Out of the shadows
A recently released report identifies women who were injured in the war and describes their struggles with re-integrating into society despite trauma, stigmas and new challenges living with disabilities.
She goes to the village kovil at odd times when there are no pooja, so she can avoid mingling with people in her village in Vakarai, in the Eastern province. She hates people’s nasty looks directed at her and her nine-year-old son.
Rupika (not her real name) in her mid-30s runs a small farm with a brood of chickens and few goats to earn a meager monthly income, which is mostly insufficient to meet their needs.
Rupika was an ex-LTTE cadre who joined the organization as a child soldier, later abandoned the organisation, but was then forcibly taken in to fight in the last battle in the North when the LTTE’s fighting power was shrinking.
She miraculously survived on the battle front but a bullet that ran through her left hand ripped off it from the elbow.
Injured and abandoned on the front, she managed to surrender to the military with dozens of displaced people from the North. Languishing in the welfare centre for displaced people with her family, she married a man who accepted her disability.
The day they marked three months of marriage, her husband, who had some links with the LTTE earlier, was taken in for questioning but never returned. Three-months pregnant and with an amputated hand, Rupika has been struggling for the last nine years to survive with her son. Despite her disability, she rides the push cycle single handed and engages in all house hold activities while being a member of the ‘Suwa Shakthi’, a government organization for women affected by the war.
Rupika’s tragic story was among several accounts presented in a 12-month long research report recently released in Colombo entitled ‘Out of the shadows: war affected women with disabilities in Sri Lanka,’ prepared by the Law and Society Trust with Western Sydney University.
Failure to recognise differently abled women
The report focused on: women in Northern and Eastern border villages, where the LTTE attacked during the early stages of the war and chased away women, particularly Muslim women, who then resettled in Puttalam district (Northwest province); women who have been internally displaced in the long term; women from the South; women from the Malayaha community.
Citing official statistics from 2012 census data the report states that 8.7 percent of the Sri Lankan population has disabilities, 57 percent of whom are women. The prevalence of visual, hearing, mobile and cognitive difficulties in women is significantly higher compared to men. However, the report states that gender-based statistics of the census department do not provide any details on women’s disabilities.
It further states that the international recognition for differently abled war-affected women in the country’s post-war scenario has been minimal and the governmental recognition inconsistent and inadequate. The National Policy on Reconciliation is an example of this gap, according to the report, as there is no recognition of a disability as being a critical factor in acknowledging and addressing the reconciliation process.
Authors of the report expressed a need for public recognition and acknowledgement in all post-war efforts including law reforms, reconciliation or transitional justice to improve the quality of life of individuals and the wider society.
“In these areas their disability has been acknowledged only in very marginal ways. At present people with disabilities are marginalised in the narratives of collective post-war memories,” the report states.
Highlighting the need of taking all forms of disabilities caused by the war into account when formulating post war policies for reconstruction and reconciliation, the report states that the disability caused due to the war, whether as a combatant, being shot at or being caught in a bomb blast, is problematic due to several reasons: one’s inability to get adjusted to the sudden disability, visibility of the physical disability, such as embedded shrapnel and bullets or metal plates, or clips that are inserted during surgery.
The report also stresses the need of addressing the psychological trauma, disability, harm, loss to life and stigma associated with disability caused due to the war.
“The severity of the trauma varies widely and is caused by a varied set of incidents. This includes the trauma of facing the war, such as when being displaced or fleeing hostilities. It includes the trauma due to damage to one’s own body – physically or mentally,” it explains.
“Rupika is a courageous woman. She says she is happy and proud of herself as a disabled woman and also a sole breadwinner of the family. But she becomes emotional when the neighbors see her as a bad omen to be sighted,” said Nisha Shariff, who interviewed Rupika for the research,
The wheelchair bound researcher Shariff, who is the President of the ‘We for Rights’, a Kandy based organization working for rights for the disabled, said that all the differently able women that she interviewed want recognition that other women get from the society.
“They said they were not born with any differences, but the war made them differently abled due to injuries they got n the battle fronts, and also while fleeing the war. They were disappointed by the ill treatment they got from their own people for whom they fought. The women, who were ex-cadres, that I interviewed regret that they lost their childhood and youth,” Shariff said.
She said that Rupika was especially worried when her son was cornered by some of the villagers, saying that he was a son of a former LTTE cadre.
The report also highlights the stigma associated with disabilities due to cultural and religious practices. “In some communities, particularly in the North and the East, women with disabilities are not considered as suitable for marriage, except perhaps for a man’s second marriage or to a man who is considered to be lacking socially– such as a man with a disability,” it states.
According to the report, superstition considers women with disabilities as an ill omen to be avoided, particularly during significant celebrations of a family or a community and due to these negative perceptions, women with disabilities sometime experience a sense of shame and rejection by their family and community.
All the women who were interviewed for the report suffered from trauma particularly those who witnessed the carnage in the last stages of the conflict.
A second chance for her son
“Rupika says her wish is to give her son a peaceful childhood, which she had lost due to the war, and finding her missing husband for her son, who always asks about his father,” Shariff said.
Rupika had told Shariff that she fought against the people in the South as the LTTE had introduced them as terrorists who were trying to destroy Tamils. But when she mingled with the people of the South post war, she had realized they were good human beings and could live together.
Shariff, who became differently abled in childhood due to neurological problems, said that her disability allowed her to get closer to her interviewees during the research.
To be seen as normal women
The President of the Association of Women with Disabilities (AKASA) Kamalawathi Narayanagedara said most of the differently abled women had no faith in any research as they had been interviewed multiple times about their grievances, but there were minimal outcomes for their benefits or the community.
Her team has been supporting border villagers in Anuradhapura, which were under the threat of LTTE attacks, since 1998.
“Yaka Wewa in Kebithigollewa is one major area we started working in after the alleged massacre of 60 villagers in bus bomb blast by the LTTE. The entire village was in shock and suffered from terrible trauma. We provided them with several mental health clinics,” Narayanagedara, the wheelchair bound interviewer, said.
“Differently abled women need the government, especially the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to recognise us as normal women. They need to look us at as women not our disabilities. They need to solve our issues and guarantee our rights as how they deal with the rest of the women in this country,” she stressed.
The report identified 21 findings and made 11 recommendations and was assisted by Dinesha Samararatne, a lawyer and an academic from Colombo University, Karen Soldatic, a research fellow of the Western Sydney University and Binendri Perera, a lawyer and a researcher.