Healing the wounds:

excellent example of the use of social science to inform policy and action


Book Review

Healing the Wounds: Rebuilding Sri Lanka after the War, edited by Dhammika Herath and Kalinga Tudor Silva. Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 132 pages.

by Professor Bonnie KaulNastasi

Healing the Wounds, edited by Professors Dhammika Herath and Kalinga Tudor Silva and published in 2012 by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo and Kandy, Sri Lanka, is based on one and one-half years of research and intervention conducted by an international team of social scientists (from Sri Lanka, Sweden, and USA) in the war-affected northern districts of Vavuniya and Mannar, under the auspices of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) and with funding from United States Institute of Peace (USIP). The book provides readers with critical insights into the personal, social and economic challenges faced by the population living in or displaced from these communities, which can guide policies and actions related to post-war rebuilding and recovery.

Social Networking and Psychological Reconstruction

The first chapter (introduction by DhammikaHerath) describes the Social Networking and Psychosocial Reconstruction program that was the basis for the book. This program combined research and action through social interventions to address the needs of the population in the war-affected Northern Province. The program included training a team of community members to provide counseling (psychosocial support) to other community members, cultural exchange (immersion) aimed at promoting peace and harmony across ethnic groups, and access to mental health services through monthly clinics.

The second chapter (essay by JayadevaUyangoda) describes the ‘solitudes’ experienced by different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka as a result of the war, and calls for a process of political dialogue to take the groups beyond the separate solitudes. Critical to this dialogue are values based in peace, democracy, equality, justice, and fairness, values which Uyangoda claims are "deeply embedded in the collective political consciousness of all ethnic communities, whether Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, or any other" (p. 30). The author asserts that such dialogue is critical to the post-war healing process.

The third chapter (by Kalinga Tudor Silva) describes a demographic imbalance resulting from the war, namely, an excess of females over males, that has the potential to exacerbate the post-war economic and social vulnerabilities in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Drawing on 2011 census conducted in the Northern Province and a study by CARE Sri Lanka in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, Silva citesa 10% decline in the general population from the Northern region. Most notable is the inequity between males and females, reflected in a 15% decrease in male population compared to5% decline for females. Population decline was especially evident for males ages 15 to 49. Silva attributed this decline to war-related mortality and outmigration for reasons of security, education, and employment. Related to the change in sex ratio of males to females is increased economic and social vulnerability of female-headed households, characterized by lower wages for women, increased sense of physical and social insecurity, decrease in marriageability, and potential risk of abuse for young women. Silva concludes with a discussion of the implications for public and private sectors responsible for rebuilding. The cited demographic imbalance requiresparticular attention to ensuring the economic and social security of women and families.

Community break up

The fourth chapter (Herath) describes the concept of ‘community breakup’ from the perspective of members of 40 war-affected villages in Vavuniya and Mannar. The villagers described the drastic social and cultural changes in terms of human, economic and social-cultural ‘losses’ related to the war-related violence and displacement. These losses or changes included economic losses (with the majority of the population is reduced to poverty), loss of formal and informal leaders, decline in religiosity (challenges to religious faith), and loss of emotional supports from religion, social networks, and the previously limited formal system of mental health. Also indicative of community breakup are increases in alcohol abuse and attempts at self-harm or suicide, as well as increased vulnerability of women related to the breakdown of cultural norms. Herath calls for attention to these changes in the social structure during reconstruction, and a reconceptualization of rebuilding as ‘social reconstruction’ rather than social engineering. Furthermore, he underscores the need for culturally and contextually sensitive approaches to reconstruction.

The fifth chapter (by RamilaUsoof-Thowfeek) focuses on the psychosocial well-being of the 500,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who resettled in other parts of the country during the civil war, in some cases experiencing multiple and extended (e.g., 25-30 years) displacements. Based on a culturally relevant survey with 188 IDPs, ages 28 to 78, Usoof-Thowfeek assessed several dimensions of well-being—resources, competence, self-worth, social connections, and participation—and examined the factors that facilitated or hindered achievement of well-being. Viewed as most critical during the initial stages of resettlement were fulfilling basic needs for food, shelter, and health. Most important to enhancing well-being were personal strength and social capital that equipped IDPs to address the economic and social challenges related towar and displacement. Thus, the view of self as competent and the effectiveness of social networks were consideredessential to achieving stability and maintaining psychosocial well-being. The primary constraints were those related to finances, infrastructure, and perceived interference by others. The author concluded that the involvement of community members as partners in the resettlement process, building on both personal strengths and social networks, was fundamental to promote individual and collective agency and facilitating successful psychosocial adjustment.

Healthy adaptation

In the sixth chapter, Nuwan Jayawickreme, ErandaJayawickreme, and Justin Lacasse continue the focus on healthy adaptation to war-related experiences. Reporting on findings from research with 197 people living in Northeastern Sri Lanka, they emphasize the importance of growth experiences related to political violence and displacement. The research revealed two key growth domains within this population—identification of new possibilities and enhanced personal strength—and emphasize the critical role of these domains in understanding human resilience in the face of adversity. The authors conclude with discussion of the critical considerations for researchers, practitioners, and policy makers, including questioning the validity of existing assessment and intervention tools developed in the West for application to the people of Sri Lanka, and advocating for a thorough understanding of wellness and illness from the perspective of the target population.

Forced displacement

In chapter seven, Fazeeha Azmi examined the challenges of second-generation (young adults) Muslim IDPs during reconstruction and resettlement, described as another form of forced displacement. Contrary to one’s expectations, returning ‘home’ is not necessarily the desired option. Respondents defined home in terms of both location and sense of belonging. This sense of belonging was closely tied to identify, attachments, social context, and values. Decisions to return ‘home’ through resettlement were influenced by social relationships, economic considerations, and memories of ‘home’. The author reiterates the importance of involving community members in decision making about resettlement as requisite to achieving peace and economic stability. This chapter provides critical insights into the experiences and perspectives of internally displaced persons who have spent most of their lives away from their place of origin. The findings are based on in-depth interviews and narratives of eight individuals and require further confirmation through additional studies. Nevertheless, Azmi challenges policy makers to question their assumptions about ‘returning home’ in reconstruction efforts.

In the final chapter, Silva summarises for readers the principal lessons learned from the work of this group of social scientists, reminding us that ‘healing’ the wounds of war is a complex process that occurs at both individual and collective levels. Based on this chapter, readers are asked to consider the following questions as they engage in discussions and decisions about reconstruction following the 30-year civil war in Sri Lanka: How do individuals conceptualize suffering? To what extent are the impacts of war related to conflict-related violence and displacement, both of which can be protracted and cyclical? Is trauma, as conceived in the West, a universal and equivalent phenomenon? In conclusion, Silva reminds us that reconstruction is not limited to rebuilding the economic and physical infrastructure of the community, but is also a social and political process that requires attention to individual psychosocial needs, community involvement, and addressing the roots of conflict. These are lessons not only for Sri Lanka but for other countries affected by war.

This book is an excellent example of the use of social science to inform policy and action as we approach the rebuilding of lives affected by war, and traumas more generally. The contributors illuminate for us critical considerations related to personal, social, cultural, economic, and political realities of ‘healing’ and reconstruction. They also highlight the imperative for social scientists and policy makers to avoid universal solutions to problems and instead seek culturally and contextually relevant answers. Perhaps the most important lesson from this work is that individuals affected by war and other traumas need to be partners in the solutions.

Reviewed By Professor Bonnie KaulNastasi, Department of Psychology, School of Science and Engineering,Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. She has conducted a series of studies on psychosocial needs of youth and children in Sri Lanka.


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