Protect Wilpattu Park and the Mobility Right of Internally Displaced Women
We, the undersigned call on the Government to take immediate action to prevent the destruction of the Wilpattu National Park, while continuing to provide access through the road from Puttalam to Mannar via the park. We believe that through taking corrective measures the Government can ensure that both issues are addressed in order to protect the rights of the expelled Northern Muslims and the ecology and natural heritage of the area.
We call upon the Government to ensure that steps are taken to maintain an access way through the park as it is vital for civilians in the area, especially displaced women and their families. We are requesting restricted access. When the road was reopened in January 2010 to facilitate the Muslim IDPs return to Mannar mainland, particularly to Musali DS division, there were many restrictions to protect the park (for instance, the road was kept open for public use only from 6.30am to 3.30pm and the speed limit was restricted to maximum 20km/h. Further, every 100 yards there were navy and military personnel stationed by the road guarding the park. Despite these safeguards, one wonders how it can be argued that the park is exploited and animals are harmed only by the IDPs.
This road provides easy and low cost access from Puttalam to Musali in Southern Mannar as the alternate route that goes via Medawachchiya takes double the time (Puttalam- Medawachchiya – Marichchukadi 235km vs Puttalam – Wilpattu – Marichchukadi – 77km) and triple the cost (Rs. 320 to vs. Rs. 100). We’d like to point out that a saving of Rs. 220 per trip makes a considerable difference to the IDPS who are struggling to have one meal a day- the saving means they can have an extra meal, especially after the destruction from the recent floods which also affected areas in mainland Mannar.
On humanitarian grounds, we are appealing to the Government and the Wildlife Authorities to allow reasonable use of this old Mannar Road. We are not requesting that a new highway is built through the park and are content to use the existing road. We support the handing over of the administration of the park to the relevant wildlife authorities, while at the same time provide access to IDPs. Before the closure of this road in May 1985, people utilised this road while the guards appointed by the park authorities and during the internal armed conflict, the military, oversaw the use of this road by the population of these areas.
A women’s group has been accessing the road a few times since it was reopened in January 2010. On a couple of visits, elderly women who had lived in the adjoining villages accompanied the members of the women’s group.
These visits have helped us understand the importance of the road, especially from the perspective of women, since the population most affected by the closure of the road are women and children. Though the temporary closure of this road due to the rain in September 2010 put an end to such visits, the women’s group has sufficient information to demand the mobility rights of the IDP women and their families. The narratives and experiences of IDP women are highlighted below:
• It was the Muslims from Musali division in Mannar who began to return to their places of origin (Musali) from Puttalam, where they lived with as IDPs for more than two decades.
This was made all the more possible because the Wilpattu (or old Mannar) road was reopened after about thirty years. Access to their places of origin via this road made it possible for them to return, with the belief that they have mobility between Puttalam and Musali. It was a historical moment for the women to have mobility via old Mannar road between these two places that they are comfortable to move around and feel safe.
• Basic facilities like water, shelter, sanitation, health and education are not available in the resettlement areas, including the interiors of Musali. Pregnant women and women with small children undergo immense suffering and face difficulties to meet their existential needs when they returned to their places of origins. Hence, the return of the entire family is taking longer than expected with some family members, most often the men folk and also some women, moving to the resettlement areas while the children remain in Puttalam while the educational facilities in the return areas are being reconstructed. Thus, the road has become a crucial means through which access basic services. Spending an additional Rs 220 on a regular basis
is beyond their means, especially when their livelihoods have not yet been restored.
Moreover, traveling via the longer route is impossible for a pregnant woman, especially if she is in her early or later months of pregnancy. Hence, her right to mobility is denied with the closure of the road. Another concern is increasing snake bites since the resettlement areas are infested with snakes and closure of the road would restrict the ability of the IDPs to have
quick access to medical treatment.
• Since the mobility of women has been restricted by the temporary closure of the road, women have become more dependent on the male members of their families resulting in the reinforcement of traditional norms and gender roles, in the form of women staying back at home to look after household work while men have mobility and access to resources.
Women’s safety is once again at risk, given that most male members are away for many weeks from Puttalam camps to resettlement areas in Musali in order to rebuild their livelihoods and houses.
• Another aspect that affects the women the most is the lack of support structures, such as neighbours and relatives, in the resettled areas. For example, a single woman living with her children in the resettled area, used to have support from her relatives living in Puttalam who visited each other frequently when the road was open. This is no longer possible and single women have been once again place in a vulnerable category.
We are greatly perturbed by reports in the media that the Wilpattu Park is being destroyed as a result of illegal felling, mining and the construction of new roads through the park. Wilpattu Park is a unique habitat for both fauna and flora and needs to be protected. As people of the area we recognize its value. We call on the Government to take steps to ensure the Park is not further destroyed. We feel that a balance has to be and can be found between the demands of the people of the area and nature by providing reasonable access through one road through the park. Access roads through national parks are not unusual either in Sri Lanka or internationally and we fully recognize that measures will have to be taken to ensure that the wildlife and the forest are not negatively impacted by the movement of civilians.
While reiterating the right of access through the road, women’s groups have no objection to place limitations, as required, regulating the access in terms of nature of vehicles and time of opening of the road.
After twenty years of displacement and living and suffering in welfare camps in Puttalam the Northern Muslim community has started moving to their places of origins and access through this road is one critical step to support this process and allow them to exercise and enjoy their rights!
Dated: March 13th 2011
-Jensila Majeed (Community Trust Fund - Vavuniya, Puttalam and Mannar)
-Juwairiya Mohideen (Unity Lanka International - Puttalam)
-Priyadarshini Thangarajah (Women’s Action Network)
-Luies Rebekka (Women Rural Development Society Chavatkaddu -Mannnar)
-Edward Lourdsmery (Wwomen Rural Development Society Eluthoor - Mannar)
-Jeyaram Junisha (Women Rural Development Society Uppukulam North - Mannar)
-Athisayarajah Sugeevini (Women Rural Development Society Chavatkaddu-Mannar)
-Vijayakumar Mery Rubitta (Women Rural Development Society Santhipuram-Mannar)