The Organisation for Eelam Refugees Rehabilitation (OfERR) is an organization of Tamil refugees supporting Tamil refugees both in India and those who have and continue to return home to Sri Lanka. 70,000 refugees continue to live in camps in the Tamil Nadu province of India, which have been home to some of the refugees for more than 30 years since the first Tamils arrived in 1983.
One of the keys to OfERR’s success in its programs is its focus on empowering women. “The men were disoriented by the change in their life situation when they arrived in the refugee camps,” said S C Chandrahassan, OfERR’s founder. “So women took on the burden.”
The role of women in the organization has continued to grow throughout its history. As more of OfERR’s work focused on women, more women got involved. In 1996, 70% of the staff and management of OfERR were women.
“Women think of a permanent home,” said Chandrahassan. “Women are more careful with their money, so in the camps, it is the female head of the household who receives money from the government.” This led to a significant economic change as women instead of men were in charge of the money.
One of the ways OfERR has worked with women in the camps is to create and promote “Self-Help Groups” (SHGs). These groups bring small groups of women together to engage in micro-credit loans within their group. The women then used the loans to start small businesses to support their families.
As the program grew, SHGs began to meet at the regional and district level as well. Members of the groups took on leadership roles, received training, and developed decision making and policy making skills. Leaders of the SHGs came to have input into the refugee camp coordinating committees.
This grassroots level training has helped the women to look beyond being refugees to their roles in their communities when they return to Sri Lanka. They are thinking about democratic rights and responsibilities, and about how to rebuild their communities and ensure that their families and neighbours are able to support themselves when they are back home.
Today, there are about 480 SHGs in the camps in India. Most of them are made up of women, although a few men have taken the women as role models and joined the groups themselves. The SHGs are now able to take loans from banks to allow their members access to more capital, saving them from predatory loan sharks who charge exorbitant levels of interest on loans to refugees.
The Tamil refugee women have grown to take charge in their households, in their Self-Help Groups, and to take on significant leadership in their communities.