It was a typically hot, humid day in this eastern coastal village. The sun burned down from a cloudless sky, roasting the skin as an angry sea breeze swatted the faces of the few foolish enough to venture out onto the deserted main road that runs through town. But it was far from a typical day for some 100 people who sat, waiting patiently by the side of the road in front of the main government office here in Vaharai, some 65 kilometres north-west of Batticaloa.
Most of them were women of a diverse mix of ages. Some mothers cradled their children, gently soothing young nerves frayed by the smouldering sun. Seeking shelter under a large tree, they clutched forms – filled only minutes before – as they awaited their turn to meet the divisional secretary, the top government official in Vaharai.
"I have to get these documents cleared so that I have some kind of ownership to the land I live in," said Navunad Sudha, a 29-year-old mother. "We also have to register here before we can move about easily."Sudha's story is typical of many in Sri Lanka's east, which along with the north are where many of the Tamil minority live, and are the areas most affected by the separatist war waged by the Tamil Tigers. It is only now that people like Suhda feel they can breathe easy, after the war ended more than a year ago.
With her family and then five-year-old son, Sudha fled her home in the middle of 2008, when Sri Lankan government forces began their final, decisive push into areas in the north and east controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). After months of running and near-death horrors, she finally crossed the battlefront and moved to safety behind the government line in May 2009. Just two days after her escape, the military crushed the Tigers.
Civilians like Sudha bore the brunt of the LTTE's conflict with successive Sri Lankan governments since the early 1980s, demanding a separate Tamil homeland. But even after the end of the war, the battle for survival continues for many women here. Most of the available work here, especially in construction of buildings, clearing of jungles, fishing and farming, is almost exclusively male- dominated. To make matters worse, many women are struggling to cope with having to head the household after losing their husbands and sons – the traditional breadwinners in this patriarchal society – to the war.
Sudha was born in the village of Kadiraveli just north of Vaharai, but fell in love with a man from northern Jaffna. They married, moved to the north, and finally settled in Puhtukkuddyiruppu – a Tiger stronghold for over a decade before government forces wrested control last year. Sudha had no say when her husband joined the LTTE. He fought with them, Sudha admits, but left the movement years before the final bout of fighting erupted in mid-2007.
After crossing over to government-held areas, Sudha's husband was arrested for possible links with the Tigers, and is still in detention. "I have written to ministers, to the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and to others with this, but so far I have not heard anything," she said. While trying to convince authorities that her husband is a family man and not a hardcore separatist, Sudha also has to make a living. She returned to her native Vaharai and has set up small sewing business. "I have had to pawn all my jewellery. I'm trying to get a loan or a grant to start a small boutique," Sudha said.
Sudha's woes are far too common among women in the war-affected areas. In Pillumalai, about 80 km from Vaharai, 20-year-old Sarojadevi Ramanathan is trying her level best to put the past behind and begin anew – an uphill battle, given that her life was at a standstill for two years beginning mid- 2006. At that time, Sri Lankan forces had begun launching large-scale, sustained military forays into areas held by the Tigers in the eastern province of Sri Lanka. The Tigers – notorious for forced conscription of underage civilians – were desperate for new recruits.
At 16, Ramanathan would have been a perfect choice for the Tigers, so her parents took the drastic decision of never letting their daughter out their sight. The young girl stopped attending school and spent most of her life indoors. "That was the only way they could save me from being conscripted," she said. The family fled the fighting in early 2007 and returned about a year later. But now, Ramanathan finds herself in limbo. Too old for school, too young and inexperienced for any other job, she is still stuck mostly at home. "What can I do? I can't help my father who is a fisherman, so I help my mother in the kitchen," she said.
Marriage might appear to be her best bet, but there is no guarantee that life will become easier.
There are hardly any jobs to speak of here, and even less for women. Ramanathan's neighbour, 18-year-old Ravindranathan Valarmadu, earns about 17 U.S. dollars a month, working six days a week at a milk collection centre. "This is the only job I could find," she said.