War wid­ows pin hopes on Sri Lanka leader


Shunned, des­ti­tute and pushed into pros­ti­tu­tion in some cases, Sri Lanka’s Tamil wid­ows have re­turned to north­ern Jaffna since the end of the sep­a­ratist war only to dis­cover they are not welcome even in their home­land.

Now, six years af­ter the war ended, the women who fled the fight­ing on the penin­sula in their thou­sands are pin­ning their hopes on the na­tion’s new pres­i­dent for a bet­ter fu­ture for their fam­i­lies.

“Wid­ows are de­spised in our so­ci­ety,” said Baskaran Je­gath­iswari, 50, fight­ing back tears at her home in Achchu­veli vil­lage in Jaffna, heart­land of Sri Lanka’s eth­nic Tamil mi­nor­ity.

“Peo­ple look down on us. They think we bring bad luck,” said Je­gath­iswari, who lost her hus­band to mil­i­tary shell­fire just months be­fore the war ended in 2009.

The women, whose hus­bands were killed or are of­fi­cially still listed as miss­ing, are closely watch­ing Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena who took of­fice in Jan­uary pledg­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to “heal bro­ken hearts and minds.”

Of­fi­cial fig­ures show 27,000 wid­ows head house­holds in Jaffna, where the con­flict was cen­tered, while lo­cal politi­cians put the fig­ure much higher.

“I can’t think of re­build­ing my life now,” said widow Evin Selvy who strug­gles to feed her fam­ily, earn­ing 500 ru­pees (US$3.80) a day as a farm la­borer.

“But I hope the new gov­ern­ment will make it bet­ter for my three daugh­ters.”

Hav­ing taken refuge else­where in the north, Selvy re­turned to Jaffna in 2009 to find her home and the rest of her vil­lage de­stroyed in the fight­ing.

Af­ter grab­bing just a hand­ful of pos­ses­sions, the 45-year-old had fled in 1990 with her hus­band, who was killed by mil­i­tary shelling in the war’s fi­nal months.

She and her daugh­ters now live in a hut thrown up along­side their house, which has been partly re­built with fund­ing from an In­dian gov­ern­ment pro­ject for war vic­tims. But they can­not af­ford the re­main­ing 200,000 ru­pees needed to fin­ish it.

‘De­mand sex­ual fa­vors’

At least 100,000 peo­ple were killed in the war be­tween 1972 and 2009 when the mil­i­tary fi­nally crushed Tamil rebels fight­ing for a sep­a­rate home­land for the eth­nic mi­nor­ity.

Thou­sands are still un­ac­counted for, in­clud­ing sus­pected rebels rounded up by se­cu­rity forces or who sur­ren­dered in the con­flict’s fi­nal phase and then dis­ap­peared.

Wid­ows left be­hind say they feel vul­ner­a­ble, with re­ports of phys­i­cal abuse by mem­bers of their com­mu­nity. Oth­ers are os­tra­cized — con­sid­ered bad luck by the con­ser­va­tive Hindu so­ci­ety.

“A war with weapons ended in 2009 but a new so­cial con­flict has be­gun. Young war wid­ows are most vul­ner­a­ble,” said a so­cial worker help­ing wid­ows in Jaffna, re­fer­ring to do­mes­tic and other vi­o­lence. She re­fused to give her name.

Many strug­gle to find jobs and can­not make ends meet, with some forced into pros­ti­tu­tion, ac­cord­ing to another so­cial worker, Dharshini Chandi­ran.

“Wid­ows don’t have a good place in our so­ci­ety,” said Chris­tine Manoha­ran, who heads a sup­port group for 1,700 wid­ows.

“Men de­mand sex­ual fa­vors from us. We don’t have any se­cu­rity,” said Manoha­ran, 34, her­self a widow.

Sev­eral wid­ows told AFP that even fam­ily friends were try­ing to take ad­van­tage of their plight, seek­ing sex in re­turn for fi­nan­cial or other as­sis­tance. Some told of be­ing regularly propo­si­tioned when trav­el­ing alone on public trans­port in a coun­try with rel­a­tively low crime rates.

Wid­ows are be­ing coaxed by well-mean­ing mem­bers of the Tamil com­mu­nity to re­marry to give them some se­cu­rity, said women’s ac­tivist Mari­arosa Si­varasa.

But some are also be­ing tar­geted by crim­i­nals to leave their vil­lages and work as pros­ti­tutes in larger towns, said Anan­thi Sa­sitha­ran, 43, a mem­ber of the lo­cal North­ern Pro­vin­cial Coun­cil.

De­spite all the prob­lems Sa­sitha­ran said she was op­ti­mistic Sirisena would even­tu­ally take up their plight, with signs his gov­ern­ment was mov­ing to­wards rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

“He ap­pears a sim­ple per­son ... I feel we can even call him di­rectly to dis­cuss any prob­lem,” Sa­sitha­ran told AFP.

In­quiry into Atroc­i­ties

Sirisena on Fri­day or­dered the dis­missal of par­lia­ment, clear­ing the way for a gen­eral elec­tion ex­pected to be held in Au­gust, in a bid to strengthen his party’s num­bers and bol­ster his man­date for re­form.

The gov­ern­ment has started re­turn­ing some land through­out the north to fam­i­lies whose prop­erty was seized by the mil­i­tary dur­ing the war.

Sirisena has also pledged a do­mes­tic in­quiry into al­le­ga­tions by a U.N. panel of atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted in the fight­ing, in­clud­ing the killing of thou­sands of civil­ians and sex­ual vi­o­lence by sol­diers.

Pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japakse, an au­to­crat in power for a decade, re­jected Western pres­sure for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, say­ing no civil­ians were killed. He was ac­cused of fail­ing to unify Tamils with the ma­jor­ity Bud­dhist Sin­halese af­ter the war.

Un­der Sirisena, re­stric­tions have been re­laxed on Jaffna’s pop­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing eas­ier travel to and from the penin­sula which un­der­went im­mense re­con­struc­tion un­der Ra­japakse.


In this pho­to­graph taken on June 9, Sri Lankan war widow Evin Selvy, 45, speaks to a AFP jour­nal­ist dur­ing an in­ter­view in Jaffna, some 400 kilo­me­ters (250 miles) north of the cap­i­tal Colombo.

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