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Sri Lanka - Newsletter - July 2002

15-07-2002 Field Newsletter

Living conditions in Sri Lankan Prisons - Women affected by war

Living Conditions in Sri Lankan Prisons


Living Conditions in Sri Lankan Prisons 

The International Committee of the Red Cross has a strong relationship with the Sri Lankan Prison authorities to improve basic living standards in their institutions. As part of this programme, the ICRC organised a two-day seminar for senior Prisons Department officers on 3rd and 4th June at the Jaic Hilton Tower in Colombo, on living conditions.

The Chief Guest at the opening ceremony Hon. John Amaratunga, Minister of the Interior, identified overcrowding of the prisons as the main problem. Mr. Amaratunga said this was a burden on the government and added that as a solution, more prisons were being opened. He thanked the ICRC for helping the Prisons Department and said he hoped the seminar would assist the Sri Lankan officials to gain knowledge by using the ICRC’s experience.

Ms. Isabelle Barras, former Head of the ICRC Delegation in Sri Lanka, said that ICRC Protection delegates have been visiting prisons throughout the country since 1990. The ICRC has ‘established an open and constructive working relationship with the Prison department to support the efforts to ameliorate the conditions and treatment of Prisoners. After visits to the prisoners, the ICRC transmits it’s findings and recommendations to the relevant authorities whenever necessary. Each year the ICRC meets approximately 16,000 inmates in various prisons, 10% of whom have been detained due to the conflict,’ she said. Ms. Barras added the impact of overcrowding on P rison infrastructure is seen not only in Sri Lankan Prisons but in other parts of the world as well.

The Commissioner-General of Prisons Mr. Upali Samaraweera thanked the Prisons officers and expressed faith that the sessions would find ways to improve the conditions in the prisons. He said that the department was making every effort to co-operate with the ICRC. 

The two-day seminar focussed on infectious diseases, hygiene, over-crowding and habitat, supply of water and sanitation as well as the improvement of kitchens with an emphasis on saving costs. The workshop was organised by the Protection Department of ICRC Sri Lanka headed by Protection Coordinator Mr. Pierre Barras and used the services of Mr. Riccardo Conti, Head of the Water and Habitat unit of ICRC Geneva, Mr. Evaristo Oliveira from ICRC Manila and Ms. Gisella McGuinness, Water and Habitat Engineer, ICRC Sri Lanka.

To improve the living conditions of the prisoners the ICRC distributes a range of recreational equipment, school books and other reading materials to all prisons.

Women Affected by War


Women Affected by War 
Prosthetic Workshop in Jaffna introduces new techniques 

  The McLeod Hospital in Jaffna is one of the northern Peninsula’s oldest landmarks. Set in a shady grove of trees, it had been a Centre of care for many years. The conflict has affected this former private hospital and it no longer functions the way it used to be.  
  But in one corner of the hospital there is a workshop that cares – providing new hope for people without limbs. The workshop, run by one of Sri Lanka’s oldest Non-governmental Organisations The Friends in Need Society, gets help from the ICRC in the form of expertise in producing prosthesis. It has helped nearly seven thousand people in the North with prostheses so that they may resume a normal life over the past 17 years. Since 1992, ICRC provides the services of a Prosthetist who advises the centre.  
  The centre at Inuvil is part of the ICRC’s wide network of workshops that have helped tens of thousands of war-wounded and mine victims around the world. These programmes were first carried out in Africa and have now spread to include Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The first project was launched in 1979, in Ethiopia.  
  Because amputees are disabled for life, the ICRC seeks to assist the affected people and also to leave behind a functioning structure capable of providing continued rehabilitation in the long-term. For instance a young person who has lost a limb needs to have the artificial limb extended as his or her body grows. A 10-year old child for instance would need approximately 15 prostheses during the course of his or her lifetime. The main elements of the programme are training and low-cost.  
  The centre at Inuvil reflects this approach. The collaboration with the Jaffna branch of the Friends in Need Society goes back to 1994 when a programme was begun to introduce polypropylene technology. The ICRC provides material and machinery for the manufacture of polypropylene limbs and three technicians have been sent to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia for training at the ICRC facility there. One of them is the orthopaedic department manager who now is training his colleagues at the workshop.  
  Due to the conflict, the project was suspended in 1995, but resumed in 1999 and work has progressed ever since. There have been a number of upheavals and the location of the workshop has changed and is currently settled at the McLeod hospital.  
  The project works alongside the existing method of producing prosthesis, which is known as the Jaipur Foot programme. This method uses aluminium, wood and rubber materials to make the limbs. The Japiur foot is a low-technology method. It is a tough, hard-working limb that has great advantages in labour intensive situations and in a rural environment. However it has intrinsic disadvantages for certain medical conditions. It was developed at a time when there was an urgent need and has been a great success.  
  The ICRC initially used a system close to the Jaipur Foot. However over the years the new method was developed for use in countries and situation where there was a lack of basic materials. The main material used is a polypropylene sheet, which can be moulded with heat. Although it is difficult to glue it can be welded. It is particularly useful because it does not cause any allergic reactions and the polypropylene that the ICRC uses comes in various pigmentations so that it can closely match the skin colour of the patients. The Inuvil centre allows the patients to choose whether they want a Jaipur foot or a poly limb.  
  Unfortunately as peace returns and more and more people return to homes and fields abandoned due to the war, they risk increased danger of losing limbs by stepping on landmines and buried explosives left behind by withdrawing armed groups. Therefore the uses of the Inuvil centre will be playing an important role in the years to come. 


Like in many other places of the world where there is conflict, women in Sri Lanka have su ffered much during the 20 years of internal strife in the island nation. There is a long roll of women affected by war both in the Tamil majority North and East as well as the Sinhalese majority South who seek and receive help from the ICRC. They range from middle-class women who have sons and husbands missing due to the war to poor rural women, displaced and compelled to head households because their men are lost due to the fighting. Then there are others who have appealed to the ICRC to try to get back children forcibly conscripted as child soldiers.

Over the past four years the ICRC has conducted studies focussing on women affected by war as a special group of people vulnerable to effects of war. This does not discount the reality that men are also among the vulnerable in most situations. Although at first sight all women affected by war may appear vulnerable it is also true that in modern conflicts women also carry arms and in many countries are political leaders, head non-governmental organisations and are active peace campaigners. They have been revealed as being able to withstand the additional stresses and burdens imposed during wartime.

However the study found that women are particularly susceptible to marginalization, poverty and suffering engendered by armed conflict especially when they are already discriminated against during peacetime. Women are also very vulnerable when they are held up as ‘symbolic’ bearers of culture and ethnic identity and in such situations they can be vulnerable to attack or threats from their own community for not conforming or conversely may be targeted by the enemy to subvert this role. In this context, women are sadly targeted for sexual violence and exploitation.

In Sri Lanka the ICRC assists thousands of women to alleviate their suffering. This assistance takes many forms, from standard material help to assistance in tracing missing members of families and protection in conflict si tuations.

For four and a half years, Sunanda Dias a housewife from Wattala in South Western Sri Lanka, waited in anxiety about the fate of her son Mahinda. He was an Oiler aboard the MV Missen, a ship that was captured by the LTTE in the North and was taken into custody. Mahinda’s whereabouts were made known to his mother through the ICRC. ‘They told me they would try to find him,’ Sunanda recalls. And then on one day she received a letter from her son – a Red Cross Message – which confirmed that Mahinda was alive. ‘For more than four years the ICRC made sure that I got a message from my son every month, and I was able to write to him and also send him food and other things.’ Sunanda says mothers suffer terribly not knowing the fate of their children. ‘We sacrifice so much to bring up our children and when they are tragically lost, it breaks our hearts.’ Unlike many others in this war torn land, Sunanda is lucky. Mahinda, her youngest son was released by the LTTE in January 2002, and brought to her by the ICRC.

Vishaka Dharmadasa isn’t so lucky. In September 1998 her son Achintha Senarath, 23, a second lieutenant in the Sri Lankan army, went missing when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attacked his camp at Kilinochchi, in the north of the country. Now Visaka’s once cheerful home is filled with sorrow. " I cannot rest until I know what happened to him. Ammi (Mummy) must know if he is well,’ she says, refusing even to contemplate the possibility that her son may be dead. Visaka’s tale is also of extraordinary courage and strength. Visaka has emerged as the leading spokesperson for the many others who share her plight in Sri Lanka. Visaka's frequent meetings with the ICRC has also made her a convincing spokesperson for those practices the ICRC seeks to promote, such as respect for wounded combatants and the humane treatment of detainees. Stating that " it is a mother’s right to know whe ther her child is dead or alive " , she pointed out that since women know the real suffering produced by conflict " they are the best anti-war lobby group you can think of " . " May no other mother suffer our sadness " is one of the slogans used by the campaigners, and as Visaka once wrote in a poem: " Of what use is the country our sons fight for without my son in it? " Tracing the missing, is one of the ways the ICRC helps mothers and wives.

Chandani Boyagoda, whose husband has been in LTTE detention for eight years got the chance, with members of families of six others in a similar situation, to see her family united for six days in May when the LTTE permitted a family visit on a request made by the ICRC. It was a special moment for the Boyagodas’ youngest son ten-year-old Lahiru who saw his father after eight years. The brief reunion was heartening but Chandani has returned to her home in Colombo to await what she hopes will be an end to her ordeal. The ICRC has urged both parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka to release detainees held in connection with the conflict when hostilities cease in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. 

Other families separated by conflict have been reunited and many of the beneficiaries have been women. One example is Subramanium Parwathypillai, an octogenarian grandmother, who lived in the Northern Jaffna Peninsula. Widowed and ill and living alone, she was vulnerable because her son was displaced and working in Vavuniya. After an appeal was made to the ICRC Parwathypillai was reunited with her son and grandchildren after a lapse of more than six years. In the year 2001, the ICRC reunited 102 families separated by the conflict and of them 56 were women who had lost touch with their kin. In this year for the first six months a total of 52 reunions have been carried out and of them 27 have involved women.

Wherever health services have been affected by the co nflict the ICRC provides Mobile Health teams and women and families are particular recipients of care. In 2001, more than 77,000 women were able to avail themselves of these services. This year, up to April, a total of 22,442 women received medical care from these Mobile Teams.

Keeping families in touch, and helping them to get back together is an important part of the work. Ketheeswaran Theivamalar a 38-year old mother of five is typical of the women who have been targeted for help by the ICRC. Theivamalar who is native to the Vanni was living in Nallur on the northern part of the region on the coast with her husband and two children when the conflict intensified there in 1990. Because of the fighting she and her family had to flee from their home and they came to live in the southern part of the Vanni. With that she became one of the hundreds of thousands of women internally displaced people in this country due to the war. Thereafter the conflict brought her further misfortune when her husband, a farm labourer, was arrested and detained by the government’s security forces in December 2000. This left her to run the household by which time had grown to include two more children. At the time her husband was detained, Theivamalar was pregnant with her fifth child, her youngest a toddler and her eldest a teenager. She was informed of her husband’s detention by the ICRC, which helped her establish contact with him through Red Cross Messages. Later with the assistance of the ICRC, she was able to visit her husband in jail. Theivamalar has also been helped by the ICRC with roofing material for her house. In this way the ICRC has helped more than a hundred Female headed households in the Vanni region.

Apart from these tangible examples, the ICRC also works towards prevention of exploitation and harassment of women. In conflict situations when normal law and order mechanisms breakdown, women are vulnerable to sexual exploitation and even rape. The ICRC through t he teaching of International Humanitarian Law to both arms carriers as well as civil groups tries to instil in all actors a respect for women so that they be treated right. Overall the ICRC’s special focus on women hopes to better this sector of society that has been subject to suffering due to conflict throughout the ages.

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