July 05, Colombo: The European Union is funding a 24-month 8.1 million euro program aimed at assisting Sri Lanka to make a transition from post-conflict assistance to reconstruction and development rebuilding the lives of conflict affected returnees in North and East.
Nothing left standing
If you leave home for long enough, there is nothing left standing when you come back.
Sandrakumar Kirupamalar, who once had a herd of 72 cows, had none when she returned; Kopal Nilukshan had a boat but no engine and very few other options. When Merin Kalpana returned home to Valalai, conflict had destroyed her house and the jungle had swallowed her land; Rajnikansan Arushanandi and Sobana Muhundan didn't only need homes, they needed a school to send their children to.
While some of these challenges were specific and individual, entire communities were still reeling from years of displacement.
The villagers of Veemankamam had houses but no water to drink; mothers in Sampoor had no toilets and needed better food for their children; in Soodaikudah, houses could not make up for the lack of a village hall.
Joy and heartbreak
For these and a hundred other reasons, communities returning home after the conflict to Sri Lanka's North and East faced both joy and heartbreak. Some had first returned in 2010 and many others followed in subsequent years – particularly in 2015 - when the Government of Sri Lanka began releasing military-occupied lands. Since then, over 3,500 acres of land have been returned to over 4,500 families in Sri Lanka's North and East.
Post-conflict assistance helped ease some of the initial strain of their return, but close to a decade after the guns fell silent, Sri Lankans were still struggling.
To truly rebuild, livelihoods had to be restored; communities needed healthier diets and reliable access to water and sanitation; children, whose education had been disrupted by the war, deserved good schools and child-friendly classrooms.
Across the region, entrepreneurs and small businesses were setting out to rebuild market linkages to regional and national networks. And across the board, citizens sought better healthcare, psychosocial support, improved government services and key infrastructure.
In response to these humanitarian challenges, the European Union, reached out, funding a 24-month program aimed at assisting Sri Lanka to make a transition from post-conflict assistance to reconstruction and development.
Under this 8.1 million euro program, UNDP and UNICEF were on the ground in Trincomalee in the Muthur and Sampoor DS Divisions and Jaffna Tellippalai and Kopay DS Divisions, while UN-Habitat worked in the five Districts of the Northern Province to provide access to an integrated and sustainable package of socio-economic services to help returnees under the European Union Catalytic Support to Peacebuilding Program in Sri Lanka.
To implement such an ambitious, complex program, these agencies had to work in synergy. UNDP and UNICEF collaborated to help schools in the region: UNICEF renovated the buildings, which were lacking even doors and windows at the time, and introduced a child-centered classroom system. They included classroom equipment, toys and training materials. Simultaneously, UNDP supported the establishing of model gardens, where children and their parents were taught about organic farming and what made up a nutritious, balanced diet.
In other initiatives, UNDP provided livelihood support, while UNICEF funded psycho-social counselling to help families find their feet not just financially but emotionally and mentally.
The two agencies worked hand in hand. To help address the shortage of trained counsellors, UNICEF supported the forming of 12 Core Groups made up of Rural Development Society members and engaged youth across the north. Meanwhile, beginning in 2017, UNDP also supported close to 750 families – providing assistance to communities in the fisheries, agriculture, livestock and enterprise development. Out of this, 250 young people were given assistance to kick-start their own enterprise, with 12 persons with disabilities also provided backing to start their livelihoods.
"UNDP works to ensure sustainable human development for all. Human development for everyone is not a dream, it is attainable. Now the 2030 Agenda calls on us to leave no one behind in development. This means equality of opportunity and access. It means investing in women and girls, youth and the most vulnerable people. It involves mobilizing local action and commitment towards one common goal: a better future for all," says Jorn Sorensen, Resident Representative, UNDP Sri Lanka.
UNDP, UNICEF and UN-Habitat would also come together to provide technical support to develop the National Policy on Durable Solutions for Conflict Affected Displacement to provide access to an integrated and sustainable package of socio-economic services to help returnees rebuild their lives.
Upon returning however, conflict affected returnee families in the North did not possess land tenure documents as these documents had been lost during the conflict. As part of this Program, UN-Habitat supported over 20,000 conflict affected returnee households in the Northern Province by providing security of land tenure.
This initiative was implemented through the Ministry of Lands and Parliamentary Reforms, ensuring that identified land plots were professionally surveyed and legal land tenure documents were provided to families by the Land Commissioner's Department.
"As the UN agency for human settlements, UN-Habitat is mandated to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities. In Sri Lanka, UN-Habitat works towards the development of sustainable human settlements through policy support to the Government as well as direct assistance programs. The agency has been assisting communities to recover from disaster situations, playing a pivotal role through the provision of technical expertise, policy level inputs and coordination of the shelter response. Our post conflict recovery support to Sri Lanka has included permanent housing, community infrastructure and land tenure initiatives in the North and East," stated Chanaka Talpahewa, Country Program Manager for UN-Habitat.
Complementing this, UNICEF has supported nearly 2000 children to access education. UNICEF also drove the improvement of health centers across Muthur, benefitting 90,000 people and working with over 1000 vulnerable families and at-risk children in the district.
Focus on Women
Throughout, women have been a special focus of these initiatives.
Women have borne the brunt of the gendered dimensions of humanitarian disasters, conflict and displacement. On return they continue to face numerous issues that impact on their security and wellbeing. They are also often over-represented in gender based violence statistics and bear considerable and disproportionate economic marginalization. This is further heightened by the fact that in post-war communities, women tend to bear the bigger share of responsibility in relation to family and communal care.
In addition, women play a critical role in peacebuilding. It is important to work with women as individuals or in women-led organisations and community groups to empower them and provide them with the necessary platforms to be agents of change within communities.
Faces of the EU
Across the two districts, the program has transformed lives.
For Sandrakumar Kirupamalar, one of the first women to sit on the board of The Muthur East Dairy Development Co-op Society, the challenge was how to take her product to the market. After years of displacement, Kirupamalar returned home to rebuild her herd, but found that farmers, especially those who were isolated had nowhere to sell their milk.
Today the cooperative has a vehicle that has increased milk collection, new aluminium containers to transport and store milk as well a brand new processing and sales center equipped with a power-saving hybrid cooling system. As a result of taking control of their own sales and production, members now make an average income of Rs.65,000 per month compared to just Rs.32,000 before the intervention.
With a new boat engine and nets as well as GPS to help him identify and track large schools of fish, Kopal Nilukshan is now able to support his family of 5. He is part of the Soodaikudah Fisherman's Cooperative Society, and its 99 members are able to use collective bargaining to ensure they get fair rates for their catch.
Merin and the women of Valalai formed a society and began to cook delicious, healthy meals in their new Traditional Food Centre. Business training as well as instruction on hygienic food preparation helps them reach more clientele and turn a bigger profit.
The two mothers, Rajnikansan Arushanandi and Sobana Muhundan now have children who attend the J/Nadeshwara Kanista Vidyalayam, Kankesanthurai, a school which underwent extended renovations and where teachers were trained in how to create child-friendly classrooms. On the school grounds, a model garden provides an abundant harvest while helping children and parents master the basics of organic farming.
Muthukumar Sandrakanthi and her son Thivahar did not have adequate funds to hire a surveyor to survey their land – a requirement before they could get their legal land tenure document. Fortunately, they were selected as beneficiaries by the project to be provided with land tenure documents. They received their deeds in November 2018 – within only 30 days of application.
The villagers of Veemankamam were given an aquifer recharge system that would ensure they had water even in the driest months; 70 toilets were built for mothers in Sampoor, who were enrolled in Mother's Group where they were given advice and supplements with which to boost their children's health.
In Soodaikudah, the only youth club in the village now has RDS center to meet in, and they still have room to spare for various other societies, the local Grama Niladari officers, and a Montessori where the youngest members of the community come to study.
Courage. Compassion. Resilience. These are the faces of the EU in Sri Lanka.