Version classiqueVersion mobile

Everyday Resistance

Raksha Vasudevan

6. Responses of FHHs: a diversity of strategies

Texte intégral

1It was found that although women frequently appeared (and presented themselves) as being passive and helpless in the face of the multiple challenges confronting them, they were in fact, responding to these circumstances with a striking amount of agency and creativity, both in their activities and thought processes. The strategies identified here do not necessarily represent conscious actions taken by FHHs as forms of resistance against established orders of domination; rather, they usually took the form of practical reactions to immediate concerns in their daily lives.   

2The preceding chapter attempted to distinguish between various types of vulnerabilities facing FHHs, with the goal of providing a more nuanced understanding of the different facets of each. In contrast, this section will identify and discuss the response strategies that participants employed to address the vulnerabilities facing them in a more holistic manner. This approach is premised on the idea that a particular strategy can serve as a response to more than one single type of vulnerability.  

  • 1  This does not necessarily imply that group and individual coping strategies are aligned: in fact, (...)

3This chapter will focus on active strategies (e.g., visiting officials specifically to seek employment) versus passive strategies (e.g., being forced to pay bribes) that FHHs deployed in order to highlight the agency that participants displayed in the face of adverse circumstances. However, no distinction is made between individual/personal and group coping strategies, as they are thought to be closely inter-related.1

6.1 Construction of livelihood opportunities

  • 2  The term “schemes” rather than “businesses” is used here to indicate that these activities were us (...)
  • 3  This was the only time that debt was ever mentioned as a survival strategy, likely indicative of t (...)

4Perhaps the best illustration of the agency of FHHs in the north is their ability to create livelihood opportunities for themselves, usually through self-employment or other types of informal sector activities. The majority (56%) of FHHs interviewed had managed to secure some form of regular or semi-regular employment, or had created small “schemes”2 themselves which provided them with some income – a remarkable achievement in an economy which is recovering from almost 30 years of conflict. Even when women were unable to find regular sources of employment, they were able to survive financially through the distress sale or mortgaging of assets such as jewellery and household items.3 Overall, they engaged in a range of “independent” activities – i.e., those that did not involve some form of reliance on family or friends – to earn income for themselves and their dependents.

Table 1: Livelihood activities of FHHs interviewed

  • 4  These numbers cannot be summed up to arrive at the total number/percentage of FHHs interviewed who (...)

Livelihood Activity

Number (%) of FHHs engaged4

Forms of coolie (seasonal) labour

19 (30%)

Raising chickens

4 (6%)

Mortgage/sale of personal jewellery

3 (5%)


3 (5%)

Work for religious institutions

3 (5%)

Office work

3 (5%)

Other work

2 (3%)

5Women engaging in work outside of the home is by no means a new phenomenon in war-afflicted northern Sri Lanka: several scholars (Rajasingham-Senanayake 1998) have documented how the Sri Lankan conflict has undercut the sexual division of labour, resulting in women not only engaging in income-generating activities, but also doing so in non-traditional vocations such as mechanics, which would have been “unheard of’ prior to the war. With a new generation of FHHs created over the last decade of the war, the presence of women in the “public” sphere is likely to persist. No longer can women and men inhabit “separate worlds” as McGilvray (1989) likened the gender segregation common to Tamil communities in eastern Sri Lanka, where men spent most of their days working and socializing outside the home, and women remained in or close to their homes with their children. This trend also creates a social space that permits women to re-construct their identities without keeping to the one-dimensional “victim” or “warrior” narratives they were offered before and during the conflict.

6Thus, the abilitiy of participating FHHs  to find innovative ways to earn their incomes constitutes an impressive sign of their resilience, especially considering that prior to the deaths/disappearances of their husbands, these women may never have needed to find or engage in paid work. Furthermore, a number of women expressed a strong desire to access some credit in order to start their own businesses. Withdrawing children from school to work was reported in only a handful of cases, likely due to the high value that most FHHs – and Tamil culture in general – place on children’s education as a path to a better future for both the children and their parents.

7Not only did these activities provide a source of livelihood for FHHs and their families, they also provided participants with a renewed sense of purpose and control over their daily lives. This was reinforced by the fact that, in addition to now generating income themselves, the FHHs interviewed also had more control over household finances than they would have had if a male head were still present.

At least I can earn some money, I can send my children to school. It helps me to stay busy, something to do…to not think about the past, or what might happen next. (Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

They [the government] will not help us. We have to toil to help ourselves. (Group interview 1, Site 3, 04/04/2012)

It is difficult to manage on my own, but at least whatever money I earn, I can keep. I only spend what I have to for the children’s education and for food, and I save the rest. Before, he earned all the money and spent much of it on useless things like tea and arrack [the local liquor]. (Group interview 1, Site 6, 11/04/2012)

  • 5  For a further discussion of the underlying factors behind men and women’s differing reactions to e (...)

8Interestingly, Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) in their research on IDPs in eastern Sri Lanka found that although men were more likely to earn higher incomes, they also tended to express more frustration over their inability to fulfill their financial responsibilites – a strongly gendered expectation.5 Thus, FHHs’ demonstrate a remarkable capacity to not only fulfil the “gendered” tasks expected of them (household work and child care), but to furthermore step out of the feminized sphere of the home and fulfil those roles and expectations traditionally reserved for men.

6.1.1 Accessing alternative support sources

  • 6  There was only one case where the participant reported having lost faith in religion/God.

9Among those resources that FHHs tapped into in attempting to both secure their financial survival and also to find emotional and spiritual comfort were religious institutions. Almost all participants6 – regardless of the faith they followed – mentioned their religious beliefs as an important meansto help them deal with the past, find the strength to meet present challenges, and maintain hope for a better future.

At least God allows me and the children to eat. We are living thanks to God. (Individual interview 2, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

I don’t think about the future. By the grace of God we have enough to eat, some clothes on our back. That’s enough. (Individual interview 2, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

I pray everyday at 3 am for all widows like me, because it is an auspicious hour. God has helped me… I have a job now, I can live now. (Individual interview 1, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

10The role religious organizations played in the communities included in this study is also notable. Many religious leaders acted as advocates for their parishioners with a variety of institutions (e.g., NGOs, local police and army personnel) and provided emotional counselling. Furthermore, by aligning themselves with religious organizations, FHHs were sometimes able to gain access to livelihood support – both in the form of disbursements of small amounts of cash and non-cash items (e.g., food, clothing), and in some cases, even to gain paid employment (e.g., cooking, gardening) within the religious institutions. Participants – especially those in the more isolated sites in the interior Vanni – also found a sense of security in the continued presence of the organizations, as they represented connections to larger faith communities globally, thus ensuring that their suffering would not be completely “invisible” and they would not go totally unassisted:

We all know her [xxx], we all trust her…she has been here for a long time, even after all the NGOs left after the shelling started. She did not leave us, it gives us hope […] Some days, I cannot afford to buy food, and then I come here [to the religious institution] and they give me whatever small [things] they can. (Group interview 1, Site 5, 10/04/2012)

I have been working as a cook here [at the religious institution] for the past two months. I am so thankful for this job, now I have enough to eat and I can even save some money for my eye surgery […]  I usually sleep here, I feel safe here. (Individual interview 1, Site 5, 09/04/2012)

They have helped me a lot, have helped all of us a lot. Yesterday, xxx gave me some clothes for my daughter…just the fact that they think of me, that they live in these difficult conditions just to be with us, the people, gives me hope.(Individual interview 3, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

I don’t feel alone, even though I have lost my parents and husband. At least some of my friends are here, my children and the priest – he has been so kind, given me good advice and some money from time-to-time. And he sees what is going on here, how badly we are living, how the government is not helping us, so he tries to get us some help from some NGOs, and you know, he has connections …so we are not alone. (Group interview 1, Site 4, 04/04/2012)

  • 7  Surprisingly, NGOs were rarely mentioned as a method of obtaining access to resources. This is lik (...)

11Another unlikely source of livelihood support7 came in the form of the very entity which itself was the source of many of the vulnerabilities that participants faced: the military. Although viewed disfavorably by most interviewees, individual FHHs’ relationships with the military were far from monolithic. At several of the fieldwork sites, local army contingents or individual officers seemed to have good relations with the FHHs, partly as a result of undertaking projects to assist them, including (re)building housing and distributing food rations. Furthermore, stories of FHHs choosing to engage in sexual relations with, or even marry army personnel were not uncommon. None of the FHHs who were interviewed reported doing either of these themselves, and generally perceived those that did as having little “choice” in the matter. However, as Roy argues, women’s attitudes towards sexual behaviour that is traditionally considered sinful are shaped by “normative codes of gender, class, and sexuality that demand female silencing of sexual wrongs in the name of honour or respectability” (2008, 323). The outcomes of such normative beliefs for FHHs are discussed further in the later section on “6.3.5 Rumor-mongering.”

12The diversity of interactions between FHHs and members of the military is substantiated by interviews with expertsworking in the north who suggested that the degree of choice in such matters indeed varied, with some FHHs engaging in such activities without much or any coercion (Xavier 2012; Satkunanathan 2012b): instead, they constituted intentional strategies to earn some income, gain access to other resources (e.g., food rations) and/or secure some protection against the threat of sexual attack from other men. Thus, even in relation to an entity that largely represented repression of and control over the Tamil population, it should not be assumed that FHHs necessarily assumed the role of passive victims (or “woman warriors”) within such contexts.

6.2 The role of family networks / kinship structures

13Although FHHs managed to create or find an array of livelihood activities on their own, the resort to family networks/kinship structures also served as a critical response mechanism in terms of providing both financial and non-financial support. As Ruwanpura and Humphries (2004) found in their research in eastern Sri Lanka, the traditional networks of kinship reciprocity were being strained due to the additional number of widows created as a result of the conflict, which also left fewer traditional income earners (i.e., men) to provide economic support. Nevertheless, kin acted as important sources of financial survival for the FHHs who participated in this research. Of the FHHs interviewed, 63% reported receiving some financial assistance from their kin. Parents, grandparents, children, brothers, sisters, and more distant kin both within and outside of Sri Lanka provided varying amounts of money to FHHs. The majority of FHHs also lived and/or slept at relatives’ houses, either because they did not have their own, or because they did not feel secure in their own homes. Moving back to matriarchal homes was an especially common strategy.  

Table 2: FHHs receiving financial/non-financial support from kin

  • 8  These numbers cannot be summed up to arrive at the total number/percent of FHHs interviewed who re (...)

Source of financial support

Number of FHHs who received support8


9 (14%)


14 (22%)

Siblings (and their family)

11 (17%)

Former husband’s family

6 (9%)

Other relatives

13 (20%)

Living/sleeping in relative’s home

18 (28%)

14The emotional security and hope that family members provided through their sheer presence was also apparent:

Friends, neighbours…are important, but in the end, it is the family who helps, who takes care of you. Others have their own problems, we are all in a bad situation, no? But at least my parents help, my children will be there to take care of me when I get older. (Individual interview 4, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

At least we are all together, those in my family who survived the end [of the war]. We are living in a small house, it is too small, but at least we are together, we have each other…It is all I have left. (Individual interview 1, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

Me and my children are living at the house of my sister and her husband. He has a good job, he works for the government. He is a good man […] It is difficult to be alone…difficult to manage…without my husband, but at least my sister is here, and my children are alive. That is why I continue. (Individual interview 3, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

15As Somasundaram explains, the family typically plays a critical role in conceptualising and responding to trauma within Tamil culture:

Tamil families, due to close and strong bonds and cohesiveness in nuclear and extended families, tend to function and respond to external threat or trauma as a unit rather than as individual members. They share the experience and perceive the event in a particular way. […] In time the family will act to define and interpret the traumatic event, give it structure and assign a common meaning, as well as evolve strategies to cope with the stress. (2007, 2)

16However, it should be noted that assistance from kin was rarely given unconditionally. FHHs reported needing to continuously demonstrate that they were conducting themselves “properly” – especially in relation to men to whom they were not related. They also reported needing to demonstrate that their financial need was so dire as to necessitate assistance from kin, who would otherwise devote these resources to meeting the needs of their own families. As Ruwanpura and Humphries state, “the quest to maintain respectability often involved not only sacrifices in terms of isolation and loneliness but also constraints on economic activities … [required for] the maintenance of that genteel status needed to secure kin solidarity and support” (2004, 189). Thus, securing the assistance of kin required the ongoing reconstruction of their identities to correspond with the traditional image of the “good Tamil woman” – that is, weak, meek, isolated and chaste.

17A similar motivation to maintain “respectability” could also account for FHHs’ aversion to re-marriage: Thiruchandran argues that such attitudes are born from the the patriarchal underpinnings of Tamil culture, which negate women’s sexuality and sexual needs: “even after the partner in the monogamous marriage is removed from the scene, the women continue to subscribe to the patterns of monogamous marriage whereby they control their sexuality, sacrificing it on the altar of a partiarchal idealogy” (1999, 65). She also refers to a strict “ideology of motherhood” which prohibits remarriage on the basis that women “owe” their loyalty to their children first, and remarriage carries the risk of the new husband mistreating the children.

  • 9  This pervasive attitude also challenges the assumption that FHHs are automatically more vulnerable (...)

18Indeed, this was confirmed in fieldwork, with the vast majority of FHHs claiming they had no desire to re-marry since that would bring with it the risk of neglect or mistreatment of the children. They viewed re-marriage as being an additional burden, rather than as a potential new form of financial and/or non-financial support.9 Interestingly, two of the widows included in the research had re-married non-blood kin (e.g., their former husband’s brother). This appeared to be more acceptable in Tamil society, where taking a relative as a spouse  – especially a male related to the former husband – is more likely to be viewed as a practical arrangement that benefits both parties and allows the traditional gendered division of labour: the woman and the children gain a male head who offers physical protection and a source of income, and the man fulfills his kinship responsibilities of providing for the family of his relative while also gaining a household caretaker. Sexuality is not seen as a part of the equation, and since the new husband is usually directly related to the former spouse, he is thought to be more likely to see the woman’s children as “his own,” and therefore less likely to abuse or neglect them.

19It thus becomes clear from examining the conditionalities attached to support from kin that FHHs are severely constrained by ethnic and gendered narratives of “good womanhood.” These ideals appear to endure even in the post-war context where FHHs face new types of vulnerabilities and are compelled to assume responsibilities that force them to step outside of these conceptions of womanhood. Thus, although the Sri Lankan state has emerged as a key propagator of gendered oppression, “traditional” Tamil culture is equally culpable in this respect. FHHs in the north must negotiate both of these highly gendered terrains in order to survive, and identify and tap into various forms of support.

6.3 Everyday practices of solidarity and resistance

20Five types of response mechanisms that FHHs employed were especially interesting as acts of everyday politics. They represent ways in which FHHs adjusted to and even contested the unequal power structures that had been forced upon them by various actors, including state institutions. Characteristic of everyday politics, these acts were carried out in a manner that required little formal or pre-planned organisation, was low profile, and which FHHs themselves did not regard as political.

6.3.1 Information gathering and strategic use

21Participants in this research were generally very skilled at gathering information and sharing, withholding and/or manipulating it, based on their goals.One use of such methods was to identify, explore and tap into potential new opportunities to access aid. In several cases, news about a “foreigner” being in the area to conduct research spread extremely fast, even when attempts were made not to reveal the researcher’s presence in order to avoid detection by the military or other state institutions.10 In several instances, more women than were invited would turn up to participate in the discussion groups, usually with hopes of receiving some form of aid. This was usually because FHHs were sensitive to unusual activities that were not in keeping with the normal routine of their peers. Thus, it seemed that the state was not alone in using ongoing surveillance as a method of information gathering and control. FHHs did so to some extent as well.

I saw that P****, S******* and C***** were going to this compound so I also came. I thought some NGO or the government was going to hand out some supplies.(Group interview 1, Site 5, 10/04/2012)

L***** told me she saw some of the women going somewhere together, and we also came to see what was going on. I had also heard that there was a foreign woman in town, maybe she was going to give us some help. (Group interview 1, Site 6, 11/04/2012)

22Several times over the course of fieldwork, FHHs took the initiative of approaching the researcher for assistance (usually financial), presenting themselves in a manner to highlight, and perhaps even exaggerate, their vulnerability in order to receive aid. Thus, they were consciously manipulating, contributing to  and reinforcing the gendered discourse that situated them as “helpless victims,” but in so doing, actually proving them false to a certain extent. Schrijvers, who had similar encounters with female Tamil IDPs during his research, posits that, “powerlessness is not absolute; it can be manoeuvred as a resource, particularly when there is a fitting discourse such as that of ‘the vulnerable refugee woman’” (1999, 325).

23FHHs were also adept in censoring each other (and likely, other community members as well) to minimize the risk of “getting into trouble” with the state. For example, a facilitator shared that earlier in the year, a journalist had come to one of the fieldwork sites and one of the FHHs had complained on-camera about how they were being neglected by the government and not receiving any assistance with housing. Her neighbours later reprimanded her, fearing that that they would face punishment, or some kind of retribution from the army. As a result, she refused to respond to any questions concerning her perceptions of the government for this research. In another instance, a participant in one of the focus groups revealed at a certain point that she was a former LTTE cadre, immediately after which all of the other women admonished her for sharing such information with a “foreigner.”  

Now they will come to all our homes, and we will all get in trouble! You should not keep saying things like this, be careful. (Group interview 1, Site 1, 31/03/2012)   

24Thus, FHHs vigorously engaged in everyday politics by gathering and controlling information in ways that maximized their access to resources, and minimized potential negative reactions from the state.

6.3.2 Informal community gatherings

25Informal gatherings with neighbours and other members of the community were another means by which FHHs contested the restrictions placed on them by the state. These gatherings specifically challenged the restrictions on formal group gatherings of any type, and especially on those intended to allow discussion of issues of a “political” nature.11

26Several participants reported meeting regularly with other residents (usually women) to talk about their lives, exchange news and discuss daily happenings. These meetings were rarely planned beforehand:  one participant said that in the evenings, she and her neighbours pull up some chairs and chat across the fence until the lights go off at about 9 o’clock at night. Another interviewee said that she and some of her neighbours gathered regularly by the trees nearby to talk (Individual interview 5, Site 9, 20/04/2012).

27In spite of the informal nature of these meetings, they nevertheless represented an important outlet for participants to express their feelings on a variety of issues. This included voicing discontent about matters such as the military’s actions and its continued presence, the lack of government assistance, and the inefficiency and corruption of police and local authorities, which would have earned the speakers negative consequences if voiced in public.

What do we talk about? Everything…daily life, the children…if there’s some new stupid rule from the military […] Why are they still here? We do not understand, the President said they would be gone in within a year. They only care about the Sinhalese, they do nothing to help us. (Individual interview 2, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

It is nice to talk about things with them [the neighbours]. We have a lot of good memories together, we have been living in the same place our whole lives…we talk about that […] Now, it is frightening, women and children are being attacked and the police are doing nothing to stop it! No one cares, the military just watches on…we do not know how it will end. (Individual interview 4, Site 9, 20/04/2012)

We have no freedom here, to meet or discuss. The army is watching us all the time […] The only time I talk freely is when I am talking to my neighbours in their homes, and we are sure that no one is listening to us. (Group interview 1, Site 5, 10/04/2012)  

28Although these meetings could be viewed as unimportant events, in the context of an environment where fear and repression are pervasive, such gatherings are significant by virtue of the potential for danger that they entail, especially if the subjects discussed were to be discovered by anyone associated with the state. These gatherings thus serve the very practical, short-term need of allowing women to express their frustrations, offer comfort and build solidarity with each other, while at the same time as expressing ideological dissent and thereby (privately) contesting the structures of domination imposed upon them.

6.3.3 Silence

29Closely related to the control of information and informal, quasi-clandestine gatherings is the maintenance by FHHs of silence and a “low profile.” As Eastmond (2010) found in the case of post-conflict Bosnia and Herzogovina, trying to achieve and maintain a “peaceful co-existence” – that is a certain level of interaction and even cooperation between former enemies (e.g., Tamil women and the Sinhalese army)  – is a practical strategy, at least in the short-term, following the end of a conflict or mass atrocity. Blacklock and Crosby have also found that “in environments characterized by militarized and repressive social structures and relations, maintaining silence – that is, actively not contesting, disclosing, naming, or even remembering what one knows – as a strategy of survival and/or resistance ‘makes sense’” (2004, 68, italics in original).

30In this research, FHHs’ refusal to discuss certain issues – especially, their perceptions of the government and military – was likely just as revealing as full disclosure of their feelings on these topics would have been:

No, no…talking about that is not necessary…I read the paper everyday…I know that talking about the government or army is dangerous. (Individual interview 3, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

We cannot say anything, even if we trusted you. If they found out… (Group interview 1, Site 5, 10/04/2012)

31Another topic on which FHHs commonly refused to speak was the loss of their husbands and other family members or loved ones. Their silence effectively spoke volumes about the depth of their suffering and the trauma that they continued to struggle with:

(Crying) I don’t want to think about that time again [when my husband died]. In those last days, we had to walk and swim over the dead bodies. (Individual interview 1, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

(Angry) Why are you asking about them? Why should I speak? […] Have I not suffered enough already? I just want to be left in peace! (Individual interview 3, Site 9, 20/04/2012)

32FHHs’ refusal to speak on certain topics thus represented a pragmatic response to the severe emotional and physical difficulties that they faced.12 By maintaining their silence, they avoided re-living horrific memories and subsequent re-traumatization, as well as becoming potential targets for the state. Perhaps even more importantly, it enabled them to conserve their energy and concentration for the urgent task of rebuilding their lives.

6.3.4 Maintaining a low profile

33Closely linked to maintaining silence on sensitive topics, participants attempted to evade “being seen” by state authorities in two other principal ways: reducing their movements outside the home to a minimum, and avoiding contact with state institutions or people affiliated with them – even when doing so might be beneficial for them.

34As discussed before,13 the vast majority of FHHs reported reducing their movements outside the home, especially after dark, since this was seen to be the most dangerous time of day. When they did have to go outside, they generally kept a “low profile’, avoiding attracting attention to themselves, and especially contact with the military or unknown men.

I never wear my jewellery when I leave the house. Who knows what could happen these days? (Individual interview 1, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

I could go outside if I really needed to, after 6 o’clock but I would not feel safe. Before, when the LTTE was here, I could do it…then, women could walk around freely. But now? No. (Individual interview 1, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

35Participants also avoided interaction with state institutions. Accessing networks of political support (e.g., establishing and tapping into good relationships with local government ocers and/or army officials) was rarely reported. Those FHHs that did strategically try to build relations with politicians or army officials were usually women whose immediate survival was not in danger – i.e., those who had adequate food and shelter for themselves and their dependents for the short to medium-term future.

36This can be compared to Thomson’s research (2011) which found that Rwandan peasants’ avoidance of local authorities, rather than signifying implicit acceptance and submission to them, was in fact a form of resistance to local reconciliation plans imposed upon them by the government. Peasants were more concerned with their daily survival and livelihoods than with “reconciliation,” and thus their avoidance of political officials silently contested state-imposed structures and asymmetrical power relations. The research for this paper has yielded that only those women who did not have to spend the full extent of their energy on ensuring their daily survival attempted to build rapport with officials. This fact confirms that rather than being a matter of submission or deference to state structures, the avoidance of networks of political support was a matter of priorities and short-term practicality.

37It has been hypothesized that such evasive strategies in the face of repressive regimes are easier for women in patriarchal societies to adopt specifically because of the oppressive gender roles and expectations that they are habituated to. For example, in his research on Tamil female IDPs living in internal refugee camps, Schrijvers attributed women’s impressive coping capacities to having had low status and self-esteem throughout their lives. As one interviewee explained to him: “‘you know, we are women and therefore used to being nobody. This is why we can cope better with this than the men’” (1999, 323, italics in original).

6.3.5 “Rumor-mongering”

38Tied to the subjects of information control and silence are women’s abilities to selectively share, manipulate and exaggerate the truth. These have been found to be a key survival strategy in contexts of ongoing repression (cf. Blacklock and Crosby (2004) on postwar Guatemala). “Rumor-mongering” could be considered one example of this. In particular, the real extent to which the largely Sinhalese military and Tamil men in these areas pose an objective threat to FHHs must be questioned, without being negated or unjustly diminished.

39Some experts believe that fears of sexual abuse have been based on “rumor-mongering” that surrounds  a relatively low number of cases. This may be the case for various reasons. For example, it may serve as a way for the community to “make sense of” extra-marital sexual relationships which are now more complex in the post-war situation (Satkunanathan 2012b), but which nonetheless take place despite conservative Tamil culture which still generally condemns such relations. It has also been suggested that such rumors may possibly assist the Tamil diaspora and activists in the country to bring international pressure and attention to the human rights violations taking place in northern Sri Lanka.

40The propagation of such fears could also be viewed as a means for the community to socially control the behaviour of Tamil women and men in an environment that was no longer regulated by the strict rules of “proper conduct” which existed during LTTE rule. As de Alwis (2004) has argued, the damage that conflict can inflict on the social fabric of communities can led to heightened surveillance and scrutiny of women’s sexual conduct, as well as more severe social consequences for any behaviour viewed as “inappropriate.’ Referring to women displaced by conflict, she argues that the refugee woman is “frequently produced as a cipher for all that was (temporarily) lost as well as what must be preserved for the future; her community’s purity of displacement is imbricated in her moral purity” (227). This representation of refugee women as both the symbols and markers of the community’s collective virtue is likely also applicable to lone FHHs since they too have been “displaced” from their positions in the traditional roles women occupy within Tamil society. Seen as more vulnerable to “loose” behaviour, they serve as ideal “litmus tests” for gauging the moral uprightness of the larger community.

41Furthermore, participants’ discourse about the military, and Sinhalese men in general, bore a striking resemblance to residents’ perceptions of Muslim refugee men in Puttalam in north-western Sri Lanka: “The residents’ predominant portrayal of the refugee men is epitomized by their ‘corrupting’ practices of watching blue movies, getting into fights, and drinking. The threat posed by these refugee men, however, is presented as the need to safeguard the resident women, who can ‘no longer walk outside [the household compound] after dark” (de Alwis 2004, 220). This stereoptypical portrayal of a group that is seen as “foreign” or “impure” also ties in with FHHs’ earlier-mentioned tendency to manipulate or portion truth as a survival strategy). However, rather than being read as lies or pure exaggeration, it is more likely that such discourses are the manifestation of residents viewing the influx of military and the absence of the LTTE’s strict regulations as transforming their formerly “safe” communities into constructed sites of impurity and disorder – just as de Alwis (2004) suggested that Puttalam residents did in their discourses of refugee camps in their midst.

42Another example of FHHs using “rumors” to discourage interaction between other Tamil women and the Sinhalese military was illustrated during one focus group discussion: some (Sinhalese) soldiers stationed in the area had married local Tamil women. Participants in the discussion felt that these soldiers would almost certainly leave these women someday and return to the south to start new families. However, they could not recall any similar cases recently where soldiers had abandoned local women to re-marry in the south. Thus, even in the absence of the LTTE, the community at large, including FHHs themselves, attempt to maintain control over women’s behaviour. As Schrijvers summarizes,

When reflecting on the effects of war and flight, both conservative and progressive people were stressing the dangers of 'the collapse of family values', and the 'breaking down of the family structure'. What they particularly had in mind was the collapse of the control of both gender and age hierarchies. They feared a chaos created by women and youngsters who were freely moving around without control by adult males, with the resulting collapse of the caste, class and gender system. (1999, 328)

43FHHs’ use of rumors and fear-mongering thus makes sense as a form of corrective social control in a context of perceived eroding social and moral values. This raises the widely acknowledged and important point that women in general (cf. Enloe 2000) are not only the “victims” of patriarchy, but rather actively participate in its ongoing construction. It is only through greater awareness of the gendered norms that both men and women conform to and propagate that patriarchy can gradually be broken down.

6.4 Normalization of horrific events

44In addition to refusing to talk about certain topics, FHHs dealt with living in environments of fear and constant uncertainty14 by “normalizing” such conditions as part of their daily lives. A 2009 study carried out in Jaffna showed a much lower prevalence of common mental health problems (such as PTSD, depression and anxiety) associated with conflict and post-conflict situations than similar studies carried out in Kosovo and Afghanistan (Husain, et al. 2011). The researchers hypothesized that, given the protracted nature of the conflict in Sri Lanka, affected populations had learned to better cope with ongoing exposure to conflict over time, and to “normalize” it in their thought processes as part of daily life. This is in line with Galapatti’s (2003) 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.”  

(shortly after a tsunami warning had been issued for the area)  Are you scared? We are so used to things like this…shelling, attacks, tsunamis. It is just normal for us. (Translator, Site 6, 11/04/2012)

We are afraid of nothing now! After what we have survived, what we have seen…there is nothing they can do that could be worse than those months. The sounds of those bombs dropping from the sky, all day long, hiding again and again… leaving our parents, children and neighbours behind as they died…and we could not even bury them. All the fear is gone now. (Group interview 1, Site 1, 31/03/2012)

45Tied to the normalisation of otherwise-unacceptable events and conditions was a strategy of maintaining low expectations.  FHHs employed this strategy with respect to thinking about the future. Walker emphasises the performance of everyday, seemingly mundane activities as a critical way in which Tamil-speaking communities in Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka managed to endure the conflict, and remake their lives “in and around violence” (2010, 15). She presents a striking example of a 40-year old woman whose son had been killed:

the swirling and squeezing of grains in preparation of her children’s lunch, for example, powerfully revealed a sense of her getting on with daily chores within the parameters of normality while not hiding the pain and sadness that seeped through her body and actions. The need for routine seemed to imply control over external events […] such actions both embodied and revealed her determination, endurance, and imagination of the everyday. (2010, 17).

46Similarly, in this research, “mundane” rituals such as cooking and cleaning, seemed to enable FHHs to focus on the struggles and joys that each day brought, rather than succumbing to the  overwhelming trepidation over what the future would bring (or rather, would not bring back –families, loved ones and livelihoods):

I do not think about what will happen next…better to forget about the future and try to get through today. (Individual interview 5, Site 9, 20/04/2012)

I keep busy with all my chores.. I do not think about the future. It just makes me afraid [when I think about the future]… I try to keep busy today. (Individual interview 3, Site 10, 21/04/2012)

I do not think about the future. By the grace of God we have enough to eat, some clothes on our back. That’s enough. (Individual interview 2, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

47Rather than viewing such tasks in a purely utilitarian fashion that holds them as being necessary or desperate attempts at some sort of “normalcy,” Walker argues that they can also be manifestations of everyday life which has been irrevocably altered by the violence of the past. For example, the amount of food cooked is modified with respect to a reduced number of family members, and new prayers or memorials are added to mark those who have passed away. Thus, such rituals go beyond response strategies to the suffering of the present to becoming ongoing representations of how the past and the everyday fuse together.  

48Such strategies act as powerful counter-arguments to the discursive constructions of FHHs as “helpless victims” or “masculinized warriors.” It is as a result of their “victimisation” that they find a sense of power in household tasks and the strength to endure “the everyday.” In these ways, they inhabit and thus transform the spaces between the two narrow identities offered to them.

6.4.1 Humour as a response mechanism

  • 15  Sengupta, Somini, “Boat to Safety Is Death Trap to Sri Lankans”, The New York Times. May 5, 2009. (...)

49Another aspect of FHHs’ normalisation of both the terrible memories they harboured and the current conditions in which they live was embodied in the jokes that the women would make. A particular example of this occurred in one of the villages visited for the fieldwork, where a young man had just been bitten by a dog. Two of his neighbours – both FHHs – urged him to go to the doctor right away. He refused, saying it wasn’t a serious matter: “it is not as if I am walking around without a head.” One of the women responded sarcastically, “who walks around without a head? Maybe only at Mathalan there are people like that,” causing all present to break out into laughter. Mathalan, on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka, was one of the designated “no-fire zones” towards the end of the conflict, where shelling by government forces was nevertheless reported to have occurred repeatedly, causing some of the greatest numbers of civilian casualties during the last phase of the war.15

50At another fieldwork site, a tsunami warning had been issued during the period of research. During a group discussion with seven women, participants were asked about their perceptions of the government. All agreed that the state was doing nothing to help them, but rather that it discriminated against them because they were Muslim. One of the participants joked that “at least if the tsunami comes, the government will give us something,” eliciting laughter from those present.

51In another group discussion with several FHHs who were still living in IDP camps, one of the participants cynically referred to the local army commander as trying to “parent” them:

If he ever thinks that we did anything wrong, like talk badly about him or complain about wanting to go back to our homes, he calls us together and scolds us! “You are all degenerates”, he says. He acts as if he is our father, and we are all just naughty little children! (Group interview 1, Site 1, 31/03/2012)

52All the other participants laughed at this description, likely as they were struck by the absurdity in the description of the army commander’s role.

53It seemed that humour was thus a key response strategy for some FHHs, enabling them to distance themselves from both the horror they had been through, and the multiple vulnerabilities that they continued to face. At the same time, mocking the people and institutions that they perceived to be responsible for their suffering (e.g., the army) also represented a way to contest the unequal power structures in which they found themselves embedded.

6.4.2 Apathy towards government actions

54Whereas some participants either feared or actively ridiculed the actors who tried to control and marginalize them, many FHHs also displayed attitudes of near-indifference towards the government. They often stated that they did not expect anything from the state, merely wishing to be left in peace to carry on with their lives. Even when they did express the desire for distinct needs to be fulfilled (e.g., adequate housing, permission to return home), they usually did not have high hopes that this would actually occur. In addition, they did not usually express anger at the state for the deaths, disappearances or various other fates of their loved ones, nor did they express desires for apologies or any sort of “reconciliation.”

What to say [about the government]? They will probably not cause any problems... I hope they will just leave us in peace. (Individual interview 2, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

They did not protect us during the war, but now it is okay. If it stays like this, then I suppose it is fine. (Individual interview 3, Site 9, 20/04/2012)

We just want the houses they promised us…but who knows if that will ever happen? We always hear that we are going to get this help, get that help…and it never happens. (Individual interview 4, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

55Such statements may be at least partially attributable to their fear of the consequences that might result from being discovered speaking about such sensitive topics. These attitudes are similar to those identified in O’Donnell and Galli’s research in Argentina in 1979 – a time characterized by abductions, torture, and executions of civilians by the national security forces. While interviewing middle-class Argentines about such abuses, they found that interviewees were generally uncritical towards the actions of the state, often appearing indifferent to or ignorant of these actions, rather than voicing discontent. This led the researchers to hypothesize that citizens had accepted conditions that they ordinarily would not have been able to tolerate due to the widespread fear permeating Argentinian society at the time, rather than concluding that they were acting out of apathy (cited in Corradi, Fagen, and Garreton (1992)).

56If FHHs appear indifferent towards the state, this can be viewed as a rational response to living in constant insecurity and uncertainty – what O’Donnell and Galli label a “culture of fear.” This is indeed an apt way for describing the environment in the north, given the widespread perception there that the state is unwilling to protect women, and may, in fact, oppress and abuse them. The few participants who did express negative sentiments about the government confirmed this perception:

We never know what is going to happen next. Now, there is no one to take care of the Tamil people. […] We do not know about the government, what are their interior motives. On the outside, they say they are helping people, but… (Individual interview 3, Site 5, 09/04/2012)

They are fulfilling some of their responsibilities, like giving electricity or helping build some houses, but what about people’s basic rights? We have the right to speak, to meet, no? But we cannot do that here. (Individual interview 4, Site 5, 10/04/2012)

57Thus, the lack of hope or trust in both the government’s intentions and actions, rather than signifying indifference, forms part of a larger strategy to maintain low expectations and normalize what would be otherwise unacceptable conditions, in order to avoid adding further disappointment and pain to all that they already have to cope with.   

6.4.3 “Home” as a source of strength

  • 16  Different women perceived “home” in different ways: usually, it was either their place of birth an (...)

58Focusing on their membership in larger communities (i.e., villages/towns/cities)16 also constituted a crucial way for participants to both literally and figuratively make their way (back) towards “normality.” Most women expressed a great deal of satisfaction in having returnedto the sites of their traditional family homes, even if home structures were no longer standing (or an intense longing to do so if resettlement had not yet taken place). Those who had returned seemed to have found great solace in the fact that they would be able to raise their families, and live the remainder of their lives on their own lands, surrounded by long-time friends and neighbours.

If the war breaks out again, we won’t run away this time. God saved us last time so we could return to die on our own lands. (Group interview 1, Site 5, 09/04/2012)

Better to stay here and manage than to stay there [where we were forced to displace to] and suffer. (Group interview 1, Site 7, 11/04/2012)

  • 17  Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) also hypothesize that FHHs were more attached to their homes hav (...)

59As de Alwis (2004) found with Muslim refugees in Puttalum in the 1990s, a central part of the identity of FHHs was constructed through a strong attachment to “home” and a certain resistance to putting down roots in the places to which they had been displaced.17 Especially illustrative of this were the views of FHHs still in IDP camps during the research period. Three years after the end of the war, they were still awaiting permission and assistance to return home. This was the one thing they all unanimously agreed would represent the greatest assistance that the government (or any other actor) could provide them with (Group interview 1, Site 1, 31/03/2012).

60Rather than a simplistic desire to return to a romanticized past, it is more probable that their longing was based on the common loss of their homes and family members, resulting in a shared determination to rebuild their lives “on their own terms” (and in their own homes), even in the absence of any realistic possibility that their lives would continue to be the same as before displacement. In her ethnographic study of Tamil-speaking communities in Batticaloa during the conflict, Walker argues that this is one of the ways in which people retained hope for change while enduring everyday realities of suffering and violence: “a capacity for hope, for building trust, safety and peace, however fragile and tentative, is as much an integral part of a conflict situation, as the more obvious capacity for fear and silence” (2010, 19).

61Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) also found that IDPs in eastern Sri Lanka were deeply concerned about their inability to return to their villages. This was of more concern to women than men, and was not based solely on feelings of nostalgia – there were strong socio-economic motivations driving the desire to return home as well. One of these was the performance of livelihood activities requiring access to the local natural resources available at home. Growing vegetables, for instance, was difficult to do in IDP camps or in other places where the land did not belong to them.

  • 18  An interesting illustration of the strength of these bonds and the desire to maintain them is give (...)
  • 19  In their research on eastern Sri Lanka, Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) also identified the soci (...)
  • 20  This does not necessarily imply that solidarity was always strong within villages or communities, (...)

62Several forms of non-financial support were also provided by neighbours and other community members in their original villages,based on generations of solidarity and mutual exchange.18While money was rarely transferred outside of family networks, other community support mechanisms such as access to childcare,19 use of household assets (e.g., water wells), and neighbours and community members allowing single women and their children to sleep in their homes at night to minimize risk of attack were commonplace. Moreover, although all participants in the research faced various, complex vulnerabilities, none seemed to be literally starving due to lack of food or water, indicating that these support systems were especially important as a “last resort.”20

I do not have a well on my land, so I have to go to other people’s houses to ask to use their well…They are kind, the people here, they usually say yes […] I spend a while talking to them while getting the water, we also stay friends this way. (Individual interview 2, Site 5, 09/04/2012)

Sometimes, the worry that my husband has died comes. But then, my friends [...] come to my house and they make me feel so much better. They take me to their house, and they cook for me. They buy snacks for my children. They come over just to visit. They are like my family. (Individual interview 4, Site 8, 12/04/2012)

63Thus, the contentment that FHHs found in returning “home,” or the intense longing to do so in cases where resettlement had not yet occurred, was a widespread response to the extended periods of displacement that most FHHs had experienced. It clearly gave them a greater sense of security, control and general well-being – for strong psychological and socio-economic reasons, as discussed above – than they had experienced in the areas to which they were forced to flee. This general rule seemed to apply almost regardless of the state of habitability of their family houses or hometowns.


1  This does not necessarily imply that group and individual coping strategies are aligned: in fact, as Atlani and Rousseau (2000) show in their study of psychological interventions delivered by humanitarian organisations to female refugee victims of rape, individual women may experience difficulties in accepting and adopting the group’s interpretations of events and ideas on how to move forward. In the fieldwork for this ePaper, mistrust and competition over scarce resources such as NGO distribution of aid was detected between group members, suggesting that individuals had motivations to act in ways which benefited themselves and their households (e.g., adopting various strategies to secure aid), but not necessarily other members of the group.

2  The term “schemes” rather than “businesses” is used here to indicate that these activities were usually of very small scale, often involving no other employees and requiring a very small amount of capital to run. “Micro-business” is another term that could be used in this context.

3  This was the only time that debt was ever mentioned as a survival strategy, likely indicative of the fact that no other forms of credit, such as microfinance with a low amount of required collateral, were available to them. Amirthalingam and Lakshman note that “selling off one’s jewellery also has a stigmatizing effect. It signals a diminished social status and can have repercussions that extend beyond the immediate short-term loss of wealth. For instance, the sale of jewellery has an inter-generational impact. Mothers who sell their jewellery cannot leave it to daughters. This may have an adverse impact on the marriage, dowry and even migration prospects of young Tamil women” (2012, 14).

4  These numbers cannot be summed up to arrive at the total number/percentage of FHHs interviewed who engaged in some sort of “independent” livelihood activity, as interviewees sometimes engaged in more than one. As a result, these figures are not cumulative.

5  For a further discussion of the underlying factors behind men and women’s differing reactions to economic and other vulnerabilities, see section 6.4. Normalization of horrific events.

6  There was only one case where the participant reported having lost faith in religion/God.

7  Surprisingly, NGOs were rarely mentioned as a method of obtaining access to resources. This is likely due to the fact that many NGO programs, especially the large ones that catered to FHHs’ most pressing needs such as The World Food Programme’s food distribution, have come to an end due to dwindling funds and “donor fatigue.” Furthermore, although self-organising into associations or networks as a way to access NGO/government resources has been documented as a livelihood strategy among refugees and IDPs (cf. Jacobsen 2002), this only seemed to have been used as a strategy in one of the fieldwork sites visited and is thus not discussed at length in this ePaper.

8  These numbers cannot be summed up to arrive at the total number/percent of FHHs interviewed who received support from kin, since some interviewees received support from more than one kin member. Therefore, these numbers are not cumulative.

9  This pervasive attitude also challenges the assumption that FHHs are automatically more vulnerable than male-headed households. As Chant (1997) argues, although FHHs may be poorer in financial terms, they may also experience less emotional and physical vulnerability and more empowerment in other aspects of their lives thanks to the absence of the male decision-maker.  

10  See section 3.1 Ethical considerations in designing the research.

11  See section 4.4.4 Repression of freedom of expression.

12  See section 5.4 Psycho-social vulnerabilities.

13  See section 5.3 Physical vulnerabilites : fear of attack.

14  See section 5.4 Psycho-social vulnerabilities.

15  Sengupta, Somini, “Boat to Safety Is Death Trap to Sri Lankans”, The New York Times. May 5, 2009. (accessed June 3, 2012).

16  Different women perceived “home” in different ways: usually, it was either their place of birth and upbringing, or the place in which they lived prior to their displacement in the last phase of the war.

17  Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) also hypothesize that FHHs were more attached to their homes having spent more time in them than men would have spent. Furthermore, the “utility value” of homes is higher for women – for example, FHHs participating in this research who lived in tents or other shelters that they had constructed themselves faced challenges in going to the toilet.  

18  An interesting illustration of the strength of these bonds and the desire to maintain them is given by Brun (2003) in her study of Northern Muslims as long-term IDPs in Sri Lanka. Many of these displaced Northern Muslims established settlements in Puttalum (the district in the Northwestern Province which the majority of them had been displaced to). These settlements resembled their hometowns, were composed of members from the same villages of origin and included similar place names.

19  In their research on eastern Sri Lanka, Amirthalingam and Lakshman (2012) also identified the social networks of villages as an important source of protection and care for FHHs, especially for the young children of FHHs. This was less the case in IDP camps, where members of different communities were mixed together and there was less trust, and therefore less exchange of ‘services’.

20  This does not necessarily imply that solidarity was always strong within villages or communities, or amongst FHHs. For example, in one of the fieldwork sites (Site 5, 09/04/2012), participants complained of the existence of army informants within the community and of selfishness among village members in trying to monopolize the aid that was offered by NGOs.


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.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search