Tamil women in Sri Lanka continue to face the risk of rape and harassment by Sri Lankan security forces and have been negatively impacted by a surge of violence against women in the North, according to a report released last week.
“The Forever Victims? Tamil Women in Post-War Sri Lanka” stated the “situation remains particularly grave for Tamil women”, 6 years since the end of the armed conflict on the island.
“Tamil women in Northern Sri Lanka still face the risk of rape and harassment by the security forces present throughout the region, but their lives are even more negatively impacted by the climate of fear and by a worrying uptick in violence against women within the Tamil community,” said the report. “The ever-present threat of violence by the military has led women to lead tightly circumscribed lives, limiting their daily activities in order to minimize their risk of sexual assault.”
Authored by Nimmi Gowrinathan, the Director of the Politics of Sexual Violence Initiative and a Visiting Professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College New York and Kate Cronin-Furman, a human rights lawyer and political scientist, it is based on a series of interviews across the former conflict zones.
It “uncovered a very disturbing dynamic, in which efforts to protect women from sexual violence end up undermining their political and economic agency, making them even more vulnerable to victimization”.
For Tamil women “the last six years have brought lives circumscribed by the threat of violence and ever-diminishing economic opportunities”.
Noting that “rape by state forces remains a highly salient concern,” the report continued to state:
“Militarization has meant both the omnipresent possibility of sexual violence by state security forces, and the deterioration of community networks. Many Tamil women have been raped by Sri Lankan military, especially in the immediate post-war period, but many more have seen their activities constrained by the climate of fear. And while the rate of sexual violence perpetrated by security forces against Tamil women has declined (but not disappeared), earlier violations remain unaddressed, and the strictures on women’s lives have only been further entrenched.”
The report also examined violence that women face from within the Tamil community. A Jaffna University professor was quoted as saying a contributory factor to the apparent rise in violence was the “complete breakdown of social networks, a well-known strategy of counter-terrorism, where you now see those who have been in detention a long time becoming perpetrators of sexual violence.” “A rise in alcoholism, that some blame on state-run liquor shops popping up on every corner, coupled with a general sense of powerlessness amongst Tamil men has altered behaviors in ways that most acutely affect Tamil women,” the report continued.
Transactional and exploitative sex was also explored in the report, stating that abandoned buildings in Jaffna facilitated “pop-up prostitution by amateur pimps, capitalizing on space and the insecure position of Tamil women”. “The police presence around these homes indicates the quiet complicity, if not outright collaboration of state forces,” it added. “The “clients” range from high-level politicians to low-ranking soldiers.”
Efforts to supposedly improve women’s’ wellbeing, by both the stage and NGOs, “further undermine their political and economic power” the report added.
Former LTTE cadres faced particular risks, outlined the report.” The risks of any public presence are particularly high for ex-combatant women,” it said. “Six years after the war, many are afraid to discuss their experiences, opinions, or engage in political discourse”.
“The effects of this failure to address the situation of Tamil women have been dire,” it concluded. “And while the grievances described above are often carefully categorized under the banner of “women’s issues”, the stakes of ignoring them are overtly political,” the report stated, adding “the predicament of Tamil women has been the greatest impetus for a society-wide nostalgia for the LTTE”.
“Not every woman is a rape victim, and not every woman wants a sewing machine. But all women will benefit from expanded space for economic and political agency.”
“An increase in the number of Tamil-speaking police women or the strategic commitment of Tamil political parties to engage Tamil women (rather than politicizing their stories) may be a starting point towards real change.”