Sister Nichola Emmanuel regularly walks across her war-damaged Mannar Diocese in northern Sri Lankan to meet Tamil families headed by women. She gives practical help and encouragement to the widows, whose husbands died during nearly three decades of civil conflict with Sri Lankan security forces. The secessionist conflict began in 1983 and ended with the defeat of Tamil Tiger insurgents in 2009, with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 people killed. The civil war resulted in 90,000 war widows in the north and east of the country. Sister Emmanuel now supports 100 "women headed" families to rebuild livelihoods and educate their children.
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The 70-year-old nun from the congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Mary and Joseph, worked originally with refugees at the sprawling Menik Farm camp setup by the Sri Lankan Government in 2009 in Vavuniya, Northern Province. About 200,000 internally displaced people were sent there. "I looked after people in their spiritual activities like Sunday Mass and helped those who were injured and admitted to hospitals," she said. There had been restrictions on people going to hospitals, which had to be overcome, she added. "We helped them by providing food, clothes and medication with the help of the church," she said. Various NGOs donated medical supplies. A Sri Lankan Tamil, Somanathan, came from Australia to Menik Farm in 2010 to provide refugees with financial and other forms of assistance. He continued to visit and assist even after the refugees were resettled in 2012. Sister Emmanuel also started a child development initiative five years ago to help children overcome the trauma of war. Sister Nichola Emmanuel (left) listens to women who are bread earners for their family, in Puthumathalan. (Photo supplied)
As well as offering livelihood and educational support, she now seeks legal aid for women whose husbands or sons "disappeared." "I face many challenges when I take part in demonstrations with the families of disappeared people and political prisoners," she said. Some army personnel kept her under surveillance because of her defense of human rights. She has also offered psychological therapy to women traumatized by the civil war. Mary Stella, 47, has three sons. Her husband died during the last stage of the war and she was sent to Menik Farm before returning to her native place, Puthukudirippu, in 2012. Sister Emmanuel provided her with assistance, including food. "After that she sent 10 girls and boys to help us to clean the place," Stella said. Sister Emmanuel also gave money to dig a well and erect fencing. Provisions from the nun such as egg-laying chickens and sewing machines enabled her to earn money. Others were assisted to open their own grocery shops. "She treats us like a mother," Stella said. Despite an end to the war, Sri Lanka's military still occupies nearly 19,000 hectares of land claimed by Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east. Sri Lanka's new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, estimated Northern Province, which bore the brunt of the three decades of conflict, has an astonishing 50,000 families headed by single women.