War-torn North endures gang violence, lack of jobs and persisting drug and alcohol problems as its citizens work hard to create a future that looks far very much in the distance

Youth is an important stage of one’s life, but more importantly, the youth hold a country’s future in its hands. However, in Sri Lanka the youth often goes unnoticed and ignored. Kurt Cobain is quoted as saying, “the duty of youth is to challenge corruption.” However, in Sri Lanka, the youth, besides a few exceptions, do not seem to be actively challenging corruption. In fact, according to a recent post by Hashtag Generation, only 1.9 percent of Sri Lanka’s youth is engaged in political party work.

Thus one is forced to question what holds the youth back and if the youth itself faces too many issues which prevent them from fighting for change. Speaking to the youth of the Northern Province, The Nation learnt that there are quite a few problems faced by them.

mahinda-nidahas-ratakDrugs and alcohol
Drug use continues to be a serious problem. Ashok, a three wheeler driver, said that while drugs aren’t a problem only in Jaffna, but in the entire country, it is an evil that is being introduced to schoolchildren. Drug usage and abuse can be seen in abundance in Jaffna, he said, explaining that drugs are mixed in flavored ice packs, which are called ‘juice’ and are very popular.

“During the interval, dealers dressed as students sell drugs to school children. This can be prevented if schools have canteens in the premises and students don’t need to go outside to buy food,” Ashok said.

The use of Kerala ganja is extremely high in areas like Keerimali and Mathagal. According to Ashok, the drugs are brought to Jaffna by people from other areas. They then get people from Jaffna to sell the drugs.

“There was a recent incident where a student of Grade Seven had acquired pills from a garage workman and had given them to his friends,” Ashok said, explaining that however, drug and alcohol use was higher with A/L students.

Ashok also spoke about alcohol consumption in the Northern Province. “Liquor isn’t widely sold in the Jaffna town itself, but it is sold in the outskirts. In Kilinochchi, moonshine is sold, especially by the womenfolk,” Ashok said.

The Nation also spoke with Krishanthan*, who shared details about drug use among his peers. “I’m from Point Pedro and I joined an educational institution in Jaffna. It was once I came here that I became aware of certain issues, drug usage, for instance, that the youth faced,” he said.

“The drug usage among students is also a worrying factor. We do not know who is supplying them and who is behind this issue. We hope that it does not spread to other schools and institutions,” Krishanthan said, adding that “this issue is mainly found in institutions. Several students are beginning to be addicted already.”

The use of Kerala ganja is extremely high in areas like Keerimali and Mathagal. According to Ashok, the drugs are brought to Jaffna by people from other areas. They then get people from Jaffna to sell the drugs

Segregation of sexes continues in Sri Lanka. Even in Colombo, there are schools that are only for girls or boys. The situation in Jaffna is no different and in fact, one would assume, due to cultural beliefs, the segregation between males and females is deeper.

“There has been a marked change in the attitude of youngsters, both boys and girls. There was a time when boys and girls maintained a distance. They never spoke in public places. The girls especially were aware of the society and how they should behave in public. The boys too respected women and never passed comments on them,” Sanjeew*, a young man working at the Jaffna market said.

He added that, “But today, it has changed completely, at least in the main town area. We find couples everywhere. We do not know whether it is something bad. But it definitely was not there before.”

There also seems to be an increase in catcalling and street harassment, as Sanjeew said, “in addition, we now find boys passing comments on girls. They go near girl-schools and wait till they come out. It’s not something which we feel it’s healthy. There are instances when girls also lead the boys into doing things which are not appropriate and socially accepted.”

Sanjeew also spoke of the aggression among youth. While rebelliousness can be seen among youth, violence and aggression is increasing. According to Sanjeew, the frequent group fights and clashes are beginning to be a problem. “Every argument leads to street fights which were a frequent occurring until the law enforcement authorities took stern action against them. There was a time when many youngsters were armed with at least a pocket knife.”

Education and employment
Youth are concerned with both education and employment. It is what makes youth a difficult stage in life for many. A large number of people are forced to follow courses while also work while others struggle with the limited educational options and job opportunities.
According to the Annual Bulletin 2014 of the Census and Statistics Department, the total percentage of unemployment in Sri Lanka for the age group 15-24 is 20.3 while it’s 8.3 for the 25-29 age group. Further, the rate of unemployment in the Northern Province is 5.3 percent, while 3.3 percent of males are unemployed and 10.2 percent of females are unemployed.

Hashvina*, a youth of Jaffna, spoke to The Nation about education and employment in the Northern Province. With regard to education, Hashvina said she would like to have more course options. She also explained that while there is generally more gender equality, many females get married before going abroad for higher education.

Also speaking about marriage and education was Dinesh*, who said very few people get married before studying. It is thus possible that marriage before higher education is chosen only when going abroad. Dinesh also said there is an improvement since 10 years ago.

“Many follow the GAQ for careers in teaching. People also find jobs in banks. For those who don’t have A/L qualifications, there is also the option of working as a typist,” Dinesh explained.

While the youth of Jaffna seemed to believe there were many job opportunities for them, the older generation was more negative. Speaking to a man who had been working in a shop for more than five year, The Nation learnt that unemployment or a lack of gainful employment is a serious issue in the Northern Province. In fact, walking around the Jaffna market, one could see many young people working at the various small shops and eateries.

“Many people are working at these stores because they can’t find jobs elsewhere,” Siriskandaraj, who has been working at one of the stores for over five years, said. “Most people don’t even study because there is no use. They can’t find jobs to match their qualifications,” he added. He also said that many go to the Middle East in search of employment.

“We usually work from six in the morning to past eight in the night. We don’t even have time to talk with our politicians about the issues we face,” Siriskandaraj said.

“I have three daughters, aged 12, 14 and 16. I hope they would study hard and get good jobs,” was the simple wish of 60-year-old Siriskandarajah. It is probably the wish of every parent in the Northern Province and Sri Lanka in general. This is because the importance of youth is known by all. Thus the sooner the issues faced by them are solved, the better for the youth and for Sri Lanka.*Names have been changed as the individuals wished to remain anonymous.

shoe cobblerCobbler on a mission

Seated against a brightly painted pillar is P Amirthalingam, a cobbler. He has many shoes and sandals waiting to be mended. Later, when it’s past lunch time, and the sun is mercilessly shining against the world, Amirthalingam is seen on the flight of steps close to the pillar. He’s taking a rest, the shoes and sandals in a neat pile by the pillar.

His house is in Vavuniya, but he works in Jaffna. As a 33-year-old, he makes a living by working as a cobbler. “My parents died during the armed conflict. I have five sisters who are staying in a hostel in Vavuniya,” Amirthalingam said. His sisters are six, seven, nine, 10 and 12 years of age. They are boarded at the hostel through the help of a Father.
Amirthalingam earns Rs 500 daily. This is a meager amount compared to the effort and time that goes into mending footwear. “I was involved with the LTTE, but after the end of the armed conflict, I didn’t have a job. So seven years ago, I taught myself how to mend shoes,” he said.

“The first slippers I repaired were my sisters. That’s how I learnt the art of mending footwear,” he said.Amirthalingam spoke about his monthly expenses, which include over Rs 30,000 for his sisters. “I have to pay Rs 20,000 per month to the hostel my sisters are staying at. They don’t force me to pay, but I need to make the payment,” he said.
When asked what plans he has for the future, Amirthalingam wasn’t hesitant to say he planned to educate his sisters. There isn’t an ounce of selfishness in his future plans. Nor is there any selfishness in his career. He remains barefoot as he mends the footwear of other people.