At a recent panel discussion on Women Heading Households (WHH), one thing that struck me the most was an incident related by Aranya Rajasingham, executive director of Viluthu.
Soon after the war ended in 2009, Viluthu began their effort to help war widows – one of the most affected groups. They held meetings with the war widows to find out their needs. Aranya mentioned that there was one particularly vocal elderly woman, whom everyone had grown to love and admire because of her pleasantly outspoken attitude.
The old lady didn’t turn up for a meeting one day; she had never missed a meeting before. Upon inquiry, Aranya found that she had passed away, which news filled with shock and grief. Aranya knew that the woman had often gone hungry sharing her meal with her family that never had enough food.
Certain groups WWH were left out of aid programmes
The panel discussion, titled ‘Empowering Female Headed Households in Sri Lanka’ and organised by the UN Gender Theme Group and held on 8 March, highlighted how WHH suffer the most. They are often deprived of food, shelter, and other basic necessities. Social stigma prevents them from seeking employment, their conservative society looks upon them with suspicion for being involved in sex work, and not having land deeds in their name makes it very hard to obtain loans from banks.
Over the past eight years, many groups have tried to help the WHH. Aid in the form of funds, building of homes, employment and self-employment options have been made available to them. Well intended as they were, most of these efforts were temporary or myopic: the right sort of aid that would help them in a sustainable has been lacking.
Dr. Nayana Godamune, Senior Research Professional for the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), said that the Government, along with NGOs and INGOs, had varied definitions of the WHH. Within these boundaries certain groups of single women who were the sole breadwinners of their family were left out of aid programmes.
At times elderly widows were left out, and at other times women whose husbands were alive but unable to contribute financially due to disability or ill-health were not recognized as heading their households, and thus bypassed by aid programmes.
The discussion was based around the ‘Mapping of Socio-Economic Support Services to Female Headed Housholds in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka’ report that was launched at the event.
Separate programmes for WW and Young Widows
Interestingly, the report discusses creating sub-groups such as war-widows (WW) and young widows.
The report states “The need for WHH and WWs are different and project designs should reflect this e.g psycho-social support for WW as they faced different trauma and anxiety. There is more funding available for programmes targeting WWs and therefore the funding should be leveraged by having separate programmes”.
Young WW were seen as the most vulnerable even among the WW. The report states: “These ‘widows’ had particular characteristics: young, lacking employable skills, responsible for young children coupled with the social stigma of being branded a WW.”
A research interviewee said: “These young women were not always legally married, and were not ‘widows’ as they lacked evidence of death [of their spouse]. Often their spouses were missing”.
Another interviewee added, “These young women were singled out as a requiring specific intervention because of the specific economic and social vulnerabilities they faced. For instance insufficient income due to lack of skills which in turn forced them to look for other ways to meet their economic needs, which often came in the form of alliances with men, placing them in a vicious cycle of abuse and further social vulnerabilities”.
Aid for war widows is indeed risky. But targeting the group may be the best available option. In any case, this demographic is undoubtedly the most affected and vulnerable. We need to make a special, concentrated effort to help them.
The Chair of the UN Gender Theme Group and Country Representative of UNFPA Sri Lanka, Alain Sibenaler, told the event, “Based on census data, approximately 1 in 4 households is female headed. Interventions to meet the needs of this significant population need to be systematic, holistic and sustainable and must take into consideration livelihoods, safety, security, and reproductive health and rights”.