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Plight of Sri Lanka's war widows

By Saroj Pathirana
BBC Sinhala service

Vadivel Shanthi and her children
Widow Vadivel Shanthi has to care for her family with little money

"My husband was a fisherman. About three years ago, when he returned from a fishing trip, somebody checked his identity card and shot him dead," says Jeyarulai Puwanendran, weeping.

The single mother, 23, is a resident of Kiran, Batticaloa, in Sri Lanka's eastern region.

"I have a four-year-old daughter. I don't get help from the government or anybody else. My parents are the ones who look after me and my daughter. My father is a labourer. They have six other children apart from me," she says.

Ms Puwanendran is among an estimated 33,000 women who have been widowed in Eastern Province during nearly three decades of war between the government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Still suffering

Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim communities share almost equal representation in Eastern Province and all three communities have their share of war widows.

Displaced Tamil people in the north
Decades of fighting has displaced thousands in the north and east

Similar stories can be heard all over the east. The case of 30-year-old Vadivel Shanthi, a mother of three young children in a camp for displaced people in Batticaloa, is typical.

Her family left their home in Trincomalee district after her husband, a farmer, was shot dead by unidentified people.

"One day my husband went to the paddy field but did not return. After seven days his decomposed body was found in a paddy field. I was left with no option other than to hand over two of our children to an orphanage," she says.

Women's rights activists argue that widows are still suffering despite the government recapturing the east from the Tamil Tigers more than a year ago.

Visaka Dharmadasa, of the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW) recently visited the region. She says that fear still prevails in the region and killings continue despite the fact that rebels were expelled by government forces.

The husband of 24-year-old mother Karthiga, Selvaratnam Ramesh, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen at their home in Valaichchenai, Batticaloa, on 27 November.

The authorities are committed to helping thousands of widows

Basil Rajapaksa,
Sri Lankan MP

"It was about 7.30pm in the evening. I was at home with my husband. Suddenly I heard a sound like a cracker exploding. When I looked at my husband, he was on the floor with gun wounds," she said.

"My husband was a mason. We did not have a penny when he was killed. I have a seven-year-old daughter and I am now seven months pregnant. I don't know how to get on with my life," she says.

Although the government has identified the problem, activists say it lacks the commitment to help these women to rebuild their lives.

A spokeswoman for the chief minister of Eastern Province is reported to have told the AWAW that while the provincial council recognises the urgency it does not have funds to implement projects to help it.

"She expressed serious disappointment that no money was allocated, though many projects are planned to uplift the lives of these women," said AWAW spokeswoman Visaka Dharmadasa.

'Employment opportunities'

The government , however, sees things differently.

According to Nation Building Minister Susantha Punchinilame, action is being taken to help widows, the overwhelming majority of whom are under 30.

Basil Rajapaksa, the younger brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a senior adviser to the president on a plan to provide more assistance to the bereaved women in the east.

Batticaloa
Batticaloa and other parts of the east have been ravaged by war

"Actually this problem was only recently highlighted and we are currently conducting a study on the situation and the figures relating to widows," he says.

The government's priority is to provide employment opportunities for ex-combatants in the east, Mr Rajapaksa says.

He points out that former Tamil Tiger rebels headed by breakaway leader, Col Karuna, have now joined the governing coalition to try to put this plan into action.

"The authorities are committed to helping thousands of widows," Mr Rajapaksa says.

"We are working to help them find opportunities for self-employment, foreign jobs and jobs in the livestock and agricultural sector."

Mr Rajapaksa insists that the government is co-ordinating with the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) on development work.

"This year, for example, the EPC approved the biggest development budget from the money offered by the government and the foreign donations transferred through the government," he says.

Mr Rajapaksa says he hopes that the provincial authority will receive more funds as the EPC re-establishes a financial and tax system in the area and many currently defunct industries restart work.

But critics such as Ms Dharmadasa argue that there are few positive developments in recent months for widows in the east.

Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim widows are seriously affected by the war, she says, and are left to cope without official help.

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