Issue 9 - Article 4

How Female Heads of Household Cope with Conflict: an exploratory study in Sri Lanka and Cambodia

November 1, 1997
Dieneke van der Wijk, Save the Children Fund (UK) in Sri Lanka

Origin and purpose of the research

Research was carried out in 1996-1997 among female-headed households in four mostly agricultural villages, two in the north-east of Sri Lanka and two in the north-west of Cambodia. The purpose was to understand how conflict has changed the lives of these women and what impact it has had on their sense of identity.

The setting

The Sri Lankan and Cambodian conflicts have in common the ‘brain drain’ of skilled people, multiple displacement resulting in a loss of assets, weak or absent government service infrastructure, ongoing insecurity, restrictions on movements and a great number of female-headed households. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge’s deliberate policy to destroy family bonds has led to mistrust among people, a self-centered survival strategy, and a ‘culture of silence’ about individual experiences. Women in Cambodia are also at risk from landmines, and threatened by domestic violence, divorce or abandonment. In Sri Lanka the conflict has led to distrust and prejudices among ethnic communities.

The methodology

The research sought to understand women’s coping strategies through their own eyes. Participatory Rural Appraisal tools, drawings, role plays and discussions were used to stimulate spontaneous group exchanges. The women themselves added singing and dancing. Trust in and an equal relationship with the facilitator was crucial to move from contextual events to more personal and sensitive topics such as women’s feelings about their ex- or late husbands, and their personal sense of identity. Drawings and role play were used to create a relaxed atmosphere and as an informal opportunity for women to recognise similar experiences and feelings amongst each other. One such drawing is the ‘Perfect woman versus the widow of the village’, which enabled the women to reflect on the work, the thoughts and the feelings of these different models. In role plays they demonstrated their experiences, such as humiliation at security checkpoints, memories of their husbands being taken away from home at night and killed, or how their husbands had beaten them. Women also showed their different feelings using body maps, in which they located where and how they felt anger, fear, sadness and happiness. The direction and speed of the group sessions were very much led by the women and their reactions were constantly reflected upon.

The impact of conflict on women and their strategies for coping

Safety and Security

The instability of conflict leads to increased harassment from armed men. Women are very cautious about their interactions with men in general. They keep a distance and avoid entering their houses as this might stigmatise them as prostitutes. In periods of heightened insecurity they prefer to pass checkpoints in groups. The Cambodian women were more relaxed than their Sri Lankan counterparts, they did not speak about their political views and the distress caused by the armed forces. In addition, the women do not feel secure at home, as their temporary houses are flimsy and they have no man to protect them. Their main concern is to protect their children.

Loss of services and resources

Women are generally angry and frustrated with the government’s failure to provide adequate health and education services. The poor service infrastructure makes them vulnerable, forcing them to travel further and longer and increasing their worries about their children’s future. They are more prepared to go and complain when a government servant visits the village, as they are made to feel inferior when they go to the local government offices to do so.

Displacement left many of the women with little more than some kitchen utensils and a mat to sleep on; female-headed households tend to borrow utensils from each other. Of more concern is the loss of bigger resources which may force them into dependency of a moneylender. The loss of identity cards, birth and land certificates, and the difficulty in obtaining death allowances and entitlements, decreases their safety and deprives them and their children of their rights to return to previous settlements and enrolment in school.

Economic position

The women struggle financially. They lack the money to hire labourers and equipment needed to cultivate. The absence of a husband has also changed their role in the family and blurred the socially accepted gender division of labour that was the basis of community respect. The women adapt by using different strategies. Where possible they try to ‘make do’ in their day-to-day work. This allows them to look after the children. It is relatively safe as the women remain in their home environment and so are not stigmatised. But women are also forced to take over their husband’s previous tasks. Now they inevitably need help of the children and the money lender. While engaged in these tasks, the women perform in male dominated spheres and often experience gender-based humiliation.

Migration abroad is not considered as an option by Cambodian women. But women in north-east Sri Lanka are discovering that temporary work in the Middle-East provides opportunities to increase future prospects for their children. Personal risks are not considered. Finally, sometimes women may engage in new and socially unacceptable jobs like selling illicit liquor (Sri Lanka) and smuggling goods (Cambodia). As a result of these changes and their degraded status in society, the community stigmatises the women and they are labelled as being ‘after men’.


Lack of food creates tensions with the children and it can remind them of the husband/father for various reasons: husbands used to bring home food at difficult times, they used to discipline the children when they proved unmanageable, and eating was the time when husband and wife sat together and talked. The women now tend not to eat food the lost family members liked.

Changes in family structure

Although the women feel unable to deal with the changed status and perception in the community, they are proud that they raise their children on their own. Children become the main supporters in the family’s economic and emotional survival, which often forces them to drop out of school. As children grow older they may become restricted in their movements and tasks; the girls for traditional reasons like ‘coming of age’, and boys for fear of arrest or forced recruitment. The wider kingroup, as the family’s main support and protection system, has become less effective because of the lower status held by female heads of households, the reduction also of kin because of the conflict and, especially in Cambodia, the breakdown of trust relationships. As a result an alternative social network of female heads of households tends to develop, in which women feel a strong bond, find recognition and can share resources.

Death and domestic violence

None of the women were able to hold a funeral for the dead members. This made acceptance of the death more difficult, especially for disappeared spouses whose fate is unknown. Most women ended their search for answers about the dead or disappeared after five years, due to a lack of money, the humiliation and verbal sexual harassment from security officers, and a disbelief that their husbands were still living.

“I opened my heart and showed my wound inside, after doing all the exercises I feel that the heavy thing in my heart has gone.”

The women in Cambodia reported an increase in domestic violence, and divorce or abandonment. This is a consequence of conflict-induced community problems, such as a higher ratio of women to men, the lack of education and moral upbringing of men during the Pol Pot era, alcohol and the availability of weapons. The women tend to be passive receivers of the beatings.

Mental coping strategies

The women’s personal experiences are reflected in feelings which are mostly felt at night and disturb their sleep. Women ranked anger as their strongest feeling, followed by fear, worries, helplessness and happiness, which is least felt.

Using body maps, women showed the beating of their hearts, fainting, shaking of arms and legs, inability to walk and urinate or defecate. The women seek support, especially from their children, from relatives and neighbours who give practical advice, and in religion that provides a space to reflect and pray for help. The meetings also provided a space to talk and relax.

Programme implications

A key conclusion from the research is that agency interventions should provide both economic and emotional support. Care should be taken with an individualistic Western model of counselling (see Summerfield, 1996).

The participatory meetings were received with great enthusiasm. In the evaluations the women said they enjoyed the meetings for two reasons: they were able to share their experiences and found a space to relax. The meetings built up mutual recognition, trust, strength and solidarity among the women, which was noted when a follow up evaluation was done three months later.

Women heads of households are strong survivors that take responsibility and make decisions for their families within the boundaries of their understanding, capabilities and situational context. It is important that programmes are built on people’s strengths to help them regain control over their lives which will improve their confidence and self-esteem on a personal and collective level.

However, developing the strengths of one particular group in a community might cause tension with other actors in the community, because different dynamics exist between individuals based on gender, age and spatial considerations. Sufficient contextual understanding of relationships is therefore needed.

The participatory meetings built up mutual recognition, trust, strength and solidarity among the women, which was noted when a follow up evaluation was done three months later.

Dieneke van der Wijk

Further reading

Summerfield, D. (1996) The Impact of War and Atrocities on Civilian Populations: Basic Principles for NGO Interventions and a Critique of Psychosocial Trauma Projects. London, ODI, Relief and Rehabilitation Network Paper no. 14.

van der Wijk, D. (1997) Using Participatory Group Activities to Understand Psycho-Social Strategies for Coping with Conflict. PLA Notes, June 1997, London, International Institute for Environment and Development.

The full report: ‘The Human Side of Conflict. Coping strategies of women heads of households in four villages in Sri Lanka and Cambodia’, D. van der Wijk, can be obtained from:
Gender and Learning Team at Oxfam
274 Banbury Road
Oxford, United Kingdom
Tel. +44 (0)1865 311 311


Comments are available for logged in members only.