By Rajani Iqbal
Today we are assembled here to commemorate the International Women’s Day that falls in March, 2012. I wonder whether the women in the war affected parts of Sri Lanka today would be happy to commemorate this day or whether they would look at it in despair due to the sad plight in which they find themselves, following the conclusion of the war in 2009.
Thamakkenni, Kilinochchi: These women are part of a group of 15 who have just completed their training in Palmyra product making. Initiated under UNDP’s Vanni Rehabilitation Project of the Transition Recovery Programme, funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the training aims to facilitate the sustainable resettlement of returnees and reduce tension within and between target communities by improving their socio-economic conditions-Sep 2011- pic: UNDP Sri Lanka
It is not enough to just look at their plight with sympathy and say “Oh my God ! How sad! ” and continue to mind ones business. Instead, it would be better if each one of us could ask ourselves the question, what can we do to uplift these women from the plight in which they find themselves.
My answer to that question would be that we can use the time tested co-operative principles to bring them together under the umbrella of co-operative societies as it happened following the devastation of the Second World War.
One may ask what has the Second World War to do with development of women. Those who studied history and the others too, know that the Second World War left many countries in shambles and the lives of may families were shattered. The famine that followed the war in Europe led to mass unemployment and misery.
In UK the Rochdale Pioneers introduced consumer co-operatives to defeat the profiteering traders who were fleecing on the poor. Savings schemes were introduced to promote thrift and micro-credit available for members on easy terms. That this system became popular and benefitted the poor in UK to uplift themselves, is history. Also this system became so successful and popular that other countries in Europe too followed suit. We could talk more on this on another occasion.
Let us now see how this system could be used to help the women affected by the war in Sri Lanka . A few examples on the state of these women today would be appropriate at this stage. I have found that there are many among these affected women who have lost their husbands, some or all their children and left with no belongings whatsoever, trying to make a living to feed themselves and the surviving members of their family.
There are others with grown up girls, who are maimed and in need of protection from sex starved men living amongst them in positions of authority. This is a challenge they face daily because their dwelling are not secure and the girls cannot be effectively hidden from prying eyes.
The irony of this is, that the guardians of such girls are often old and weak mothers or other females members of the family. These grown up girls had been unfortunate to have got sucked into the war by force of circumstances and have lost the opportunities to learn a skill or trade other than using a weapon.
Now that the war is over and they have no need to use a weapon, they find themselves in dire circumstances. It is in the midst of such victims of the war that there is a need for co-operatives to assist them to uplift themselves.
Perhaps you may know that the United Nations has declared 2012 to be the International Co-operative Year. Many of you may not know enough about co-operatives. You may wonder how cooperatives could be used for the development of women, especially those in the war affected areas in Sri Lanka
To know how co-operatives can help them, it would be appropriate for me to say a few words on co-operative values. One of the important values is that members are motivated to help themselves. The other is to make them understand the need to take responsibility for their actions as individuals or jointly. The members of each society come together for a common objective or objectives. Every member of the co-operative has a say in the management of their organisation. It functions as a democratic institution. That means when decisions have to be taken, irrespective of the status of the member, each member has only one vote.
Besides the co-operative values these societies are formed according to established co-operative principles. The following are the cooperative principles
1. Voluntary and open membership.
2. Democratic member control.
3. Member economic participation.
4. Autonomy and independence.
5. Education and training on how to function according to co-operative principles.
6. Co-operation amongst co-operatives.
7. Concern for the community in other words they should not involve themselves in activities that are detrimental to the wellbeing of the community.
The communities that existed in Sri Lanka during the peaceful days in the North and East, had known these values and principles. There were a large number of co-operatives functioning. It is because of the importance of these institutions that successive governments always had a Ministry of Co-operative Development.
This Ministry was responsible for supervising and guiding the various types of Co-operatives Societies such as the Multi-purpose Co-operatives, the Agricultural Co-operative Societies, the Fisheries Co-operative Societies, the Industrial Co-operative Societies, the Thrift and Credit C-operative Societies and others.
Those functions were performed through the Department of Co-operative Development and its Commissioners. There were Assistant Commissioners in each District. With the establishment of the Provincial Councils in 1988, each Province has a Provincial Commissioner of Co-operative Development. It was the duty of this Co-operative Department to audit the accounts of these co-operatives every year.
There are co-operative inspectors working under the Assistant Commissioners. Their functions is to visit these societies regularly and where necessary attend their Board meetings to guide them in taking decisions. One of the important functions of the department is to see that elections are held at regular intervals to choose the members of the Board of Directors of each society. I shall confine my presentation to Thrift and Credit Co-operative Societies (TCCS) which are relevant to the uplift of the war affected women in today’s context.
A District may have a large number of TCCS’s. Every such society needs to have a specified objective or objectives and a defined area of operation. These societies can get together and form a District Society called the District Credit Union with representatives from each TCCS. The District Unions in each Province can send their representatives to a National Federation of District TCCS which will form the apex institution which functions from Colombo .
It is the Federation that deals with the Regional Co-operative Union which has representatives from all the countries in the region as for example the Asian Confederation of Thrift and Credit Co-operative Societies. These regional societies form the World Council of Cooperative Thrift and Credit Societies. Thus you will see there is a network that links the village level TCCS to international co-operative bodies.
At this stage I wish to say a few words on the nature and extent of the societies that functioned during the 1980s in the North. Then there were about 400 such societies, that is, an average of one in almost every village. I was then the Secretary of the District Union in Jaffna and later at the Federation in Colombo as the Coordinator of the TCCSs During the 1980s the Jaffna District had about 400 such societies, that is an average of one in almost every village During the 1980s the Jaffna District had about 400 such societies, that is an average of one in almost every village in the North and the Estate sector.
That was a time when the conflict was brewing in the country. There were several banks operating in the region and many people were depending on credit from these banks to attend to their financial needs. Unfortunately, one by one the Banks were robbed and many branches had to be closed. At one stage around 1985 or so none of the Banks in these districts was operational. The people then had no option but to seek micro credit from the respective TCCSs in the region. TCCSs are legal bodies registered under the co-operative laws of the country. The small savings of these TCCS made at regular instalments of Rs,10/- each in the region totalled to more than Rupees One Million .
This was a big amount those days. The money was in deposit at the account of the District Union . The District Union provides credit from this capital to meet demands from the TCCS in needy areas in the District. Though the District Unions had such a large amount of money it was not lying locked up in the safe. That is because all the capital that was with the Union was being regularly and promptly given out as loans to all its member societies waiting for funds. Such societies would in turn provided credit to its members almost immediately.
So the capital of the Union hardly remained in iron safes or as deposits in Banks but were all safely with the members who paid back their loan instalments regularly. Because of the efficiency with which this Union was functioning it had a healthy relationship with the Federation which in turn was able to transmit the needs of this union to the Asian Confederation.
Thus the TCCSs in the North had a remarkable recognition at Cooperatives at the international level. It needs to be mentioned here that during this time the District Union’s President was the Late Mrs. Vethavalli Kandiah, a leading female social worker of those days and the Secretary of that Union was also a lady.
Most of the members of the TCCSs in the North were also ladies. Fortunately, the Assistant Commissioners of the District at that time and the co-operative inspectors were very enthusiastic and provided all possible assistance to such societies.
However, I am sad to say due to the escalation of the conflict these societies got disorganised and the links got detached. Consequently these TCCS had to limit their activities. We have now decided to re-activate and rejuvenate these organisations and encouraged them to enrol the women victims of the war into their membership.Some are already their members.
The CCD and the TWDF have established links with them and are exploring the possibilities of providing whatever assistance possible for them to commence self employment activities. That is the challenging task that we are facing now. We have already started a pilot project in the Wanni in collaboration with another organisation called the Serendib Children’s Home and have established connections with the District Union of Kilinochchi. Funds have been provided to them for disbursement to TCCS to provide assistance to war affected women members. . Soon we shall be expanding this assistance to cover all the Districts in the North and the East.
Now it is time I gave the reasons why we should work with TCCSs and how we could use them to uplift the war affected women. As you all know from what I have stated so far, that the Co-operative systems provides a legitimate opportunity for persons to get together and have a meeting or a discussion on their own in keeping with the stipulations of the Co-operative law. Any other group of persons meeting for a discussion in the war affected areas would be illegal or will have to done with the approval of the military who are the rulers on these areas.
It is a requirement that the members of the TCCS should meet regularly, every month or so, and discuss matters relating to the objectives of the organisation. If giving loans for self employment is one of the objectives, then the members can meet and decide on who should be given the loan, how much should be given, for what purpose and how the recoveries are to be made. The discussions at the TCCS would provide an opportunity to the members in group dynamics and help to develop leadership qualities. Eventually the members would gain confidence in their own skills. Since every member is obliged to attend meetings, even the person who gets a loan will attend the meeting and that would enable the members to monitor the progress of the project for which the loan had been granted.
Besides, the tendency to default repayment of the loan instalment is minimized as he or she would find it embarrassing to be at the meeting if he had not paid the loan instalment. The regular and prompt collection of the instalments due on each loan would enable other members to benefit from loans out of the monies so received. In other words the revolution of the funds provided to an optimum number of persons is thus assured. Besides the treasurer of the TCCS is obliged to submit a statement of accounts at every meeting. That will enable members to know how much money has been received, how much was spent and how much is remaining. This given the members a training in financial discipline.
The most important point to be noted is that the accounts of the society is bounded to be audited annually by the Department. And if anyone intervenes in the operations of such a society it will be a violation of the co-operative laws. If such a violations takes place at the hands of the Agents of the State the International Co-operative Alliance has a moral obligation to caution the government against such a violation of the internationally accepted co-operative principles. For these reasons, I believe that these co-operatives provide the best way through which women victims of the war could be uplifted.
Now we come to the other questions on why we should encourage the formation of co-operative groups among interested women in the diaspora. We have to take note of the fact that there are large numbers of Tamil woman from Sri Lanka who have taken up residence in the UK .
Many of them are interested in interacting with others who are here under similar circumstances and may wish to help those women affected by the war and living under difficult circumstances in Sri Lanka today. If these women could be organised into groups without any political bias and with common objectives, they can be registered under the co-operative law.
Divisions on political lines have inhibited group formation for common good on the lines of co-operatives. Registering such organisations under the Co-operative laws in the UK would provide an opportunities for these ladies to become members of a society with all the special qualities of Cooperatives world wide. Our ladies here may think there is no need for a cooperative for themselves . But if they form themselves into co-operatives they would be able to link up with co-operatives in Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world and interact with them .
They can even devise ways and means of collaborating with the TCCS in Sri Lanka in any projects that could be of interest to them to help the war victims there. In the process such members here would find an opportunity to develop their own group dynamics and leadership skills.
They would also have an opportunity to speak out their thoughts and have an exchange of opinion on what could be done for their sisters in Sri Lanka . The most important benefit of such a group being formed here lies in the fact that they would be a legal body, registered under the co-operative laws of the UK who would have their voice heard in other co-operative organisations in this country and abroad.
Since there is no Sri Lanka Tamil women’s organisation of this nature in the UK they could become the pioneers in such an effort and contribute to the welfare of the women in Sri Lanka .
(Text of a presentation made on the occasion of the International Women’s Day Meeting hosted by the Tamil Women’s Development Centre in London )