Living in fear: Sri Lanka's Tamil women

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It’s been two-and-a-half years since the end of Sri Lanka’s war against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Though the government claims to have restored peace in the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern provinces, much progress remains to be made. A recent report released by the International Crisis Group (ICG) highlights insecurities of Tamil women in the island country.

The 30-year-long civil war caused much suffering to Tamil women who were already part of a strong patriarchal system. The ICG’s report, which was released last week, suggests that while the decline of the LTTE has brought many positive changes in the lives of Tamil women, it has also ushered in a fresh set of challenges.
Heavy militarisation
Various independent reports studying the final stages of the war have accused the Sri Lankan government’s Sinhalese troops of using rape as a weapon of war. One of the most shocking among them was the Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, which showed video footage of Sinhalese troops making lewd, sexual comments over the naked corpses of Tamil women.
Horrid tales of sexual assaults by Sinhalese troops have dominated accounts of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government. Despite this, there still remains a heavy military presence in the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern provinces.
“Women often have to rely on male Sinhalese soldiers for information, goods and services… All of this compounds women’s exposure to risks,” the ICG’s report says. Heavy militarisation in the region is causing lack of security among Tamil women, who fear being sexually abused by Sinhalese soldiers.
Economic challenges
The ratio of Tamil men to women has been skewed because thousands of Tamil men died or disappeared during the war. Of those who survived, many have fallen prey to alcoholism. “[The war] has resulted in tens of thousands of female-headed households in the north and east,” the ICG reports.
The lack of a male bread winner has put the onus of running the houshold squarely on the shoulders of Tamil women, who until now were used to staying home and taking care of their families according to the old patriarchal structures. Looking for employment opportunities in a post-conflict society has become a major challenge for these women.
Sex work
The pressures of day-to-day survival have led many women into prostitution. An activist, who does not wish to be named, fearing retaliation from the Sri Lankan government, is quoted in the report as saying, “There are definitely cases of Vanni (a region in the Northern province) women being promised work in the south and ending up in brothels or sexually abused on the way to garment factories where the terms and conditions are not what they were told.”
Many reports of Tamil girls ending up in the brothels of the south have surfaced in the media recently. “Like all sex workers in Sri Lanka and most other countries, the Tamil women who find themselves in prostitution face serious risks of violence, disease and social ostracism,” the reports says.
The road ahead
Earlier last week, the Sri Lankan government issued a public release of the report of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). While the report is still being studied by the United Nations, the government has received an encouraging pat on the back for the move.
But critics say the report doesn’t delve deep into the truth. On the Groundviews website, a citizen journalist forum, reporter Gibson Bateman called it “a document that looks to the future, exonerates the military, does not touch on the question of accountability and includes some touchy-feely language about the country’s need to move forward, celebrate its diversity and be grateful for the defeat of terrorism.”  
Against this back drop, the prospects of a better life for women in the North and East seem a distant reality. The question remains whether a government which refuses to be held wholly accountable for committing crimes against its civilians can be expected to better the lives of its vulnerable populations.   
This story was originally published on 27 December 2011.