The civil war ended two years ago this month, but for war-affected women—widows, mothers, daughters, and former rebels— the struggle to survive rages on.
Nearly one-third of families that have returned to the former conflict zone in the north are headed by women single-handedly trying to make ends meet, said a recent study by the Sri Lankan government and the United Nations office here.
The study, called the "Joint Plan for Assistance Northern Province 2011", detailed funding needs and goals in the former conflict zone. It found that more than 110,000 families who fled the fighting between late 2008 and May 2009 have now returned to their home villages or live with host families.
The report said as many as 30,000 of these families now could be headed by women, old and young, facing the daunting task of caring for families in a region devastated by over two and a half decades of war and only now slowly showing any signs of permanent recovery.
The war, waged by militants who sought an independent Tamil state, began in earnest in 1983 and raged on till May 2009. It left more than 70,000 dead, hundreds of thousands displaced, and an indelible imprint on all parts of Sri Lankan life.
It also left tens of thousands of women either widowed, with husbands missing during the conflict, or maimed or seriously injured. The numbers are hard to come by, but some estimates place at 40,000 the number of war widows in Sri Lanka's east, where the conflict ended earlier, in 2007.
War-affected women can be found on both sides of the fence. There are also wives of government soldiers either killed, missing or seriously injured who now have to look after their families.
Another category is former fighters with the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers in fact recruited females heavily, naming them "Freedom Birds", with their own line of command. Of the more than 11,000 Tigers who were detained or surrendered to government forces at the end of the fighting, over 3,000 were females.
"We are only seeing the surface of this problem, it runs deep into our society," says Shantha Jayalath, the Chief Commissioner of the Girls Guides' Association in Sri Lanka.
The Girl Guides recently launched an island-wide program to assist war-affected women. Officials working closely with the program told IPS that the more they worked, the more they realized the severity of the women's situation.
Those who work with affected women on the ground agree with that bleak assessment. Saroja Sivachandran, Director of the Centre for Women and Development in the northern Jaffna area, told IPS that the massive task of rebuilding the region almost from scratch has pushed the issue of war-affected women to the sidelines.
"Everyone knows that women are facing a tough situation, but there is so much to be done here and very few resources," she told IPS.
There is help available, but on a small scale. For example, when stray cattle roaming the former war zone—there are over 60,000 of them left—are collared and handed back to owners, single women heading households are given priority to receive unclaimed animals.
The Girl Guides have launched a programme to impart skills training. Officials said the biggest demand was for skills that the women could use and earn a living with, while staying at home. Considerable interest has been shown in home gardening, dressmaking, handicraft and animal husbandry.
"It is very clear that most of the women want to work while staying at home. They have a dual role from what we see—that of the breadwinner and the traditional stay-at-home wife's duties," Arundathi Chandrathileke, the Girl Guide's official overseeing the training, told IPS.
The project tries to either fund self-employment or assist in job placements for those who complete the six months training.
Wives of government soldiers who were killed, missing or gravely injured showed a similar interest in skills that can be applied gainfully while staying at home. "These are young women with very few skills. It is still a very tough prospect for them," Chandrathileke said.
The Girl Guide official told IPS that most women in the role of sole breadwinner could not or did not want to leave an injured spouse or young children alone at home for extended hours.
Women and girls who once served in the ranks of the Tamil Tiger face a different kind of problem. Many of those who were once detained and released have received vocational and other skills trainings, but continue to be haunted by their past.
"It is very similar to them being branded on their foreheads," Chandrathileke said.She mentions the example of an 18-year-old girl who was forced into joining the Tigers.
The girl passed her university entrance exam with exceptional marks, possesses language skills in all three main languages used in the country—Sinhala, Tamil and English—and has been trained as a data entry programmer.
"But no one wants to employ her. Why? Because she was a former Tiger," Chandrathileke said of the girl hailing from Kilinochchi in the Northern Province, the former showcase administrative centre of the defeated Tigers.
Sivachandran, who works extensively with such women and widows, told IPS that the stigma is a big factor in the women's lives. She said that many women in the former conflict zone married young and bore children in an effort to avoid conscription by the Tigers.
"Now we have young women not even in their mid-20's who are widows with two children. They face all types of pressures and discrimination," Sivachandran said. In Eastern Sri Lanka, the bulk of the estimated 40,000 war widows are thought to be under 30.
Both Sivachandran and Chandrathileke agree that more attention should be devoted to helping these women.
"Most of them are victims of circumstances not of their own making. If we don't make an effort to help them now, not only these women, but others who depend on them will suffer the wounds of war when all of us are talking of peace," Sivachandran said.