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Few jobs for high achievers in former Sri Lanka war zone

Northern Province gets top exam results but offers few prospects

<p>A student stands in a house damaged during the war in the Mamaduwa area, Vavuniya district. (photo by Amantha Perera)</p>

A student stands in a house damaged during the war in the Mamaduwa area, Vavuniya district. (photo by Amantha Perera)

  • Amantha Perera, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • May 30, 2014
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When results of Sri Lanka’s 2013 national university entrance exams were released last December, education officials in the former war-torn Northern Province had reason to be proud.

Of the 16,604 students from the north who sat for the exams, 63.8 percent obtained the minimum requirement to gain entry into national universities.

“It is a tough exam, very competitive, [and] for students from a region where just four years before there was a war to perform like this, it is a magnificent achievement,” said Sivalingam Sathyaseelan, Secretary to the provincial Ministry of Education.

The Northern Province topped the national list in terms of provincial performance, according to Sathyaseelan. However, he admitted that like many positive developments in the former war zone, the North’s exemplary performance on university entrance exams comes with a Catch-22.

“Most of those who have preformed well or go on to become graduates are unlikely to gain jobs in the north that are commensurate with their qualifications,” he said.

The reason? Few such jobs exist.

Since the end of the war, the Northern Province has lagged behind in terms of job creation despite numerous large infrastructure projects such as construction of highways and railway lines. Indeed, the Sri Lankan government estimates that it has spent over US$3 billion in reconstruction efforts over the last five years. Yet the jobs associated with these projects are not filtering down to local residents. 

In Kilinochchi and Mannar districts – the only northern districts where employment data is available – unemployment rates are more than twice the national average of 4 percent.

Sathyaseelan said that while government and non-government institutions have done their best to provide the province’s youth with adequate skills, there has been a major lack of job creation by the private sector.

“There are very few private sector jobs available here, [and] the youth, especially educated youth, want jobs in the private sector,” said Sathyaseelan.

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, principal researcher at the Point Pedro Institute for Development in Jaffna, said that part of the problem was that “the private sector was not given primacy in the development process”.

“The overall post-civil war development strategy has been state-driven, public investment dominated and public infrastructure led,” said Sarvananthan. “To date there is no targeted incentive scheme by the government for the private sector to invest and generate employment in the north and east.”

“The government is [more] keen to provide tax exemptions and concessions to betting and gaming projects [in the south] and duty-free imports of sports cars to promote car racing events rather than for employment generation in the former conflict-affected regions,” he said.

“More and more people are looking for jobs now [in the North], but there are no jobs that meet the demand. Because the area was neglected for so long, a big effort is needed to revitalize industries,” said Ramalingam Sivaparasgam, a national project coordinator for the International Labor Organization.

The disparity between the number of high performing graduates and the inability of the job market to absorb them is just one indication of the challenges facing post-war development in the former war zone.

While there have been significant achievements such as the rebuilding of the northern railway line, the resettling of more than 420,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and getting the education system back on track, these successes have not come without some criticism.

In March, the Durable Solutions Promotions Group (DSPG), a coalition of international organizations and agencies, released an update noting that “although the government has worked hard to bring in internationally financed brick and mortar development projects...as well as pushed hard to rid residential areas of mines and UXOs, little has been done to ensure that IDPs were and are involved in rebuilding their lives”.

“This includes lack of choice in where [IDPs] live and the opportunities available to make a living," said DSPG, adding that little has been done to address the myriad "complex" issues affecting displaced individuals and communities.

Take for instance permanent housing. According to UN-Habitat, there is a need for 143,268 new home units in the north. However, agency data shows that there is only funding available for 75,199 units. And that’s not all. According to the DSPG report, an additional 20,000 units need to be constructed in the country’s east as well.

Jagath Abeysinghe, President of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRC), which is overseeing the construction of 20,000 new houses in the region, said that such a large funding need was difficult to address through international fund-raising alone.

“We should look at raising the funds nationally,” he said, adding that the government and donor partners should have launched a much more aggressive fund-raising campaign shortly after the war ended.

There are similar concerns regarding the high number of IDPs living with host families or in transit shelters.

“Our estimation of the total number of IDPs in Sri Lanka, including those with host families, host communities, and in camps or welfare centers, is up to 90,000,” said Anne-Kathrin Glatz, Sri Lanka Country Analyst at the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. “The problem is that their numbers and situation are not comprehensively being monitored, so it is difficult to provide a [specific] number.”

Due to insufficient monitoring, aid workers say it is difficult to adequately assess the needs of these communities.

The lack of employment opportunities and inadequate housing can make life particularly difficult for vulnerable groups such as single, female-headed households, said Saroja Sivachandran, who heads the Center for Women and Development in the northern city Jaffna.

Sivachandran estimates that there are as many as 50,000 female-headed households in the Northern Province.

“Overall assistance has been dwindling in the last two years, and there are hardly any programs targeting desperate groups like single female-headed households,” she said. Many find it difficult to secure jobs, especially those living in interior rural villages.

The result is that these women – whose husbands or partners were killed in the war – are struggling to make ends meet. And as jobs remain scarce and women are forced to travel longer and farther to look for them, their families also face new threats, the DSPG report warned.

There is a “clear indication” that children of female-headed households are “the most vulnerable to sexual abuse”, the report added.

“What we need is to identify these women as a separate highly vulnerable community and have targeted assistance programs [and] a staff working with them,” said Sivachandran. 

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