The economic and social issues faced by women headed households (WHH) as a result of the 30 year long war in Sri Lanka have been at the forefront of most rehabilitation programmes during the war and post-war period. It is estimated that there are over 90,000 WHH in the North and East alone. Women headed households in Sri Lanka consist of widows and women whose male members of the family are: missing or forcibly disappeared, in detention, are disabled, have deserted the family, or have migrated elsewhere. These new arrangements for women directly and indirectly affected by the conflict has brought to the forefront that WHH have their own unique concerns which need to be addressed in post-war processes.
Uprooted from their lands which provided them with their mainstay, having lost the major bread winners of the family and alienated from their traditional family networks, poverty is the common fate of these war affected widows and women who are the only heads of their households. Many of these women are often forced to become primary breadwinners of the family- with many elderly, unemployed men and child dependents within their households. All this compounds the vulnerabilities faced by this group.
Women headed households are disadvantaged regarding access to land, labour, credit, insurance markets, discriminated against by cultural norms and suffering from dependency burdens, economic immobility, security and “double day burden”. In addition to these challenges they also face higher risks and are less able to prevent, mitigate and cope with the impact of epidemics, natural disasters and other sudden risks. While women experience conflict differently to men, it needs to be understood that being a woman headed household, makes these women even more vulnerable to existing risks. Social marginalization of widows (because of the stigma attached to this status) and other categories of WHH in war affected areas undermine their socio-economic position and limit their ability to participate in the reconciliation processes underway.
Since 2012 Viluthu has been specifically mobilizing widows and women headed households (women whose husbands have been missing or were abducted) as part of the Amara Forum for Women Headed Households. They have been encouraged to change social practices of ostracization; provided training in gender and advocacy; supported to form collectives to carry out livelihood projects; and empowered to access rights and services.
Additionally, Viluthu also facilitated a broad range of focus group discussions for the women to adopt a “Memorandum of Concerns” to be of assistance in their advocacy initiatives. At present, Viluthu has networked more than 12,000 widows and women headed households (8,000 active members leaving aside elderly and disabled women) in the 8 districts of the North and East and in Puttalam of the North West. In 2014-15 alone they mobilized LKR 48,000,000 worth of projects in infrastructure, livelihoods, welfare assistance and compensation from government and NGO sources. This is in addition to the vocational training, services and other provisions in kind. Despite all of these advances, many of their social and political issues remain unresolved.
In 2014, Viluthu organized consultations in Galle, Monaragalle, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The widows of the GoSL forces were encouraged to contribute to the “Memorandum of Concerns” and their contributions were also included within the document as they had their own special concerns when compared to other WHH. The final document can be an important instrument in informing national level discussion on war widows, women headed households and post-war process. Especially within this widows emerge as an important subcategory within WHH- especially given the social stigma attached to the word widows in Sri Lanka and the challenges pertaining to it. The call for a National Widows Charter by the Amara Forum of WHH was an important suggestion- as it emphasizes the need for a policy document to elevate the status of widows in Sri Lanka and enable them to link with similar networks for widows in South Asia and beyond. Such a policy initiative will be an important step in changing the perceptions regarding widows and addressing their status in Sri Lanka.
At this juncture, Viluthu organized and held a conference in Colombo, on the 10th of December 2015, bringing all stakeholders together on the same platform and enabling a national dialogue that is participatory, inclusive and transparent on the issue of women headed households. The conference not only brought voices from the community level networks to the national level, empowering widows and women headed households to present their concerns to high level officials including their proposal for a widows charter, but also enabled government ministries, the UN and other key stakeholders to share their efforts in addressing the plight of this vulnerable social group.
Download Widows Charter