011). Of course, the extent to which the government can influence cultural norms is debatable; however, at minimum, it could follow the UN Committee’s recommendations to incorporate the principle of equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value in national legislation. Gender-sensitive market facilitation –i.e., ensuring that women are given adequate access to income-generating opportunities – has also been identified as key for addressing the challenges that FHHs face in finding decent work (Amirthalingam and Lakshman 2012), but the government has yet to take steps in this direction.

13The vast majority of FHHs interviewed felt that the government was doing little or nothing at all to assist either them specifically, or the Tamil population in general. As one woman put it, “they try to give the picture that they are doing something, but are in fact, [they are] not doing anything for the people” (Individual interview 2, Site 9, 20/04/2012). In some cases, outright exploitation by state actors of the economic vulnerability of FHHs was reported: in one instance, the military commander of an IDP camp asked the male sons of two widowed women in the camp to split some rocks – in return for payment which was never made (Group interview 1, Site 1, 31/03/2012). Accounts of women being coerced into sexual relations with government or military officials in exchange for money have also been reported (Satkunanathan 2012b), although the level of coercion in these cases was not entirely clear.9  None of the women interviewed during fieldwork claimed to have been the targets of such pressure.

5.1.3 Rising living costs

  • 10  Reuters, “RPT-PREVIEW-Sri Lanka inflation seen at 9-mth high in May”, May 31, 2012. http://in.reut (...)
  • 11  Gunadasa, Saman, “Sri Lankan government imposes new price rises”, World Socialist Web Site, May 12 (...)

14The rising cost of living was also reported by the majority of FHHs as a significant challenge: in the midst of trying to re-build their lives, increasing costs of basic food items and transportation are severely hindering women in their struggles to provide for their families. Although certainly a reflection of global commodity prices, inflation and a series of recent government-imposed price hikes on the costs of cooking gas, fuel, milk powder, flour and cement in 2012 10 have both directly and indirectly (through lowering job creation) worsened the economic power of FHHs. Of note is the fact that these hikes came at the same time that the military budget was increased by 7% over the previous year, corporate tax rates were lowered from 35% to 28% in the 2011 budget, and corporate banks (including several owned by the state) earned significant profits.11

5.1.4 High costs of children’s education

15Meeting the high costs of children’s education was also mentioned by the majority of FHHs interviewed as both a significant challenge and a high priority, especially in terms of securing their own long-term well-being, since well-educated children were more likely to obtain jobs and financially support the family. Education was seen as a priority for both male and female children.  

16The state is directly responsible for the difficulties that FHHs face in accessing education for their children, as education is a public service that the government is supposed to deliver. In its last review of the implementation of the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural (ESC) Rights in Sri Lanka, the Committee on ESC Rights noted “with concern that public investment in education is at a relatively low level in spite of the needs of rebuilding school infrastructure in conflict-affected areas, reducing persistent disparities in accessing education between the State party’s provinces and providing schools with water, sanitation and electricity” (2010, 36). In the same report, the Committee also criticized the persistence of school fees despite the guarantee of free education in the constitution.

  • 12  Pallegedara (2011) finds that the demand for private tuition classes has increased in recent times (...)

17By “school fees,” the Committee was likely referring to private tuition classes, which, over the past decade, have become a widespread, unofficial part of the education system in Sri Lanka.12 These classes are usually taken in preparation for the highly competitive national school qualifying examinations at the end of the 5th, 11th and 13th Grades. Almost all of the FHHs included in this research were paying for private tuition classes for their children – a major expense for most, in both absolute terms and relative to their overall expenditure – in addition to having to spend on books, uniforms and in some cases, transportation to school. Although not administered or controlled by the government, the state has also failed to either regulate, subsidize or take action to render such classes unnecessary – for example, by investing to improve the quality of public education.

5.1.5 Lack of compensation or assistance for FHHs

  • 13  Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka”,Sri Lanka: War widows left in poverty”, October 29, 2010. (...)

18Lastly, all of the FHHs included in this research had suffered the loss of the traditional primary income earner who, in the majority of cases, had died either as a civilian fleeing from shelling or while serving in the LTTE after being forcefully recruited, or had disappeared. In spite of the fact that they had not voluntarily fought on behalf of the government’s enemy, little compensation or assistance has been provided to their widows by the government. In principle, women who can produce death certificates for their husbands can receive a one-time payment of 50,000 Rs. (approximately $385 USD).13 However, several of the women interviewed reported major challenges in either obtaining the necessary documentation to procure such a death certificate, or in navigating the administrative processes related to the request for compensation once the death certificate had been secured:

Every government office gives us some documents…death certificates, land deeds…and they send copies to foreign countries, who give them money for us, but we never see the money. (Individual interview 2, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

I did not register for the 50,000 Rs. compensation. There were so many documents that were necessary, and I had heard that even when you submit all of them, you do not necessarily get the money… At the time, I just did not have the will to do it. (Individual interview 4, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

  • 14  Indo-Asian News Service, “Sri Lankan government removes obstacles for remarriage of war-widows”, T (...)

19The relative lack of government assistance provided to Tamil FHHs stands in stark contrast to the compensation given to widows whose husbands died or went missing while serving in the national armed forces: these widows and their children who are under 26 years of age receive either the pension drawn by the deceased, or 50% of his salary.14 This is in line with Enloe’s (2000) research which demonstrates that processes of militarization have inconsistent consequences for different groups of women, depending on variables such as ethnicity, class and occupation.

20The extreme economic vulnerability of Tamil FHHs is also telling of the government’s larger failure to provide adequate social protection to its most vulnerable groups. Although in principle, some unemployment, old age and sickness insurance is available, this is targeted to the formal sector and therefore fails to provide social protection for the most poor and vulnerable.15

5.2 Physical vulnerabilities: ill health

21Ill health amongst the FHHs interviewed and their dependents (including children, parents and other relatives) was a significant concern, especially when this poor state of health prevented them from engaging in income-generating activities. The burden of ill health appeared to be disproportionately shouldered by women, both because they made up the majority of survivors in this area, and also because traditional patriarchal norms dictate that husbands and children are given primary access to food and medical supplies (McGilvray 1989). This was well-illustrated, for example, in one focus group discussion where snacks had been purchased for participants. Although it was clear both from their physical appearance and from their comments during the discussion that affording adequate food was a serious and ongoing challenge for them, all of the women wrapped and took the snacks home to give to their dependents.

22Financial and physical health concerns were closely linked, with medical conditions often preventing FHHs from participating fully in livelihood opportunities and a lack of income inhibiting them from seeking medical treatment:

I cannot work because of my heart problem. I used to do coolie [seasonal] labour, but it is too difficult now… I can only do soft chores, like cooking or cleaning [...] If I could afford a transfusion, I could go back to working. (Individual interview 2, Site 5, 09/04/2012)

My daughter has asthma so I am afraid to trust anyone else to take care of her. I have not been able to look for work, I have to be with her and take her to the hospital sometimes when she has an attack. (Group interview 1, Site 4, 04/04/2012)

He [my son] has kidney problems. We need to go to Colombo regularly for treatment, and I cannot find a job that will let me take time to go do this so often. But it is so expensive – the bus fare, the treatment. I am using the little savings that I have but that will run out soon, and then I do not know what will happen. I hope God will help us. (Group interview 1, Site 4, 04/04/2012)

23The Sri Lankan state is at least partially responsible for the health-related problems of FHHs in the north. A number of their injuries, including vision problems, injured or crippled limbs and severe emotional trauma, are results of attacks by the military, which has been accused of breaking international humanitarian law prohibiting the targeting of civilians. Notably, there is evidence to suggest that the government intentionally “lured” civilians into so-called “no fire zones” during the last and most intense phase of the conflict, and then intentionally subjected them to shelling. In addition, government forces also intentionally bombed hospitals and other buildings where civilians were being treated (UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka 2011). Interviews from fieldwork substantiated these claims, with a significant number of FHHs reporting having fled to certain areas that were declared “no fire zones” over the radio, only to face repeated shelling upon arriving there.

24Although the state, in collaboration with donors, has made efforts to rebuild health care facilities and train medical personal, access to health services, especially in remote areas, remains poor in the north (Government of Sri Lanka, United Nations & Partners 2011). Disaggregated, up-to-date statistics for the Northern Province are difficult to find: the last survey on health indicators by the government was carried out in 2006/2007, with the restrictions on the scope of NGOs’ work, and their dwindling resources for continuing work in northern Sri Lanka inhibiting more accurate data on health needs from being collected. Furthermore, although all Sri Lankan citizens are entitled to free healthcare, fieldwork confirmed that this was not always the case in reality. FHHs reported having to pay for various medications, and transportation costs to get to the nearest hospital were sometimes prohibitive (Group interview 1, Site 4, 04/04/2012; Group interview 1, Site 5, 10/04/2012; Individual interview 3, Site 9, 20/04/2012).

25Furthermore, government-sponsored “Sinhalisation”16 of the north has created problems for women in accessing medical services – women in three of the 10 fieldwork sites complained of being unable to communicate with the “local” Sinhalese doctors or nurses who were unable to speak or understand Tamil well.

The doctor working in the closest hospital is Sinhalese and she did not understand the patients. She has given the wrong medication to several patients. We need a Tamil doctor to treat can a doctor help you to get better if she does not even understand what is wrong with you?(Group interview 1, Site 2, 02/04/2012)

26Thus, the burden of ill health which women disproportionately bear due to gendered norms is made even heavier in the post-war context due to injuries sustained during the conflict, and a current situation where access to health services is often problematic.

5.3 Physical vulnerabilities: fear of attack

27With few exceptions, all of the women interviewed feared – to varying degrees – sexual violence, attack, kidnapping, and/or robbery, both against themselves and their children. These fears appear to have emerged relatively recently: they were not prevalent while the north was under the rule of the LTTE, when sexual harassment and all sexual relations outside of marriage, as well as pornography and alcohol abuse were strictly forbidden, with violations being swiftly and brutally punished.

Before, when the LLTE was in control, we could walk around at night, by ourselves, even with all of our jewellery on, and we never had to be afraid. Now, I am afraid to walk around during the day, even with friends. (Group interview 1, Site 4, 04/04/2012)

Sexual harassment only started with the army occupation… but now, it has spread like a disease and both military and local men are doing these things. (Group interview 1, Site 2, 02/04/2012)

28Reports by both state sources and NGOs confirm that sexual violence reported (against women is on the rise in northern Sri Lanka: the number of cases filed in Jaffna alone increased from 102 in 2010 to 182 in 2011, representing an increase of almost 80%.17 Many incidents likely remain unreported since victims of sexual abuse or those seeking separation from their husbands tend to face intense stigmatization, and also because violence against women is not uncommon in Tamil culture.

29On top of such patriarchal facets of Tamil culture, FHHs perceived themselves as being physically vulnerable to a new spectrum of violence18 in the post-war period as a result of: 1) living in the midst of a large, almost completely male, “foreign” (Sinhalese) military, 2) the introduction and now-widespread availability of pornography and alcohol – usually attributed to the military, 3) the perceived corruption, complicity and ineffectiveness of institutions supposed to protect them against such abuses – e.g., the police, and 4) insecure housing.

5.3.1 Military presence

30As a state institution, the strong military presenceis clearly government-directed. As traced earlier in the existing literature19 and validated through fieldwork, it is evident that although the military presence in the north may appear to have diminished in some ways (e.g., fewer checkpoints on major roads), it has been consolidated and even increased in others, especially in the interior Vanni.

  • 20  Satkunanathan, Ambika, “'What Sri Lanka is...': acknowledging the ethnic conflict in post-war reco (...)

31Satkunanathan argues that, either due to the fear of attack by army personnel or just apprehension over ‘being watched,’ the presence of the army “leads women to make a conscious effort to limit movements outside of their homes and communities. These self-imposed restrictions impact adversely on their ability to access livelihood options and education opportunities. Nearly three years following the end of the war most of these women do not have a viable livelihood, leaving them open to exploitation and abuse.”20

32Ad-hoc visits by the military to women’s homes reported in several of the fieldwork sites (Group interview 1, Site 2, 02/04/2012; Group interview 1, Site 1, 31/03/2012) intensified these fears. In addition to feeling virtually surrounded by a network of men from “the enemy side,” women also cited the increasing proliferation of pornography and alcohol among men (especially youth) as encouraging violent or “deviant” behaviour. They also pointed to the ineffectiveness and/or complicity of civil institutions such as the police to protect them against such abuse, and the government, which does little to assist them in attaining greater levels of security. In the minds of most participants, these factors were closely correlated with the presence of the military: they were blamed for the introduction of “blue films” (pornography) and alcohol into the north, and were also seen as making the final decisions on almost all issues, including the prosecution and punishment of criminals.

Offenders feel free to commit their acts, because they know that if they are caught [by the police], they can just pay a bribe and walk away free. (Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

There is more freedom now than there was in 2009, but now women and children are being attacked and abused. […] The police and army could stop this, if they tried, but they choose not to even try. (Individual interview 1, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

The police are more or less useless. More Tamil police are supposed to be being recruited..every police station should have at least one Tamil officer. But we have yet to see this happen. (Individual interview 4, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

The military has brought in alcohol and “blue films”, and they are now spreading among the youth. We didn’t have these problems when the LTTE was in charge. (Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

33However, the real extent to which the Sinhalese military and Tamil men actually constitute a threat for FHHs’ safety must be investigated. Here, the gap between objective and subjective (in)security is evident: while these fears may be founded upon an actual increasing caseload of attacks and incidents of sexual abuse, it is also likely that the “objective” threat has been exaggerated – including by the women themselves – as a response to the new environment in which restrictions on women and men’s morality and sexual purity are less well-defined that they were in the post-LTTE context. This is discussed further in section 6.3.5 “Rumor-mongering”

5.3.2 Insecure housing

34The situation with regard to insecure housing that most FHHs face has also contributed to their feelings of physical vulnerability. Although the government decided shortly after the end of the war in 2009 to rapidly resettle IDPs, no formal assessment of the housing needs in the north was carried out. As of June 2012, it was estimated that 100,000 houses in the Northern Province still needed to be rebuilt or repaired; 17,336 new houses have been constructed, 7,173 houses were in progress and major repairs were done on 4,773 (ICG 2012b). Thus, returning IDPs have come back to houses that have been destroyed by the war. When temporary shelters have been available for them to use, these have generally been of extremely low quality (ICG 2012b).

35Out of the 65 FHHs interviewed, only six lived in solid/permanent housing structures with locking doors. The housing conditions of the others differed: in one of the villages selected for fieldwork, all of the “lodgings” consisted of what the FHHs had been able to fashion themselves using sticks and tarpaulins from aid agencies. In another, they had small houses built from corrugated metal sheets. At the time of research, a significant number of the shelters at that site had been recently destroyed from a severe thunderstorm (see Figure below), leaving families exposed to highly adverse weather conditions which resulted in a number of injuries, destroyed their food rations and personal belongings, and exposed them to robbery or attack.

Figure 4: A fieldwork site after a storm

Figure 4: A fieldwork site after a storm

Source: Photo taken by Vasudevan, Raksha. 2012.

36In several other fieldwork sites, FHHs lived in huts with thatched roofs, or concrete houses but with doors and windows often missing. Furthermore, in almost all of the fieldwork sites, women lacked private and secure sanitary facilities and felt at risk every time they had to use “the bathroom” – which varied from open fields to jungle brush. What was similar across all of the lodgings was the lack of physical insecurity in its most basic sense, manifested in the lack of locking doors and windows, and also in the women’s nervousness about their living situations, which they often addressed by sleeping in family members’ or neighbours’ houses.

37Funding shortfalls, lack of skilled labour and shortages in construction materials have all been cited by the government as reasons for the slow progress in rebuilding housing. There is no doubt that these claims are valid: at the time of writing, the 2012 JPA for the Northern Province remains underfunded by 17.5% of the total request of US$ 147 million, resulting in a commitment by donors and the government of only re-building/repairing 34,639 houses against a total need of more than 100,000 houses in the Northern Province.

38However, some aid officials believe that the government never prioritized housing for returning IDPs in the north, preferring to leave that to the Tamil diaspora who have long sent remittances to their families still living in Sri Lanka (ICG 2012b). Instead, the state has concentrated on building infrastructure and undertaking other projects to bolster the north’s long-term economic development. While this is laudable, it must be questioned why this is ranked above the urgent needs of returnees, such as shelter, food security and livelihoods. In addition to be being a matter of funding priorities, the skilled labour and construction materials that are needed to re-build housing are instead being devoted to mega construction projects (UNOCHA 2012).

39The prioritization of major regional economic projects designed to enlarge the opportunities available in the traditionally male-dominated “public” sphere, over issues that are seen as falling into the private spheres of inhabited by women (e.g., finding food for the family), and also over the restoration of women’s assets such as housing and land, is a clear depiction of the patriarchal structures that are reinforced by the Sri Lankan state’s actions. Indeed, as Brun and Lund (2008) point out, the very term “reconstruction” implies a return to the past and therefore a reinforcement of the power relations, inequalities and marginalisations that existed before a war or disaster.

40Furthermore, in some instances, women did not make any effort to build or find secure, long-term housing on their own because they were awaiting the materialization of the housing scheme that the government had promised to those whose homes were destroyed during the conflict (Individual interview 2, Site 8, 12/04/2012). Thus, the government’s inaction on the housing issue is not only contributing to FHHs’ physical insecurity, but also obstructing – or at least, delaying – some of them from acting on their own agency and building their own houses.

41Furthermore, the government’s failure to articulate a clear and comprehensive policy on land ownership in the post-war context has contributed to both the housing crisis, as well as FHHs’ lack of access to livelihood opportunities. A range of issues related to land ownership, control and access, including loss of documentation during the conflict and secondary occupation of land by a variety of actors over the many decades of war and following the conflict (including various state actors) have resulted in competing claims for land (Fonseka and Raheem 2011). This has not only obstructed the resettlement process – several of the women interviewed were unable to return to their original lands or even villages due to others claiming the land as theirs – but aid agencies have also been reluctant to invest in housing projects without being certain of who “really” owns the land (ICG 2012b). A number of state actors, including the military, have been prominent in occupying land that formerly belonged to civilians, and accusations of government-sponsored “Sinhalisation” of the north21 were also widespread among the communities included in fieldwork.

There is now a huge army camp in this village, over 500 soldiers living there. My family used to live on that land..the soil was good, and now we just have this small square of land. There is no well here, so I cannot grow anything. The house I built myself with my children’s help. We got some of the tarpaulins from NGOs that used to work here and sticks. At least it protects us from the rain. (Individual interview 3, Site 5, 09/04/2012)

42Thus, as Brun and Lund (2008) argue, housing is a reflection of people’s political, cultural and legal positionings in a society; in politically charged settings, it can also become “contested territory” between various actors. This appears to be the case in northern Sri Lanka, with FHHs generally having less access to political, social and economic resources in comparison to other actors such as the military and state-sponsored Sinhalese settlers in order to secure adequate housing.   

43In sum, FHHs face a number of challenges which they perceive as heightening their physical vulnerability: a significant military presence, the perceived increase in sexual abuse and attack (aggravated by the availability of pornography and alcohol), complicity of civil institutions, and insecure housing. The cumulative result of these multiple physical insecurities confronting FHHs in the north is the entrenchment of fear and uncertainty as a part of everyday life.22 The various consequences for FHHs of living within such an environment are discussed next.

5.4 Psycho-social vulnerabilities

  • 23  It has been argued that PTSD and other diagnoses such as depression are based on a model of medica (...)

44A 2009 study carried out in Jaffna found that 7% of the 1,448 residents included in the study – the majority of whom were Tamil women – were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 22.2% from depression, and 32.6% from anxiety (Husain, et al. 2011). These results are almost certainly under-representative of the prevalence of mental health issues amongst the population in the north, since the majority of those interviewed had either never been displaced or were displaced before 2000. Indeed, among these interviewed who were displaced in the final years of fighting, the prevalence of such problems were significantly higher: 13% suffered from PTSD, 41.8% from depression and 48.5% from anxiety.23. The nearly 300,000 people who were forced into displacement multiple times during the final few months of the war likely suffered the most recent and severe trauma.

45The visible manifestations of the emotional trauma suffered by the women who participated in this research were both numerous and striking: the majority broke down in tears during the interviews, with several unwilling (or unable) to speak about what they had seen or experienced during the war. Nine women (14% of the FHHs interviewed) expressed suicidal thoughts:

What is there left to live for? Only death will free me from suffering. (Group interview 1, Site 2, 02/04/2012)

We are just waiting for death, to be reunited with our families. What is left in life? Nothing. (Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

  • 24  These ways included being killed in fighting or detained by the army.

46Husbands and other family members were lost in various ways. Some were killed by shelling (26), some disappeared (10), others died of natural illness (10), yet others were lost through separation/abandoment (10) or in other ways (8).24 In general, the women who appeared to still be experiencing the most distress were those who saw their loved ones and community members die before their eyes, and were unable to even bury them or perform last rites as they fled for their own lives from the constant shelling:

At the end, near Mathalan, we had to wade across the river and it was filled with bodies…we had to leave everything behind and just run. My father, my two sisters…they disappeared then, hit by the shells…we could not even stop to try and search for their bodies, bury them. We just had to.. (started crying and could not continue speaking). (Individual interview 1, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

They [the shells] were falling from the sky, all around us. Exploding…I will never forget the sounds. And we just used the saris of our dead family and neighbours to bury them. We had no choice, what could we do? (Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

My husband was carrying the boy [our son] in his arms as we were running from the shelling. And they were both killed by shells…in front of me. I could not even stop to help them, I had to run with our other children. (Individual interview 2, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

47The emotional suffering of FHHs also appeared to be compounded by the environment of fear and constant uncertainty that they were living in, created by the restrictions on freedom of expression,25 police forces which they perceived as doing little to prevent a variety of actors from acting with impunity, and a military presence which constantly “monitored” them and which, by its very presence, signalled the potential for a return to armed conflict:

The army is living on us. We are living in fear all the time. Any moment, anything can happen. (Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

When foreigners [from NGOs] come into the area, the army commander insists on translating for them when they try to talk to us. So, he tells them whatever he wants. And in any case, we do not dare to talk about any issues in public because we never know when someone from the army is listening. (Group interview 1, Site 1, 31/03/2012)

We do not have any fears, none at all, after what we have been through. Except that the fighting will start again…that is the only thing left to fear. (Group interview 1, Site 1, 31/03/2012)

48After seeing the police fine a driver for parking in what they claimed was a no parking zone – but with no signs to indicate that this was the case, and with several other cars parked in the same area, one FHH exclaimed:

You see! There is no freedom here, no freedom. Police can do anything they want, army can do anything it wants. Freedom here? No. That’s why I only leave the house between eight to four, to go to work. I never leave the house after that…you never know what is going to happen. (Site 10, 21/04/2012)

49The current proliferation of military forces in the north – and the resulting effects of reproduction of fear in the population – bears striking similarities to the army’s occupation of the northeast (except for those areas controlled by the LTTE) during the war:

Since the outbreak of the civil war, Sinhalese military and police dominated the public space in the Northeast apart from those areas that were under control of the LTTE […] Round-ups, checks and raids could occur at any time and thus instilled a regime of uncertainty and intimidation upon the life of especially the Tamil population. Emergency rule opened the door for the armed forces to by-pass the laws of the state. Thus, contrary to a widespread perception among the Colombo-based elite, the ‘security forces’ did not bring more, but less security to the Tamils in the Northeast. Many Tamils perceived the state forces rather as an occupation force. (Korf 2006, 285)

50In addition to its presence entrenching fear, participants – especially those in the more militarized areas in the interior Vanni – reported having to gain permission from the military to undertake a variety of daily actions, ranging from accessing fresh water, land, and entering or leaving the area. As a recent ICG report put it, “the fact that women must rely on the military for everyday needs not only puts them at greater risk of gender-based violence, but also prevents them from building their own capacity within communities” (2011, i).

51As a response to this environment, the vast majority of women interviewed said that they did not leave their houses in the evenings, and avoided going anywhere alone (especially more than short distances). Women went to great lengths – including choosing not to pursue available income-earning opportunities – to ensure that their children were never left alone. These same fears also discouraged those women who did have their own housing from living – and especially sleeping – in their homes, as this would leave them more vulnerable to physical attack. Almost 30% of participants reported living and/or sleeping in the houses of others in order to avoid being alone at night.

How can I work? The children are old enough to take care of themselves, but I cannot leave them alone…before, perhaps I could have, but these days, you never know what is going to happen. Someone has to be with them all the time.(Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

After six o’clock, we are always back home and the locks are [put] on the door. We never leave the house after that in the evenings. (Individual interview 1, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

I have a temporary house that the army built, but I never go there…I always sleep at the [Christian] convent, or at my sister’s house. I am afraid to be alone at night…someone could just come in at anytime and do whatever they want. (Individual interview 1, Site 5, 09/04/2012)

The army offered to build a temporary house for my family, but I refused. How can we live alone? We would be completely vulnerable. (Group interview 1, Site 4, 04/04/2012)

52Thus, FHHs’ heightened sense of physical vulnerability also adds to the obstacles which they face in finding sources of income, which impacts almost all other dimensions of their lives. This environment of pervasive fear has also intensified the “watchkeeping” burden borne by FHHs - i.e., the duty to safeguard their own safety and “purity,” as well as those of their children, and especially their daughters. As Thiruchandran explains:

the female heads of the household as mothers and older sisters have tremendous social, familial and personal responsibilities in protecting and safeguarding the female sexuality of their “virgin” daughters and sisters if any. For all of them this is a real burden to which they have no solution. Both day and night they have to keep watch so that both, their daughters and others, may not trespass the boundaries, the boundaries of social conventions and social limits (1999, 82).

53Thus, as Satkunanathan (2012a) also observes, regardless of how well-founded women’s fears of attack or sexual abuse may be, these fears are real at the very least in the power they have to shape the daily lives of these women.

54On top of intensifying the military presence and control over the north, the Sri Lankan government has not taken any steps to provide psychosocial counselling for civilians affected by the war. The government agent in charge of the Kilinochchi district recently stated that “mental health is not a big issue” in comparison with more “tangible” needs, such as housing or building livelihood opportunities.26 This reasoning has also helped to justify the government’s refusal – through the PTF – to allow NGOs to provide counselling or other psycho-social assistance to affected populations.27 This strategy, as well as the restrictions placed on the comprehensiveness of the needs assessments which aid agencies and donors can carry out, are viewed by critics as being aimed at controlling and limiting information about both the current humanitarian and development realities of the region, as well as about the events of the last months of the war (Weiss 2011; ICG 2012b).

5.5 FHHs: Victims of patriarchal culture and the state?

55This chapter presented the central findings from fieldwork in terms of the key vulnerabilities facing FHHs, and delineated how the Sri Lankan state has played a role in creating or contributing to these. Ultimately, what emerges is a picture of profound, multi-faceted vulnerabilities (from both objective and subjective perspectives) of FHHs, engendered mainly by the war itself, but deepened and entrenched by various state actions (or inaction) and institutions, as well by patriarchal Tamil culture. The wider political economy of the north is largely unfavourable to the everyday concerns of FHHs, focused as it is on so-called “reconstruction.’

56However, we also begin to see that the narratives of FHHs do not fit well into those of “the passive victim” nor “the masculine warrior”- identities which have been fabricated for Tamil women in northern Sri Lanka. It is also evident that especially in their positions as FHHs, they straddle the boundary between the gendered “public” sphere of life outside the home (eg, paid work and socializing with friends) and the “private” sphere of the home.and family

57The following chapter examines more closely the ways in which FHHs attempt to maintain this “fine balance” within the context of highly unequal power relations with the state and a society that continually attempts to impose gendered norms upon them. Specifically, it focuses on how FHHs responded to the multiple vulnerabilities to which they find themselves subjected, and which they resist, together with, the structures of patriarchal and state-driven domination.


1  See section 6.4.3 “Home” as a source of strenght for further discussion of these factors.

2  McGilvray further explains the importance of dowry in securing the financial future of Sri Lankan Tamil families: “it is understood by everyone that the first son-in-law will increasingly play a major economic and leadership role in his wife’s family, and it is in order to obtain the most qualified candidate for this position that the largest dowry will tend to go to the eldest daughter […] Parents may also overspend on their first daughter’s dowry on the unrealistic assumption that future earnings will restore the dowry assets of their younger daughters […] It is understood that the ‘purchased’ son-in-law will, in return, reorient his kinship loyalties away from his natal kin and toward his new wife and sisters.” (1989, 205-206)

3  As one example, the entire northern network of railroads was destroyed and out of use for more than 20 years. It is now being re-built with financial and technical assistance from the Indian government (ICG 2012b).

4  See section 4.4.3 “Painting a new picture”

5  Asian Development Bank (ADB). “Conflict-Affected Region Emergency Project: Sri Lanka”, (accessed May 30, 2012).

6 See section 4.4.3 “Painting a new picture”

7  See section 4.4.3 “Painting a new picture”

8 See section 4.4.1 A new type of militarization

9 See section 6.1.1 Accessing alternative support sources.

10  Reuters, “RPT-PREVIEW-Sri Lanka inflation seen at 9-mth high in May”, May 31, 2012. (accessed June 1, 2012).

11  Gunadasa, Saman, “Sri Lankan government imposes new price rises”, World Socialist Web Site, May 12, 2012. (accessed May 29, 2012).

12  Pallegedara (2011) finds that the demand for private tuition classes has increased in recent times among Sri Lankan households, including in the poorest quartile of families. These classes appear to have changed from a luxury good in 1995/96 to a necessity good in 2006/07, partly because the exams have become more competitive in recent times, and partly because the quality of public education is seen to be low, especially in rural areas.

13  Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka”,Sri Lanka: War widows left in poverty”, October 29, 2010. (accessed June 9, 2012).

14  Indo-Asian News Service, “Sri Lankan government removes obstacles for remarriage of war-widows”, The Indian. July 21, 2010. (accessed June 9, 2012).

15  The World Bank, “Social Protection in Sri Lanka: Overview”, (accessed June 21, 2012).

16  See section 4.4.2 Entrenchment of Sinhalese-Buddhist dominance in the north.

17  BBC, “'Alarming rise' of sexual abuse in Jaffna”, (accessed June 8, 2012).

18  The sources of these fears were not always clear (see section 6.3.5 “Rumor-mongering”), and it is likely that some of these sources of violence existed before the end of the war, especially domestic violence. This recalls Cockburn’s (2004) conception of a “gendered continuum of violence” which flows across periods of “war” and (relative) “peace.”

19  See section 4.4.1 A new type of militarization.

20  Satkunanathan, Ambika, “'What Sri Lanka is...': acknowledging the ethnic conflict in post-war reconciliation”, (accessed May 16, 2012).

21  See section 4.4.2 Entrenchment of Sinhalese-Buddhist dominance in the north.

22  See section 5.4 Psycho-social vulnerabilities.

23  It has been argued that PTSD and other diagnoses such as depression are based on a model of medical illness which is highly western and individualistic. According to this model, trauma is afflicted on the individual self, and it is the person’s autonomous psyche as one distinctive unit which copes with its effects. There is now increasing acknowledgement that a more holistic perspective is needed, which also considers the kin, community and wider social levels as playing important roles in the experience, diagnoses and/or responses to trauma and other mental “disorders” (Somasundaram 2007).

24  These ways included being killed in fighting or detained by the army.

25  See section 4.4.4 Repression of freedom of expression.

26  Bhalla, Nita. “Sri Lanka's survivors tormented by horrors of war”. Reuters. September 22, 2011. (accessed June 9, 2012).

27  See section 4.4.5 Restrictions on the work of NGOs.

Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 3: Home destroyed by shelling at one of the fieldwork sites
Crédits Source: Photo taken by Vasudevan, Raksha. 2012.
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Figure 4: A fieldwork site after a storm
Crédits Source: Photo taken by Vasudevan, Raksha. 2012.
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k


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