It has been seven years since Vasanthi lost almost everything in her life. Her husband was one of the victims of the brutal war which ended in 2009. Her life virtually ended with him. But she had to live on to look after her children who are still schooling.
“It has been a struggle all these years. But I have somehow managed,” she said. “Yes, the war is over but our struggles continue. Every day is a battle for us,” she added.
District Coordinator for Women’s Development for Jaffna, Uthayani Navaratnam speaking to the Nation pointed out that in the case of the North, women-headed households still needed massive support from government and non-government institutions.
“These women are psychologically affected. They need psycho-social assistance. In addition, almost all of them have to start from the beginning because they lost everything. They do not have a man to support them,” she said.
In addition, she also pointed out the several societal restrictions that prevented many young widows and women to work. “There are still societal perceptions that discourage women from leaving their homes to work. This also has to change,” she added.
Vasanthi is just one of the victims of the war. There are hundreds, if not thousands like her, who are compelled to provide for their families after their spouses were killed, or went missing during the final phase of the war.
However, Vasanthi is not the only woman who is compelled to provide for her family. There are war widows in the South and there are thousands of women who take up the responsibility of looking after their families due to various other reasons.
A majority of these women have their own challenges to face in order to ensure that their families are looked after. In a move to look into their welfare and needs, the government recently announced that it would formulate a National Policy to support households headed by women.
According to Director (Planning) of the Ministry of Women’s and Child Affairs, J.P.S. Jayasinghe there are 24 to 26%, female-headed households which constitutes one fourth of the households in the country. The total figure is approximately 1.2 million.
The majority are in the North and the East, in Batticaloa, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu (over 100,000) and in Colombo, Kurunegala and Kandy. In Badulla, Anuradhapura and Hambantota and the plantation and estate sector too this is prevalent.
“These households include those headed primarily by widows, unmarried women, divorcees, women abandoned by men and instances where the husband is disabled or infirm,” Jayasinghe said.
These groups are particularly vulnerable. The major issues they face involve socio-economic ones pertaining to security and protection, poverty, shouldering responsibility and economic matters.
During the insurrections involving the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and during the war, 90% of the casualties were men including military personnel and members of the LTTE.
Also, men (average 72 years) tend to die before women (average 77 years).
“Rights of females including the right to freedom, property, housing and education must be protected. Rights afforded to men must be afforded to women without indifference. In the villages, there is still the view that women should not go to work and earn an income and instead look after the home and the children, tend to the household and send the children to school,” he added.
Women from military families tend to be financially taken care of and certain others receive pensions. Yet, they have other social problems such as unemployment. “Economic development and income generation is required. In each division, we are planning on building 15 houses,” said Jayasinghe.
“We are working with the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Social Empowerment and Welfare, the United Nations (UN) Development Programme, the UN-Habitat and non-governmental organizations in this regard,” Jayasinghe added.
Psychosocial support including counselling is provided to women and children. “Ours is the only Ministry with five officers each at every divisional secretariat level, three who deal with children and two who deal with women,” he said.
Children and women’s development units have been established in the divisions. Besides this there are the children and women bureaus in every Police station. At the village level, there are 11,000 women’s organizations, child rights promotion committees, children’s societies, divisional children’s councils and also those at the district and national level. As far as women are concerned, at the village level, there are women’s working councils and women’s boards also at the divisional, district and national and federation level.
The hotlines 1929 (in relation to children) and 1938 (in relation to women) can be used.
Jayasinghe also said that a men-only awareness campaign has also been started where awareness on the role and responsibility of men in relation to the rights of females is being imparted to three-wheel drivers, bus drivers, naattaamees (cart pushers), police officers, doctors and others. “Only 35% of the labour force is women. There is a lack of participation in the economy. To address this, day care centres will be set up in the villages.”
“With regard to foreign employment, widows in particular seek to work overseas due to the lack of an income. We plan to provide jobs locally and also through the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment to send women who want to go overseas to Europe, Singapore and South Korea instead of the Middle East,” Jayasinghe added.
Jayasinghe also said that as part of economic empowerment, interest-free loans were given for entrepreneurs through financial institutions such as banks starting from Rs 200,000 to Rs 2 million. “Women are given project assistance. They will be trained in aspects such as animal husbandry, dressmaking and domestic industries. If they want to strike out on their own we will provide them with the material infrastructure such as those ranging from sewing machines to fridges for those who want to open up a shop. A national secretariat for this purpose will be set up in Kilinochchi.”