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Rural women’s access to resources and assets in the conflict region

Assets and resources

Ten percent of agricultural operators in the NEP do not own land, and 22 percent own only a home garden, 22 percent own both a home garden and other land, and 22 percent own other land only. Districts show marked variations in land ownership. The highest percentage of landless agricultural operators is in Mullaitivu and Vavuniya; the lowest percentage is in Trincomalee. Sex disaggregated data are available to assess women’s land ownership patterns. In both Tamil and Muslim communities inheritance follows the matrilineal line. A study of 50 Tamil households in an ‘uncleared’ area in Batticaloa district found that 94 percent owned land and that women were 70 percent of the landowners (Jayaweera et al., 2004). Women and their families had at least minimal access to cultivatable land. They engaged in paddy farming and highland cultivation. Ownership was in question, as there were no permits for much of the state land on which cultivation was done. IDPs encroached on the lands of other IDPs and on state land (Field assessments).

Different land ownership laws (the Tesawalami, the Muslim law, and the Roman Dutch law) and the lack of a uniform civil code make land use assessment difficult.19 The customary law, Tesawalami, governs inheritance of property and matrimonial rights of Tamil women in Jaffna. Under Tesawalami a woman can own property individually, is entitled to patrimonial and non-patrimonial inheritance, can acquire property during marriage and can keep the dowry she received. Control of her property, however, is in the hands of her guardian, and as the guardianship of a woman passes from the father to the husband, the husband maintains control of her property. The woman cannot invest in the property, mortgage, lease, or sell it without the prior permission of her husband. A woman cannot enter into contracts without his consent and women are treated as ‘minors’ in the Courts of Law. Thus effective control rests with the husband. A woman who receives a dowry loses her right to inherit parental properties if she has surviving brothers. She may however inherit a half share of the spouse’s property acquired during marriage.

Muslim law regulates Muslim women’s land rights. Although it appears that women are dealt equitably in terms of inheritance and property under the Muslim law, in actual fact the widower and son get more.20 Female children receive a lesser share of property than do male children. Recent research in areas outside the conflict area found that some families treat sons and daughters equally in matters relating to immovable property.

The Roman Dutch law governs land rights of all not covered by Tesawalami or Muslim law. Women are assured equality in ownership and there is no gender bias in inheritance rights. The civil law applies to women and men equally.

The Land Development Ordinance (LDO) of 1935 regulates state agricultural lands given by state-issued permits to Sri Lankan citizens. The LDO is gender neutral, but administrative interpretation and practices often favour the male. A widow or a woman who previously owned land qualifies; however, on remarriage a widow loses the right to cultivate if she has not been nominated, and she cannot nominate a successor. Succession thus has a clear preference for male heirs and violates the principle of gender equality articulated in the Constitution for distribution of state land. Intense lobbying by women’s groups has not yet achieved removal of the discriminatory provisions of the LDO.

Secure land rights are important in the post-conflict situation where large numbers of women have sole or primary responsibility for income generation through cultivation of land or work as agricultural labourers. Land issues are the core of most disputes and surfaced with return of internally displaced persons to their places of origin. Women are made vulnerable by the lack of documentation, inability to prove ownership, inability to dispose of land in the absence of their husband’s death certificate and the non-recognition by officials of women’s altered status. A proposed land reform project could benefit women from the land-titling programme used elsewhere in the country when it eventually extends to the North and the East, but interim measures are required to safeguard women’s land rights and claims.

Access to common property resources

Forest resources in Jaffna peninsula have dwindled; the only forest cover remaining is 100 ha of Casuarina fuel wood plantations. The loss of forest resources and the lack of reforestation activities adversely affect women as primary users of fuel wood; landless women’s rights to forest resources need special recognition. Any reforestation programme should include women’s participation in decision making and should identify how such a programme will benefit them.


Water availability for cultivation and domestic purposes is a major issue in all locations assessed except in Mannar. Sixty-six percent of the agricultural land in the North East is fed by major irrigation tanks or run-off-river (anicut) schemes or by shallow open dug wells. Most irrigation schemes suffered war damage and lack of maintenance, and operate at much reduced capacity or provide no irrigation for agricultural production. Many farmers abandoned farming for lack of water. Rather than undertaking grandiose irrigation schemes, the existing wells should be repaired to ensure a regular supply of water for cultivation (Field assessments).

Access to water

Prior to the conflict farmers in Kappalthurai accessed irrigation water. The destruction of small tanks during the conflict and the lack of maintenance of others that were not damaged make the farmers now totally dependent on rainwater for cultivation. Farmers suffer crop losses due to drought or floods. One solution is construction of agro-wells, one for four households. Another is to devise a system to obtain water from the Devara Ara canal. Restoration of the Adamkulam tank was proposed. Resolution of the critical problem access to water could restore agriculture as a profitable enterprise.

Women’s participation in water related activities is minimal even though they are major users of water for agriculture, home gardening and house­hold purposes; in some areas they spend two to three hours fetching water. Women should be included in water user organisations and their needs considered during planning, construction or reconstruction and maintenance of water supply schemes.


In the North East as elsewhere in the country women’s wages are much lower than men’s. Without improvement of the rural economy, women’s wages will continue to stagnate due to imbalance of labour supply over demand for labour. Women attribute their lower wage to their lower output and fewer work hours, and do not identify this as an issue. Nonetheless, exploitation of female labour should be ended (Field assessments).

Wage inequity

Wage differentials for agricultural labourers in the Kaththasinnakulam DS Division in the Vavuniya district are marked. Women receive between SLRs 80-100 a day for harvesting paddy whereas men receive SLRs 200. Women’s labour is valued at SLRs 125-200 while men’s labour is valued at twice that amount. However, although opportunities for contract labour are limited, the wages are divided equally among the members of a family that obtains a labour contract for harvesting paddy.


Under the New Comprehensive Scheme of Rural Credit the government gradually is withdrawing subsidised credit; and, banks reportedly to have stringent requirements for credit disbursements to farmers, fisher folk and traders (Sarvananthan, 2003). These credit restrictions make it nearly impossible for women, who traditionally are disadvantaged in obtaining bank credit, to receive loans for productive purposes. Consequently, women obtain agricultural inputs from informal sources, but they must repay loans in kind post harvest with much of the profits (Field assessments). No durable solution has been found for the decades-long problem of rural credit and indebtedness.

Externally funded development programmes channel funds through NGOs that operate numerous micro credit programmes targeting women. CBOs often serve as credit intermediaries accessing micro credit and re-lending it to their members. Leakages are reported due to misuse of credit by men in NGOs and due to CBOs issuing women credit on behalf of their spouse because the women accept responsibility for repayment (Field assessments). Women bear the added burden of inequitable gender relations. More women should have access to credit facilities and revolving funds in the proposed projects. As micro credit alone has not brought women out of poverty, credit should be combined with services, and larger scale up operations should be addressed.

Access to markets and market information

Farmers suffer from inability to obtain fair prices for their produce (Field assessments). Their bargaining power is limited by dependence on a few traders, lack of price information, limited access to credit, the consequent dependence on informal credit sources and settlement of loans with the harvest. In LTTE controlled areas limited access to markets is a major problem. Policy makers should ensure a fair price at harvest time, the availability of market information and demand for new crops.

Poor access to market and information

Marketing poses no problem for the farmers of Kappalthurai in the Trincomalee district as traders visit the village to purchase produce. Farmers, however, are unaware of prevailing prices and many cannot take their produce to Trincomalee due to transport difficulties. The proposed establishment of a marketing centre could give the farmers more bargaining power if combined with dissemination of price information. In the village in the Kaththasinnakulam GS Division in Vavuniya private traders buy directly from farmers; neither the government nor farmers’ organisations engage in purchasing. In the LTTE controlled village in Mannar some traders now come to the village post-cease fire agreement, but they dictate purchase prices that are not fair to the farmers. Farmers follow cultivation practices passed down through generations because they lack information about new cultivation practices and technology. Agricultural extension officers visited the village in the Naanthanvely D.S. Division only once.

Access to infrastructure and services

Women are negatively affected by the poor condition of access roads, minimal transport facilities, inadequate housing, poor water supply and sanitation and limited access to health care services. Only rehabilitation of infrastructure facilities and restoration of services will enable women and their families to improve their quality of life.


Farmer organisations/women’s organisations

Policy shifts at the national and provincial levels will offer greater roles to the private sector and farmer organisations. Farmers may be encouraged to form marketing and distribution companies. Farmer organisations will help operate and maintain water supplies. They may engage in seed production as do farmers in other parts of the country. With such policy shifts, special attention must ensure that women are not marginalised in farmer organisations. Today, few women belong to these organisations and those who belong have no bargaining power and do not hold decision making positions. Their lack of access to decision making positions could marginalise them further.

Women’s organisation is a valuable social capital

Madar Sangams are active in several districts especially in Jaffna. They provide loans, operate revolving funds and assist in income generation. The society organises women in small groups to achieve economies of scale and sells its members’ products under its own brand the. But their lack know-how and skill constrains further expansion. The NEIAP, NECORD and other projects use these CBOs effectively. The CBOs should be revitalised and their ability to participate in rehabilitation projects should be developed.

While the state uses women’s NGOs to encourage women’s participation in development, policy makers often detach from their own role to eliminate gender inequalities and lose site of women’s concern with welfare. Women’s organisations should be supported and gender issues addressed. Women should be trained to lead, to advocate and to enhance their entrepreneurial skills. The Madar Sangam, a local women’s organisation in the NEP, should be revitalised and its participation in development, reconstruction and rehabilitation should be enhanced.


Agricultural extension services have not functioned well in many field locations. Women participated in few training programmes, thus highlighting the need to target their training (Field assessments). Several proposed projects with training components should receive special attention to reach women. Recruitment and training of more women for the extension services could help meet women’s information needs. The Department of Agriculture should establish a service on the lines of the Farm Women’s Agricultural Extension Programme to improve women’s agricultural activities. Women should have access to training and information on livestock rearing, skill development in non-farm activities and non-traditional areas such as construction.

Policies and programmes

Macro policies

The years of conflict in the NEP also were years when market oriented economic policies were implemented nationally. Isolation of the NEP prevented full impact of economic reforms in the region. Opening up the North and East, and greater integration with the South, will result in market forces determining allocation of resources. Studies in the South demonstrated the adverse impact of the reforms on poorer segments of society, especially poor women, and their displacement from traditional sources of income generation and employment. The structural weaknesses of the domestic agricultural sector and the whole process of donor-driven development must be reconsidered when rehabilitation programmes are implemented in the North.

Commercialisation of agriculture

The strategy to commercialise agriculture and the entry of the private sector will have long term effects on women with few livelihood skills. Women, especially IDPs who spent long periods in welfare camps, lack skills in new techniques and commercial farming methods. Thus agricultural and off-farm extension services must include women extension workers and must identify effective and appropriate methods of disseminating information on new technologies.


The LTTE-imposed taxation system burdens the sale of produce in Jaffna by reducing the profit margins of farmers who have low productivity and high production costs. The checking points and taxes levied on all produce going into and leaving Jaffna are disincentives to producers. Another concern is the continuing outflow of Jaffna residents to avoid tax payment to, and harassment by, the LTTE (Sarvananthan, 2003; Sriskandarajah, 2003).

Levies add financial burden

The greatest boon after the cease-fire agreement has been increased mobility resulting in access to markets, fertilisers, better quality seeds, information and availability of consumer goods. The resultant ability to obtain better prices for products and the lower prices for consumer goods has helped both the producer and the consumer. The discussants were burdened, however, with taxes levied by the LTTE, the collection of which had intensified after the cease-fire.

Project implementation

People interviewed about the donors who pledged financial assistance for development of conflict affected areas expressed cynicism and frustration about outcomes including the lack of visible development efforts, the INGOs’ ad hoc projects that lack sustainability and the relatively small benefits received from projects funded with large sums of money. Project recipients’ disenchantment resulted from their dissatisfaction with project implementation and monitoring, the perceived attitudes of government officials toward the recipients and the inability of projects to meet their basic requirements. INGOs that lack community links could compensate by employing more local people and considering their views. Other steps to should address are the project administrators’ lack of credibility with community recipients and the disconnect between announced goals and achieved outcomes.

Women and women’s organisations should have a greater role in project planning and implementation. The capacity of women’s NGOs should be developed and training should include peace building and social integration. Women’s NGOs should be trained in gender analysis.

Listening to the people

Women who survived the conflict and experienced its trauma and hardship felt removed from the planning process when it came to rebuilding, and they criticised their exclusion from consultations on matters important to them. A common grievance was that they did not obtain redress even when they articulated their needs. Farmers’ groups reported that only a few (male) leaders had been summoned to the Jaffna Kachcheri to discuss the Jaffna Plan but most became aware of it only from newspaper reports. Other development plans followed this pattern.

Livelihood options

Women have limited livelihood options. Although their main occupation was agriculture, inadequate profits and risk of crop failure made livestock rearing preferable. Except for preparation of cooked food and a few other income-generating activities such as dress making, women had few skills for self-employment activities. Providing women access to skill training options and removing their inhibitions could enable them to diversify income-earning activities.

Gender and women in rehabilitation

Gender mainstreaming

The visibility of war widows and female headed households seems to have influenced policy makers to take cognisance of women in two ways: First, it is crucial to reduce women’s vulnerability and assist their reintegration into society in the post-conflict period; and second, policy planners must assess transformations in gender relations and women’s role in society at large. The second is a much wider agenda. An obstacle to women’s expanded roles is the lack of recognising their roles and agency at the local and macro levels. The near absence of women beneficiaries who are not female heads of household in projects illustrates this point.

In a publication titled Focused support for women and children, the government recognises the importance of addressing women’s and children’s needs for a dignified livelihood (Government of Sri Lanka, 2002). Unfortunately, this statement is too narrowly focused and avoids a holistic and broader view of women emerging from conflict. The section on rural economic development and skills training for young people is couched in gender neutral terms. Without specific recognition of the gendered nature of vocational and skill development, women likely will be channelled into skill areas having low marketability.

Gender is not a devolved subject under the 1989 constitutional amendment nor is it on the ‘concurrent list’. Women’s issues nonetheless are in the provincial councils’ mandates that have expressed interest in women’s programmes “reflecting the increasing visibility of women’s issues in the national scenario, their pragmatic and political value at local level and the desire to replicate the central government administrative structure” (Jayaweera, 2002). In the provinces this subject is consolidated with several others within the five provincial council ministries; consequently the subject receives low priority. In the North East Provincial Council, women’s affairs are under the purview of the Ministry of Rehabilitation, which potentially could advantage women.

The section on Women Affected by Conflict in the National Plan of Action for Women focuses heavily on sexual and gender-based violence and trauma. Without denying the critical importance of these issues, other critical needs of women who lived under conflict situations for two decades also should be addressed by a plan of action.

During the 1990s, the North and East primarily focused on addressing needs of internally displaced persons living in welfare camps and those living in the conflict areas that were government controlled. Yet as women’s groups have observed, the insensitivity of relief programmes to gender issues and women’s concerns negatively affects relief efforts. In part, this outcome results from minimal consultation with women and women’s groups. The 2000 CEDAW Committee report defined the missing gender focus by stating, “of serious concern also is the plight of women who are affected by the conflict in the North and East of the country. Governmental programmes have been ‘family’ based and have thus far not seen gender based intervention strategies” (CEDAW Committee, 2002).

Formulated rehabilitation projects and those implemented by government and donor agencies identify female-headed households as target groups and beneficiaries. While other women’s roles and positions generally are ignored in programmes and projects. The Integrated Food Security Project implemented in the Trincomalee district in the East, prepared data sheets for 400 villages that included the number of female-headed households. Apart from this single reference to women, there is not even sex disaggregated population statistics. The LIFT project implemented by CARE recognises the importance of gender, but the lack of gender analysis in the project formulation stage resulted in a project design without emphasis on gender.

In conflict situations women bear increased responsibility for economic survival by accepting new roles to cope with changed circumstances. In this context, post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation should integrate gender into all policies, programmes and projects thus legitimising the gains they have made during the long years of armed conflict and displacement and sustaining their new roles.

Female headed households, widows and ageing

A survey of female headed households and widows is urgently needed to facilitate accurate assessment of their socio-economic status and needs. Statistics of the North East Provincial Council show that at least 42 percent of the widows were over 60 years of age. National data and statistics for the NEP indicate an increasing number of ageing women. Most of these women are poor and rural. Their specific needs should be identified and addressed.

Inclusion of all women

The almost exclusive focus that policies, programmes and projects have on female-headed households and war widows overshadows productive roles of other women in the NEP. The proposed projects identify female-headed households as target beneficiaries but do not address women farmers’ needs or those of other rural sector producers. Various categories of women should be incorporated and their needs mainstreamed into policies, programmes and projects. Many internally displaced persons and refugees have been resettled or relocated; most of their livelihoods were land resource based. Now the IDPs need assistance to recommence their original livelihood activities or to start new ones. Women should be recognised as producers contributing to their household economies to ensure that they too receive resources and inputs for income generation.


Women are not reflected in official statistics and data at the macro level despite their contributions and involvement in agriculture, in the informal sector and in family farms. Development of macro policies requires meaningful assessment of women’s situation through sex disaggregated data for agriculture and other sectors. Official statistics for the NEP are unavailable after 1981, and no enumeration was made in most of the NEP in the 2001 census. Neither the agricultural census of 2002 nor most of the statistical data made available by the NEPC have sex disaggregated data, nor do the IDP surveys conducted by the Ministry of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees and the UNHCR. Data generated by micro studies often are not representative and not comparable across time and space. Data generated for the NEP and sex disaggregated macro level data are crucial issues to be addressed.


Qualitative and quantitative gender sensitive indicators should be developed in critical areas such as access to training and extension services, credit and other inputs, membership, participation and holding of decision making positions in farmers’ organisations and other civil society organisations and project participation activities including project management. Qualitative indicators should identify changes in gender relations with regard to decision making, domestic violence and greater mobility among other factors.

19 A proposal to introduce a uniform civil code, replacing the customary laws, is in abeyance due to resistance by minority groups.

20 In case of inheritance there are heirs called sharers whose shares are fixed by the Quar’an, agnatic heirs called residuaries and uterine heirs called distant kindred. The sharers are four males (father, father’s father, half brother by mother and husband) and eight females among whom are the sister, consanguine sister, uterine sister, mother, true grand mother. These shares are fixed at either half, one fourth, one eighth, two thirds, one third and one sixth. However, the widow would get only half the share that a widower would get. The residuary heirs fall into three categories. They are – residuary in their own right, residuary with another’s rights and residuary with another. No female falls into the first category. Females who as sharers are entitled to either a half or two thirds and who become residuaries if they co-exist with their brothers, fall into the category of residuary with another’s right. A female heir becomes a residuary because of her co-existing with another female heir, becomes a residuary with another.

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