Lessons from the So-Called ‘Powerless’ Women of the North.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced last month it was closing down operations in Sri Lanka, where in 2009 it had run the world's largest camp for internally displaced people (IDPs). Hailed as a significant step towards ending displacement within the country, this announcement, along with relatively strong economic growth and social indicators seemed to confirm Sri Lanka as a ‘post-conflict success story’. Three years after a 30-year long civil war, however, the government has shown little willingness to find a political solution to the original causes of the conflict, and continues to face accusations of human rights abuses against its own citizens. As a result, the international community has been left struggling to adopt a coherent position towards the small island state.

At the same time, this situation represents a unique opportunity for donor countries to put into practice their own rhetoric about listening to the needs of ‘those most vulnerable’ – a discourse that has emerged strongly over the past few years within humanitarian and development circles. According to this idea, the needs of ‘vulnerable’ groups (once identified) are prioritized in the context of donor nations’ aid and diplomatic policies towards the recipient country. This is in opposition to traditional approaches, where political and economic engagement was based on the donor’s (self-interested) political and economic agendas. Although most realists would argue that aid and diplomacy will always be based on national interests, multilateral initiatives designed to improve the quality and impact of aid such as The Paris Declaration (2005), the Principles and Good Practice of Good Humanitarian Donorship (2003) and the Accra Agenda for Action (2008) offer some hope of an alternative.

Sri LankaIn Sri Lanka’s case, vulnerability – according to almost every definition [1] – is high in the north of the country [2], which is the region that was most devastated by the war. Considered the country’s Tamil ‘homeland’ with over 95 percent of its population of Tamil ethnicity, it saw the birth of (and eventual control by) the LTTE, and was also the site of the last and most destructive phase of fighting in late 2008 and 2009. A 2011 assessment found that more than 60 percent of households in the Northern Province remained food insecure [3] and as of June 2012, approximately 100,000 houses in the area were still left to be rebuilt or repaired [4]. Intensifying militarization, oppression of free speech and the so-called ‘economic revival’ of the north (in which resources have been devoted to mega-infrastructure projects, at the indirect cost of food security and housing needs) have heightened the daily challenges facing residents – most of whom have been recently resettled to war-ruined villages and towns following months or sometimes even years of displacement.

Within this context, 40,000 female-headed households (FHHs) are estimated to exist – most born from the loss of husbands and male kin during the war – and are thought to be especially impacted in the post-conflict environment [5]. As lone wives and mothers, they are more exposed to increasing sexual violence in the north [6], face severe disadvantages in claiming and maintaining control over property [7], and in securing the few jobs that are available and getting the same wages as their male counterparts [8]. As de Alwis has observed, the emotional burdens that these women shoulder in a conflict or post-war context can also be crushing:

These women have not only been traumatized by the violence they have witnessed and the loss of their loved ones, but they have to both financially and emotionally support and nurture similar traumatized and devastated offspring […] The majority of widowed household heads in this country face a constant battle for economic stability, privacy and physical safety and most importantly, for self worth and social dignity [9] 

At the same time, it is important to avoid painting an incomplete picture of these lone widows and mothers as ‘helpless victims’: women’s movements, in which FHHs in the north have participated, have a long history [10] in Sri Lanka, and the women’s wing of the LTTE became infamous for using female suicide bombers on high-profile targets, including Rajiv Ghandhi, the former Prime Minister of India.

Anthropological research has also revealed that populations perceived as being ‘powerless’ often have nearly invisible, but nonetheless powerful, ways of surviving and even resisting oppression and poverty [11]. For example, this could include acting the part of the ‘helpless victim’ in order to access aid from NGOs, or restricting their behavior to align with the stereotype of the ‘good Tamil housewife’ in order to access aid from kin. Research on FHHs in eastern Sri Lanka reveals that “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” [12].

FHHs in the north also seem to deal with living in environments of fear and constant uncertainty – inspired mainly by the oppressive presence of the military whereby there is now estimated to be one soldier for every 18 residents [13] – by  ‘normalizing’ such conditions as part of their daily lives. A 2009 study [14] carried out in Jaffna found that the prevalence of common mental health problems experienced in conflict and post-conflict situations, such as PTSD, depression and anxiety, were actually less frequent than those found in similar studies carried out in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The researchers hypothesized that given the protracted period of the conflict in Sri Lanka, affected populations had learned, over time, to better cope with ongoing exposure to conflict and to ‘normalize’ it in their thought processes as part of daily life. This is in line with the medical anthropologist Ananda Galapatti’s 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’ [15].

Sri Lanka

Research carried out in IDP camps in Sri Lanka also substantiates the argument that women are generally moreadept than men at coping with drastic changes in their gender roles (that is, from ‘only’ caring for the house and children to also becoming the primary breadwinner) [16]. Perhaps the best illustration of this is FHHs’ ability to find new ways to earn livelihoods, usually through self-employment and other types of informal sector activities [17]. Several scholars[18],[19] have documented how the Sri Lankan conflict has undercut the sexual division of labor, resulting in women engaging in non-traditional vocations such as mechanics, fishing and cement making. Thus, FHHs’ ability to not only perform what they have been ‘gendered’ to do – household work and taking care of children – but to step out of the feminized sphere of the home and into the roles and expectations of men is remarkable.

Groups such as FHHs in the north are therefore neither ‘fine on their own’ nor ‘helpless victims’. It is also evident that donors, aid agencies and the international public must continue their engagement with Sri Lanka, in spite of the World Bank recently labeling it as a “middle income country at peace” [20]. International support should focus on helping to create the environment necessary for affected populations to rebuild their lives.

This could be done in several ways: with the Sri Lankan economy heavily export-oriented, foreign countries have significant leverage that they could use to insist that the government prioritizes meeting urgent, basic needs in the areas that were most impacted by the war (rather than mega infrastructure or tourism development projects). The international community could also build on the momentum that it created earlier this year by passing a resolution at the Human Rights Council that urged Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of its own lessons learned and reconciliation commission. In March 2013, the council will review progress on the implementation of these recommendations – and perhaps even set a new precedent by passing a second resolution with the same aim. Special efforts to include the participation of FHHs in both NGO and government-led development and reconstruction projects – including in decision-making processes – should also be strongly encouraged by donors.

The current situation in Sri Lanka demands that the international community does not retire its attention from the country if it wants to abide by its own principles of providing assistance based on the needs of those most vulnerable. In spite of encouraging macro-level socio-economic statistics, ‘pockets of vulnerability’ clearly still exist in Sri Lanka, with FHHs in the north being a prime example. Rather than providing the impression that FHHs are either powerless or completely self-sufficient, an improved understanding of both the challenges and the coping strategies that this group is already employing can offer donors a better idea of the kinds of support that are most needed.


[1] Vulnerability theories exist across different disciplines, each with differing views on risks, responses and outcomes. For example, economics tends to focus on incomes, with vulnerability commonly conceptualized as the risk probability that a household will fall under a poverty threshold or a certain level of assets in a given period of time. Sociologists and anthropologists have expanded the discussion on vulnerability beyond physical and financial factors to include social capital and the strength of social relations. The disaster management literature focuses on groups’ exposure to, and ability to cope with environmental hazards and shocks.

[2] IRIN news (September 9, 2010). SRI LANKA: Women take over as breadwinners in north.  

[3] Petersson, A., Nanayakkara, L., Kumarasir, R., & Liyanapathirana, R. (2011, April). Food Security in the Northern, Eastern and North Central Provinces: A Food Security Assessment Report – Sri Lanka.  

[4] International Crisis Group (ICG). (2012). SRI LANKA’S NORTH II: REBUILDING UNDER THE MILITARY

[5] International Crisis Group (ICG). (2011). Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East. 

[6] BBC. (2012, March 9). 'Alarming rise' of sexual abuse in Jaffna

[7] Fonseka, B., & Raheem, M. (2011). Land Issues in the Northern Province: Post-War Politics, Policy and Practices. Colombo: Centre for Policy Alternatives. 

[8] See IRIN news (September 9, 2010). SRI LANKA: Women take over as breadwinners in north. 

[9] P. 94, see de Alwis, M. (2002). The changing role of women in Sri Lankan society. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 92-100.

[10] See Emmanuel, Sarala (2009). Strategic Mapping of Women’s Peace Activism in Sri Lanka. Published by Women and Media Collective.

[11] See, for example, Scott, James C. (1992). Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press.

[12]  P. 198, Ruwanpura, K. N., & Humphries, J. (2004). Mundane heroines: Conflict, Ethnicity, Gender, and Female Headship in Eastern Sri Lanka. Feminist Economics, 10(2), 173-205. 

[13] See Pieris, N. (2012, February 17). Terrorists Out, Army In – Part 1.

[14] Husain, F., Anderson, M., Cardozo, B. L., Becknell, K., Blanton, C., Araki, D., et al. (2011, August 3). Prevalence of War-Related Mental Health Conditions and Association With Displacement Status in Postwar Jaffna District, Sri Lanka. Journal of the American Medical Association, 306(5), pp. 522-531.

[15] Galapatti, A. (2003). Psychological Suffering, "Trauma," and Ptsd: Implications for Women in Sri Lanka's Conflict Zones. In W. Giles, M. de Alwis, E. Klein, N. Silva, & M. Korac (Eds.), Feminists Under Fire: Exchanges Across War Zones (pp. 115-130). Toronto: Between the Lines.

[16] Schrijvers, J. (1999). Fighters, Victims and Survivors: Constructions of Ethnicity, Gender and Refugeeness among Tamils in Sri Lanka. Journal of Refugee Studies, 12(3), 307-333.

[17] See IRIN news (10 November 2011). SRI LANKA: Cottage industries offer hope in former war zone. 

[18] See Rajasingham-Senanayake, D. (1998). After Victimhood: Cultural Transformation and Women's Empowerment in War and Displacement. Women in Conflict Zones Network Conference. Hendela, Sri Lanka.

[19] See Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2006). Rural women and livelihood activities. 

[20] See http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/srilanka

Photo © IRIN