Women’s History Roundtable Series: Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan on female-headed IDP households in post-conflict Sri Lanka


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Dr. Nirmala Chandrahaasan is a distinguished advocate who has been involved in the peace process in Sri Lanka for several years now. She holds a postgraduate degree in law from the University of Cambridge and a Ph.D from the University of Colombo. She has contributed articles on human rights, refugee law and international humanitarian law to international law journals. She is presently on the advisory committee of a ten-year master plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka.

What is the international point of view, standards on Sri Lankan refugees? What are the ground realities we see at present? The Prajnya Rountable chaired by Dr. Nirmala Chandrahaasan threw light on some of these pertinent questions in the backdrop of the scenario today.

The roundtable revolved around three main strands – the resettlement of refugees, internally displaced people (IDP) after the civil war and the problems faced by women particularly during and after displacement and relocation.
Dr. Nirmala first briefed the audience on the history of the conflict in Sri Lanka. The civil war in Sri Lanka, she said, has been on for 30 years, with almost 800-900 lakhs of refugees having relocated to western countries. Most of these refugees are reluctant to return to their motherland as they are well settled abroad. From June 2009 until now, 4,000 people have returned to their place of origin in Sri Lanka. A sizeable population of Sri Lankan refugees also live in camps in India.

The narrative then moved on to talk about the differences in meaning between a ‘refugee’ and an ‘IDP. According to the 1951 Geneva convention, a refugee is defined as “including any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion.” In simpler terms, a refugee takes shelter under a well-established international regime outside his country of origin and has access to humanitarian aid.

An IDP, on the other hand, lives within the country, has no convention or laws to protect and safeguard rights and has no access to assistance of any kind. The causes for refugees and IDPs though were common she said – civil war, persecution, violation of human rights, generalised violence and discrimination. IDPs became a matter of concern after their numbers and spread increased over time.

A significant portion of Dr. Nirmala’s narrative focussed on the importance of the Guiding Principles of Internal Displacement as being the international norm and standard framework governing the protection and humanitarian assistance of IDPs. It lays down that no government can arbitrarily refuse a plea for assistance by an internally displaced person. It emphasises on the right of people to ‘voluntarily’ return to their habitual place of residence or any other part of their country.

The Principles also recommend that the IDPs be allowed to fully participate in the planning of their return and resettlement. Women especially MUST be involved in their relocation.

A very pertinent question that then arises is whether internally displaced people are being resettled in their native villages and whether they, especially women, are involved in making these decisions. Dr. Nirmala then pointed out that the aspect of ‘voluntary’ return is absent due to the high military presence in Sri Lanka.

She then moved on to talk about women headed households in Sri Lanka, the percentage of which has been pegged at 25-30% after resettlement. Section 4 of the Guiding Principles focuses on certain categories of people with special needs – children, women head of households and disabled people.

The problems faced by women heading households are many, she said. One was the uncertainty about missing family members. Not knowing whether family members were alive or dead added to a woman’s trauma. Next, no death certificates were issued for family members who had passed away during war or relocation, hence taking away their right to claim compensation for their deaths. Another cause for anxiety and trauma in such women was the fact that grave sites were being demolished or vandalised; hence access to graves of missing people dear to them was limited or impossible. She highlighted the high levels of anxiety and mental illness among IDPs owing to such traumatic experiences. The need for counselling and medical services only becomes all the more important in such a scenario, she said.

The next section of the narrative focussed on livelihood options women heads of households had access to. She contrasted this with the few options people living in camps had. People in camps, Dr. Nirmala said, received a package from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – Rs.5,000 when they left the camp and Rs.25,000 later for resettlement. She also highlighted the food package offered by World Health Organisation and a seeds and farm equipment package given by the Food and Agricultural Organisation.

Households managed by women hardly had access to means of livelihood, either because their previous options had been destroyed or they were being prevented from accessing available resources. Lack of equipment and capital to start new ventures, no labour and awareness of other livelihood options meant the chances women had at starting afresh were in jeopardy.  Also, limited employment in the region further reduced the possibility of securing a job.

Dr. Nirmala cited the example of Kilinochi where food insecurity, she said, was at its highest. The region, with a large proportion of female headed households, was characterised by low income levels and high food prices. Women were not able to access lands due to lack of infrastructure and army intrusion. What is further traumatic for women is that 90% of women headed households also had a disabled person in the family.

Another factor that contributed to added anxiety for these women is the lack of documentation required to prove ownership of land. Most women had lost property deeds during the relocation process and are unable to prove title for land. Dr. Nirmala felt that in such a difficult situation, the government must be willing to take into consideration factual evidence/witnesses of women were not able to produce documents confirming their ownership of land. Even worse, education and birth certification of women often go missing in the resettlement process, leading to questions of citizenship.

Sexual harassment is another significant problem faced by women in Sri Lanka, according to Dr. Nirmala. This, she said, is because of the large number of army camps and soldiers. No civil administration in place even two years after the war meant that women had no platform to voice their concerns and seek legal assistance.

Finally, she emphasised the need for a proactive approach by the Indian government in Sri Lanka. This, she felt, was all the more relevant and necessary because of a large presence of Sri Lankan refugees in camps in India.

Q&A session

One of the important questions raised by a participant at the rountable was why the plight of women households in Sri Lanka was deplorable despite the existence of the Guiding principles. The answers to this question centered around the premise that the principles were only a convention, normative laws that did not bind on countries. Hence, its implementation depended on the leadership of a particular country.

Other questions revolved around SEWA’s involvement in entrepreneurial work in Sri Lanka. A chunk of the Q&A session also highlighted the underplay/ignorance of trauma in the political discourse in Sri Lanka.

This report has been prepared by Sweta Narayanan.

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