Addressing the impact of war on women in Sri Lanka -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Addressing the impact of war on women in Sri Lanka

By Samantha Wimalasuriya

The impact of war on women is both immediate and ongoing. During the crisis, they may experience the tragic death or disappearance of loved ones, sexual assault, and run-ins with the armed forces. Over time, they may suffer from long-term trauma or involuntary subservience, or be forced to assume duties that are traditionally and culturally not part of their role.

The 2004 tsunami and 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka have left countless women single and widowed. In addition to taking on new responsibilities in caring for their families, the women are often marginalized by their extended families and the greater community for taking on responsibilities of control that are often culturally unacceptable for women in Sri Lanka.

This situation has moved Habitat for Humanity Sri Lanka to focus its programs on serving this increasingly stigmatized segment of society. Programs for women affected by the war in Sri Lanka can be broken into three categories: shelter, home environment and future programming.


The Sri Lankan Civil War was an on-and-off insurgency against the government by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that began in 1983. For more than 25 years, the insurgency caused significant hardships for the people of Sri Lanka. More than 80,000 people were killed during the conflict and more than 300,000 people have been displaced. The Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, but the suffering continues.
The immediate need in Sri Lanka following the end of the war was to provide housing solutions for the 300,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) living away from their permanent homes in Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lanka, international nongovernmental organizations, local NGOs and the United Nations executed a comprehensive relief effort to house the IDPs temporarily.

HFH Sri Lanka’s contribution to this relief effort was twofold. First, Habitat facilitated the donation of 448 shelter boxes.
Each shelter box contained a 10-person tent and other equipment, including:

  • Insecticide-treated mosquito nets.
  • Cooking pans, utensils, bowls and mugs.
  • Collapsible water containers and water purification tablets.
  • A small children’s pack containing drawing books, crayons, pens, etc.

HFH Sri Lanka then supported the construction of transitional shelters and school buildings, preschools and toilets for women, children and people injured or disabled by the war. The primary focus was to pay special attention to the needs of displaced women. Close proximity to temporary schooling facilities, secure lockable doors and easy access to sanitation facilities were of paramount consideration when constructing these transitional shelters.

Another key aspect of the transitional shelters was that they could be readily dismantled and the various components could be taken away easily. The weight of the plywood walls, for example, was such that they could be lifted by a woman without difficulty. Similarly, the windows were assembled using hinges that could be taken apart and reused with little trouble.

Home environment

The stereotype of women as passive beneficiaries can result in their exclusion from decisions that directly affect them. As part of providing shelter solutions to families affected by the war in the North and East of Sri Lanka, HFH adopts a holistic approach to developing the capabilities and capacity of families and communities. Women take part in planning, implementing and evaluating the programs that affect them. Home gardening, composting of waste and solar-powered cooking are among the activities encouraged and facilitated with women’s input.

For example, since women are often responsible for their families’ food supplies, HFH Sri Lanka asks the woman of the house to decide what type of vegetables to cultivate in the home garden.

Future plans

HFH Sri Lanka’s plans for the immediate future include an advocacy-rooted land rights program that focuses on empowering people, predominantly women, to push for access to land and security of tenure.

Finally, HFH Sri Lanka is working on a grant proposal with World Concern Development Organization (WCDO) to enhance commercial dairy production in the North and East of Sri Lanka, which has a large number of vulnerable groups, including women-headed households.

In the Batticaloa, one of the districts of the province, the government of Sri Lanka estimates there are more than 18,000 female-headed households, many of whom are war widows. WCDO has already formed more than 43 farmer-managed societies in one district. Fifty-two percent of the 1,982 farmers in this society are women. HFHSL will focus on the housing needs of these communities.

Samantha Wimalasuriya is HFH Sri Lanka’s project-based resource manager. A former criminal attorney, she lived in Australia for 24 years before returning to Sri Lanka. She joined Habitat for Humanity in May 2009 in pursuit of a more meaningful career in the development sector.