Striving for Dignity

Lack of a better tomorrow in Sri Lanka’s North

August 31, 2023
Mullaitivu Vavuniya - Striving for dignity
UNDP Sri Lanka


In the towns of Mulliyawalai and Vavuniya, two women, Kasthuri and Rajini Yaseedaran, navigate the harsh realities of life amidst economic struggles, displacement and personal hardships. As they face daily challenges, their stories shed light on the pressing need for stability and support while highlighting the resilience of the human spirit.

Kasthuri, a 33-year-old mother living in Mulliyawalai, Mullaitivu, has lived a nomadic existence due to the ravages of war. Settling in this small town with her husband and five-year-old son, the family relies on her husband's irregular income from odd jobs such as cutting grass and picking fruit for other people in the area. However, their earnings are meagre and insufficient to meet even the most basic of needs.

Proudly stating that everyone in her family possesses strong minds and bodies, Kasthuri acknowledges the necessity of resilience for survival. Their limited education, with Kasthuri and her husband completing Grades 4 and 3, respectively, adds to their challenges. The absence of a stable income source leaves them vulnerable, particularly during periods of dry weather or seasonal changes when they receive no income at all. With this plaguing uncertainty in their lives, it is a significant challenge to plan for meals and secure essential resources.

Kasthuri and her husband have witnessed the impacts of conflict, instability and poverty in Sri Lanka, particularly in the war-torn North. Having faced multiple displacements, they struggle to find a place to call ‘home,’ constantly seeking shelter and safety from institutions threatening their well-being. Amidst the turmoil, Kasthuri fondly recalls a time when they found solace in a camp providing much-needed food and respite from hunger. Yet, their circumstances have not significantly improved, and they continue to endure the burdens of poverty. While they have weathered the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent poly-crisis, living hand-to-mouth has been a lifelong reality, making it difficult for them to discern any tangible changes.

Despite their hardships, Kasthuri and her husband do not receive significant support from the government or their larger community. In dire times, some employers offer rice, flour, sugar and other resources, providing a temporary reprieve. However, when asked about the future of Sri Lanka, Kasthuri and her husband came up blank, only providing an instinctive shrug and scoff. ‘It's hard for us to imagine a Sri Lanka that is in any way positive, well-meaning and free of poverty. We just want to live a life of dignity and respect, one that we don't have to suffer through every day,’ Kasthuri said, earnestly.  

Meanwhile, in Vavuniya, 57-year-old Rajini Yaseedaran navigates the challenges of single-handedly providing for her 15-year-old daughter while coping with her own health issues. Rajini, originally from Karawanella, Sabaragamuwa, relocated to Vavuniya after her husband met with a tragic accident. She used to work as a seamstress in a factory, but her current circumstances and the unsafe neighbourhood she resides in have forced her to put her daughter's safety first, leaving her struggling to find employment and income.  

Facing the weight of health concerns, including hypertension and diabetes, Rajini also grapples with her daughter's heart condition. With limited financial means, she can only afford an echocardiogram test for her daughter once every three years, with the next one approaching soon. While the government partially covers the expenses, the two-personed family’s financial pressures persist.

Rajini's experiences during the Easter attacks brought back memories of the emotional and political impacts of past conflicts. However, the financial toll of the attacks, coupled with her husband's passing, further strained her already challenging circumstances. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated their hardships, leaving them without an income and struggling to secure proper meals. During this time, the local church provided essential rations, offering a temporary lifeline amidst the crisis. Rajini's community, including her sister, rallied to provide support during the subsequent poly-crisis. It is in these acts of kindness and solidarity that Rajini finds hope and resilience.

Looking ahead, Rajini awaits the day when her country experiences true improvement. She believes that only when the nation progresses, will its people and systems follow suit, providing the stability and support she and others like her desperately need.

As the sun sets on Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, the struggles faced by Kasthuri and Rajini remind us of the urgent need for stable incomes, access to resources, and supportive communities. Their stories resonate with countless individuals and families across Sri Lanka, emphasizing the necessity of addressing economic disparities and offering a glimmer of hope for a brighter future marked by dignity and resilience. 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the individual. This interview was conducted in June 2023 and the individual was a respondent of the National Citizen Survey 2022-3.