The major objective of the review was to assess rural women’s situation in post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction in those areas emerging from armed conflict. The study focused mainly on the North East province but included assessment of women’s situation directly affected by the conflict in three adjoining areas. Conclusions are based on the literature review, field assessments and discussions with stakeholders.
Years of conflict eroded economic activity and increased poverty in the NEP. Infrastructure facilities, basic services and livelihoods were affected adversely by the armed conflict while substantial numbers of people were displaced. Areas under control of the LTTE declined considerably and were economically marginalised with pervasive poverty and deprivation. Social costs of the conflict ranged from loss of lives to trauma, breakdown of community networks and ethnic polarisation.
Outside the conflict zone the Moneragala district was the least affected by the Northern conflict but the Southern insurrection compounded the deprivation of an already impoverished district. The conflict spilled over to the North Central Province with the killing of civilians living in areas bordering the NEP, thus bringing displacement and abandonment of livelihood activities. The conflict’s social consequences are more marked than economic costs to the NCP. While the exodus of Muslims from the North to Puttalam adversely affected the local host communities, especially the poor, their presence revitalised the local economy with expansion of agriculture, fisheries and trading activities and the demand for services and land.
The conflict-affected areas need major rehabilitation and reconstruction interventions to achieve normalcy. Rural poverty and the dependence of nearly 80 percent of the population of the North and East and the four adjacent districts on farming require agriculture and rural development to be the major foci of reconstruction and rehabilitation programmes.
Even before the signing of the cease fire agreement, the government recognised the imperative of development, but only in 2002 was concerted effort made to implement extensive development programmes. Although Jaffna was under government control from 1996, the peninsula was not opened to the remainder of the country until 2002. A development plan for Jaffna is awaiting implementation while a plan for Mannar and Vavuniya is under preparation. A needs assessment was completed by the Multilateral Group based on the projects developed for funding, but there is no comprehensive plan for North East development that identifies priorities and a coordinating mechanism.
In its statement to the Oslo conference the Sri Lankan government acknowledged women as victims of the armed conflict and identified them as a vulnerable group that requires special focus. The Needs Assessment recognised gender as a cross cutting issue. The Jaffna Plan, however, contains only one section on female-headed households and the Triple R Framework of the government is exceptionally weak on gender issues. Acknowledgement of women’s agency is difficult to find in official pronouncements.
The process to identify needs and prepare plans was flawed to the extent that the limited consultations with local level women and women’s NGOs gave rise to women’s perception that these were mere exercises without their participation. The national machinery for women had no role to play although the Sub Committee on Gender was consulted a few times.
Despite resolutions to adopt a gender sensitive approach in situations of armed conflict, peace and reconstruction, the UN in Sri Lanka had no gender strategy. An inter agency mechanism on gender has just started to function. Most of the UN projects are narrowly focused, identifying female-headed households as target beneficiaries almost to the exclusion of other women. The FAO and the UNHCR have broad gender policies, but in the case of the FAO, a gender analytical framework was not consciously applied to locally implemented projects although female headed households were project beneficiaries. The UNHCR identifies widows but adopts a family based approach in its activities. The ADB, on the other hand, developed a general gender strategy for Sri Lanka and will include the North East in it. The numerous institutions implementing programmes in the NEP had few women in decision-making positions, and government officials regarded women as victims in need of welfare benefits, indicating an absence of gender issue understanding.
The conflict changed women’s situation. Women have assumed roles in sharp contrast to notions of femininity and traditional values of the Tamil and Muslim communities. Most women were victims, but women also perpetrated acts of violence. At the same time, the conflict opened new opportunities for Tamil and Muslim women to overcome traditional conservatism, to achieve greater mobility and to participate in the public sphere. The emergence of numerous CBOs and NGOs provides opportunities for women to enter the public sphere especially in the post cease fire agreement period. Women – without their men – assumed responsibility for their families’ economic and emotional survival, taking on new roles to enhance family income in the face of economic hardship. Simultaneously, women were exploited as cheap labour. Muslim women from the North, for example, who were displaced and living in welfare camps in the Puttalam district became proletarians. A significant development was women’s mobilisation, yet women still are marginalised in traditional community-based organisations such as farmer organisations and cooperative societies. Unequal gender relations persist even with new responsibilities added to the existing unequal gender division of labour. The absence of basic facilities such as water, access roads, transport, health care, sanitation and sub standard housing compound women’s workload.
Field assessments show that women’s productive activities in all locations equal that of men. Women engage in cultivation either in their own farm or as agricultural workers. They perform all the tasks in the field including work on the threshing floor, from which women traditionally were excluded. Women in all locations cultivate the homestead and rear livestock. Women’s involvement in the fisheries sector is confined to post harvest activities and marketing. Non-farm income earning activities that women initiate, however, is extremely limited in all locations.
As income earners there is no equality between women and men. Women and men alike accept the wage differential thus perpetuating this discriminative practice. In project proposals women farmers are subsumed in the households; services and projects target the household head that usually is male. When women are identified as project beneficiaries, the major focus generally is on widows and female headed households ignoring the overwhelming majority of poor women who contribute to the household economy while bearing major responsibility in the domestic sphere. Despite being farmers in their own right, women’s membership is limited in farmers’ organisations or other agro-economic based societies and they rarely hold positions of authority.
Agriculture extension services are erratic and dissemination of agricultural information is not effective. A positive development, however, is seen in the Mahaweli villages in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa where agricultural officers reportedly provide guidance to both women and men.
Several issues identified from the literature were confirmed during field assessments. The most critical of these is the lack of a gender focus in most programmes and projects and the lack of gender awareness among government officials and project personnel. The projects did not include gender analysis components or indicators for assessing gender differentiated impact. The Gender Unit of the Ministry of Policy Planning only very recently started collecting such data relating to government implemented projects.
A critical need articulated by women, except those in Mannar which received adequate rainwater, is the need for uninterrupted water supply for cultivation during both seasons. Access to markets, fair prices, post-harvest storage facilities, information and knowledge and the availability of credit when required are other critical needs of women. Women in all locations need skill development and identification of alternative income generating activities.
Field assessments show that women are under considerable mental stress and that many bear psychological scars. This is evident especially in LTTE controlled areas that were marginalised and isolated.
The gender-planning unit established by the Department of Policy Planning to mainstream gender issues could most effectively address gender considerations in reconstruction and rehabilitation of conflict affected areas through institutional mechanisms. It should be strengthened with the addition of gender analysis expertise and by undertaking gender audits. It is strongly recommended that actively functioning gender focal points be established in all government agencies having responsibility for rehabilitation and development of the NEP.
All agencies involved in post-conflict reconstruction and rehabilitation programmes should be gender sensitised. Extensive gender awareness training programmes should be conducted for executive agencies, project officers and field staff at national and provincial levels.
Detailed assessment should be made of women’s role in agriculture and the rural sector of conflict affected areas, their access to inputs and support services. Current and future major projects should be assessed for their gender effects. Projects that have positively affected women should be identified, best practices documented and information disseminated.
The collection of sex disaggregated data and development of databases should be made mandatory.
A gender strategy for the NEP should be developed subsequent to a needs assessment of women, including female headed households, widows, married women, single women, displaced women, the disabled and youth.
All programmes and projects should include mandatory provision for gender analysis. All projects should include a gender responsive strategy to mobilise women, overcome constraints that limit their participation and improve their capacity. Indicators to assess the gender impact of projects should be developed.
Of the many CBOs functioning in the NEP the Madar Sangams (Women’s Rural Development Societies (WRDS)) is the most promising to mobilise women. The capacity of women’s organisations, especially the WRDS, to identify, design, implement and monitor projects should be strengthened. The WRDS should conduct gender awareness programmes for women and men in the community especially in view of the new realities and the high levels of alcoholism and domestic violence. Women’s organisations should link with each other with the objective of forming district level societies and an apex body. They should form links with women’s groups outside the NEP especially for information exchange and marketing. Linked women’s organisations should facilitate exchanges across ethnic boundaries, and new information technology should be explored for this purpose. The WRDS should work toward women’s participation in local governance and local level representatives to ensure attention by political leaders and government officers.
The Family Health Worker system of the Department of Health should be reactivated to address poor sanitation, health and mental health and nutrition practices.