By Melanie Brooks, CARE Communications Coordinator
I forgot to call my mother on Mother’s Day this year, but for once, I think she would understand. I spent Mother’s Day weekend in the camps for people affected by the conflict in northern Sri Lanka, listening to the stories of mothers trying to care for their children – and themselves – after living through the nightmare of war. Since October, 2008, nearly 270,000 people have fled the conflict, having spent months on the run, with no clean water, no shelter, barely any food.
Most of them ended up here, in the sprawling tented transit camps outside the small rural town of Vavuniya in Northern Sri Lanka. So many people fled the conflict zone in such a short period of time that there aren’t enough tents; some people are living two to three families a tent, living cheek by jowl with strangers. The next tent is about four metres away; ‘privacy’ is often no more than a sarong strung from the roof of the tent. Wherever we go, my female colleague and I are instantly surrounded by dozens of women, some cradling infants, some elderly, some heavily pregnant, all fanning themselves in the 38C heat.
Small children, hugging their mothers’ legs, peered up at us. Like most emergencies I’ve worked in, the majority of the aid workers in the camps are men. Long hours away from home makes it difficult for many local women to work in the camps, and the language barrier means people can’t talk to a foreigner like me without a local woman to translate. So when we arrived, the women shooed the men away, eager to tell their stories to another woman. Their requests are basic: maternity clothes for pregnant women; kitchen utensils; nursing towels for mothers to breastfeed their babies; clothing for their children.
If you’re not living in a camp, you can’t realize how much of a difference these small things would make. If you’re sharing a tent with strangers, having a nursing towel means you can breastfeed your baby with some kind of privacy. A simple bathing area with water taps surrounded by thick plastic sheeting for walls means you don’t have to wash fully clothed next to your tent, surrounded by strangers, with nothing but your sodden, clinging dress protecting you from unwelcome stares. And in a camp of tens of thousands of people, where nothing is private, the simple provision of sanitary napkins and panties is a small gesture that makes life for a woman a little more normal. In the conflict zone, women were using scraps of cloth, which were impossible to keep clean. Still, the shortage of water is a problem; women are waiting in line as long as four hours a day just to get their daily needs for their families. And like women everywhere, Sri Lankan women serve themselves last, which means the extra water needed to clean yourself during your menstrual cycle is one more drain on a limited water supply. I don’t think anyone can understand the importance of dignity, until you imagine what it’s like to live without it.
CARE is working to answer these women’s requests, building more emergency shelters so families can live in privacy, providing sanitary napkins and children’s clothes, and trucking in more water so women don’t have to sacrifice their needs for those of their families. This Mother’s Day, I gave a pack of infant clothes, baby lotions, diapers and a mosquito net to a woman who had carried her six-month-old daughter above her head as she waded through neck-deep water in her desperate escape from the war zone. She and all the other women displaced by this conflict deserve more than this, but it’s a start. Because being able to provide for and comfort your children, she explained to me, is what makes you a mother. No matter where you are.