INVICTUS Stories of resilience from mannar and mullaitivu

Text by Raisa Wickrematunge and Amalini de Sayrah

All photos by Amalini de Sayrah

In the post-conflict narrative, there are stories that are glossed over, or never told. When thinking of the aftermath of Sri Lanka's war, most eyes, particularly those of the English mainstream media, turn to Jaffna.

Recognising this, Groundviews travelled to Mullaitivu and Mannar, areas that remain underreported, and found many women who received almost no help from the state.

The women interviewed have faced first, the horrors of war, and then numerous other issues – from bureaucracy to stigma, to outright violence and abandonment. Yet they also displayed immense courage in the face of these difficulties. These narratives of extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness rarely make the news.

The names of the women interviewed and their locations have been withheld to respect their privacy and safety. These are their stories.

“We have moved around many times since being displaced in 1986, when we finally received land from the Government. My older sister was killed by shrapnel. I myself have two pieces of shrapnel still in my leg. My mother can’t hear, and her hand is broken. My father undertakes various odd jobs to survive. Finding money for school was very difficult.

After being resettled, I lived alone with my sister, who was unmarried. The residents of the area were worried about my fate.

They gave me in marriage to a violent alcoholic. He abused me, even when I was 3 months pregnant – so I had to divorce him. I wanted nothing to do with him. I run a shop in order to look after my daughter – she is 3 years old now. We make Rs. 200 to Rs. 300 a day, and I support the four of us, (including my father and mother) with this money.

My one wish is to give my daughter a better life.”


The wish to protect and educate their children, was often repeated among the women Groundviews spoke to. This desire gave these women the will to endure, even in the face of psychological torture.

"I was to be married in 1990, until the Army held my fiancé on suspicion of terrorism. Afterwards, the situation was dangerous so he went to the Wanni to join the LTTE. I was threatened by PLOTE and EROS, who questioned me about him. In 2004, I found out where he was, and thought of going to join him. The LTTE helped us to get married. In 2005, I had a daughter. In 2009, my husband sent my child and I to our hometown, where we lived in a camp. I have had no contact with him since.

The CID came for me in October 2009. My daughter and I were arrested and taken to the 4th Floor in Colombo. I remained in remand for 6 months.

After 10pm at the 4th Floor, you don’t hear men’s voices. It’s only the screaming and crying of women who are being abused by the officers. Having my daughter there meant I did not suffer like they did. They spoke to me in such filthy language; they told me my husband hadn’t come back to the army side and wasn’t at any of the camps.

A CID man used to hit me. In Sinhalese he told me, if they released me, I had to go to all the camps and look for my husband. In April 2010, when I was released, they made it clear that I was never to report what had happened to me. Twice a month, I was asked to come to the 4th Floor. Eventually, I had to stop going because it was too expensive to make the trip. I was scared to go to anyone for fear that they would follow me. I stopped working and began to do small tasks at home, pounding rice flour and spices.

The CID kept calling me until I changed my SIM. A few days later, they would call on the new number. I have changed 19 houses since I was released. They suspect any relative I interact with so I’ve cut off contact from all of them. Since I live alone, and the CID constantly asks after me, people assume that my character is 'not good’.

My husband joined the movement to protect the Tamil people. We have done nothing wrong. The LTTE had a very good system in place. They were good to women and always looked out for their safety.

After the government changed, the army offered me money, a house and said my daughter would be taken care of if I told them 'the truth'. I haven’t even gone for counseling. It will only make things worse.

What I need most is support to carry out self-employment, it’s what a lot of women in my circumstances need. Many of them have been forced into prostitution to earn something but because of my child, I won’t do that."


A representative from the Women’s Action Network – Mullaitivu explained that many of the Muslim residents followed the law laid out under the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), and faced difficulties due to bureaucratic delays. Currently, there is no permanent representative from the Quazi court to act as an arbitrator in divorce cases. A single acting representative travelled to Mullaitivu once a week, but a heavy backlog of cases ensured women often had to wait months before their cases were even heard.

"In 2010, I was resettled here. In December 2011, my husband said he was leaving to attend to some work. He never came home; I discovered he had settled down with another woman. He came back and asked me to sign divorce papers. When I refused, he hit me and burned me with a lamp. My son, who was 7 at the time, was also burned.

After he burned me, I couldn’t stand for long. After around 2 years of struggling, I found work at a hotel, but my husband found me again. So I stopped working there. Now I survive by working in people’s houses, doing jobs like sifting rice flour. I have to leave the three children with my mother when I do this.

Before my husband left, I was too nervous to even go to the hospital alone. Now, I have to do this on my own.

I went to the quazi court for aid and after five years have still not received adequate redress. I don’t even know where my husband is. I don’t know how he can remarry when we are not divorced.

I get Rs. 4000 a month working for an NGO. I will probably keep doing this work so I can feed my children and fund their schooling.


The culture in the North and East changed dramatically after the war, the Women’s Action Network representative explained. Even the time usually people visited the kovil or mosque changed. Now, women in these areas avoid going out after 5:30 pm. Yet, many courageous women defy this unspoken rule in order to make a living.

"We were moving between villages in 1990 when the shelling got bad. We moved to India, and returned only in 1992. There was no work for anyone. I was self-employed. While going about my daily tasks I would often pause in fear of shellfire. My husband abandoned me so now I live with my daughter – I lost the rest of my family in the war. The sound of shooting is something I won’t ever forget.

I make palmyrah products to earn a living. I’m well-known in the area, for all the social work I’m involved in. When I go about on my errands, I take a knife with me. I do have the strength to stab a man if he tries anything funny, I am prepared to defend myself.

I work with a group of women and we go out at around 2 or 3 am to pick palmyrah seeds. The other women do not fear because I come along.

I had to go to work two weeks after my hysterectomy because I needed to feed my child. The doctor told me ‘do not think you are a man’ and said I shouldn’t work so hard. My child compares what she has against her other classmates. I want to be able to give her all of that so I work hard, disregarding my health and the doctor's advice.


Rape and abuse are constant, yet unspoken of, issues that prevail in the North and East. Those interviewed were often reluctant to acknowledge this issue.

There are in fact, many who are in voluntary relationships with Army personnel, Women's Action Network- Mullaitivu explained. These cases are resolved on a personal level. However the fear of abuse persists, particularly among unmarried girls.

“We have no house or land. Our parents are gone. I live with my younger siblings. We have been promised housing by the state, but we have received nothing. I don't know if we will ever receive anything. The priority is for those with small children.

Many families like us face similar issues in receiving aid from the Government. The husband is in one area and the wife and children living in another, and so the allocation of aid is a problem.

Since my sister and I are unmarried, we face many difficulties. Our brother cannot work very far from home, since we are nervous to stay alone - the area we live in has a severe drug problem. I myself cook in a hotel. We have to send my younger sister to a neighbour’s house, when I go to work."


While there are many who offer counseling in the North and East, there is a lack of consistent support, and particularly, of specialist services, Women’s Action Network – Mullaitivu said. There is just one specialist psychiatrist for the entire district. Local NGOs often assist with short term projects, but once funding dries up, they have to move elsewhere, so there is a lack of continued support. Yet, counseling can give many of these women a new outlook on life, even in the aftermath of violence.

Many who spoke to Groundviews also said frankly that the LTTE did not allow for extramarital affairs and abandonment. As such, they felt the culture in their areas had deteriorated after the war – and they were suffering the consequences.

"I met my first husband during the war. I was working as a pharmacist when he met me. I was just 20 at the time. He was a member of the LTTE. I had three children, and began to work as a nursery school teacher. After the war, work was hard to come by. I moved in with another man, to support my children. I lost one child – but I still had twin daughters to support. We did not marry legally, but lived as husband and wife. My second husband was physically abusive. He hit me continually. Even now, I cannot see without my glasses.

It was counseling that saved me. I feel free now, thanks to that. I love singing, and the local hospital often asks me to sing at events.

My former husband gives me Rs. 12,000 a month as support. I am continually worried, however, that he might stop the payments. I still work as a teacher. When people see that I am doing relatively well, sometimes they question how I am able to support myself. I am often afraid, after sending the twins to school and before they come home. I have heard the issues that can befall women living on their own.

When you compare our way of life before the war and now, I see a huge change. During the LTTE's time, they would never have allowed people to have love affairs like this. They had a saying, “One person for one person”. How can today's society forgive people who abandon their wives in this manner?

There is no amount of money that can compensate for not having a loving father. The twins are sad they don’t have a father, which makes me sad. But I have to survive."


"In 2012 my husband left me to marry again. I think he is married to a third woman now. I have a 7 year old. To earn money I make short eats for events. My husband pays me maintenance. I need income to support my daughter's schooling.

I can’t afford tuition classes for her and to send her in a three-wheeler so I teach her at home, and she goes by bus for class.

One day on my way home, a man on a bike was following me. I walked into a shop for a while, hoping he would pass. Instead he started asking questions. He even asked for my telephone number. These young boys annoying me are very stressful.

I’ve told my daughter that she needs to study hard, to get a good job and not suffer like I am. She once came 10th in class. When she saw the first three winners standing on the podium at the prize giving, she told me she wants to be able to stand there as well. At the next prize giving, she came third. Her aim is to become a doctor."

“My husband is now living with someone else. He is asking for a divorce, but I have two children to support so I refused. He is now saying he will kill me if I don’t grant him a divorce.

I lost my mother in the war. I am supposed to be a Samurdhi beneficiary, and receive a house under the Divi Neguma scheme, but I still haven’t received anything. Life is very difficult. I survive by working as a seamstress. My father catches fish for us to eat. In fact, most of what we eat is from our own house – we grow coconuts too. If I die, there will be no one to look after the children.

People say things when I go for meetings with the local NGO. I don’t care. I need their support.

My husband has a house. He has lands. If he will promise to support us, I will grant him a divorce."


An unspoken of narrative is the plight of the Sinhalese minority families. Often, their stories were forgotten and they received little aid rebuilding their lives with difficulty.

“In 1985, my father fled in the wake of anti Tamil riots. Shortly after, my mother and siblings were killed. Life stopped for us. We had to rebuild everything. In 2010, we moved here. In this village, Sinhalese and Tamil live as one. We have known the people living here since we were children. There are very clever, hardworking women among us. Around 20 of the households here are female headed. They will work, rain or sunshine. They have the strength to survive.

I built this shop with no help from the Government, with my own two hands. I now work here six days a week. In addition, I head several local societies, including the women’s society. I want a better life for my children.

Many donors only help the Tamil people. That hurts us. We don’t blame our Tamil neighbours, as we know it is the fault of the donors. But everyone should receive aid equally. Nearby, there was a CARITAS project where 29 houses were given out. Not even one Sinhalese family got aid. In another housing scheme, just 8 houses out of 50 were given to Sinhalese.

Alcoholism and drugs are a problem, particularly among the youth as they can’t find jobs. The poorest families have to stop their children's education. There have been cases of abuse and teen pregnancy too.


"My husband helped a lot of people after the tsunami. There was one woman who he continually spoke about. It was this woman he ended up marrying – though we were already married and had two children together. During the time the LTTE was in control, he studied medicine. She was a medical student too.

He started saying he had to work until late. After the war, when we were resettling, he moved in with the other woman. I filed a case against him. Let him leave, but he must support me and my children.

After three years, we are still not divorced, but he is married to someone else. Now there is a warrant out for his arrest, and I am scared he will kill me. He has already hit me for filing the cases.

Before the war, there was no problem. But now there are thousands of cases like mine. The LTTE did not allow these problems.

I don't go to any weddings or functions - only to the kovil. I live in deep sadness.


As these stories illustrate, the issues facing female-headed households in Mannar and Mullaitivu are complex and varied. Alleviating these issues requires not just consistent state support in the form of funding for development, but also consistent funding for psychosocial services, and a shift in culture and mindset. Many of those interviewed did not feel the state would ever help them out of their plight. Yet, the resilience they displayed in the face of violence is inspiring. One in four households are female-headed, according to census data - and, still as these interviews illustrate, many single parent households receive only the most sparing support.

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