Women in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil-speaking north and east are facing a desperate lack of security in the aftermath of the long civil war.
Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, warns that the heavily militarised and centralised control of those areas – with almost exclusively male, Sinhalese security forces – creates serious problems for women’s safety, sense of security and ability to access assistance. They have little control over their lives and no reliable institutions to turn to. The Sri Lankan government has mostly dismissed women’s security issues and exacerbated fears, while the international community has failed to appreciate and respond effectively to the challenges they face.
“More than two years after the end of the war, many women still live in fear of violence by the state and from within their own communities”, says Alan Keenan, Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst and Sri Lanka Project Director. “The conflict has badly damaged the social fabric and has left women and girls vulnerable at multiple levels. A concerted and immediate effort to empower and protect them is needed”.
Thirty years of civil war between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has resulted in tens of thousands of female-headed households in the north and east. They struggle daily to cope with the detention or absence of family members, continuing displacement and desperate poverty. Militarisation and the government’s refusal to devolve power or restore local civilian administration in those areas have directly contributed to complex societal distress, which comes on the heels of the collapse of the preceding repressive regime run by the LTTE.
The consequences for women and girls have been severe. There have been alarming incidents of gender-based violence, and many women have been forced into prostitution or coercive sexual relationships. Fear of abuse and the reassertion of patriarchal norms within the Tamil community have further restricted women’s movement and impinged on education and employment opportunities. The fact that women must rely on the military for everyday needs not only puts them at greater risk of gender-based violence, but also prevents them from building capacity within communities.
The current situation comes in the wake of serious accusations of sexual violence by the military against Tamil women at the end of the war and in the months thereafter. The long-awaited report of the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), delivered to the president on 20 November 2011 and released to the public on 16 December, largely ignores the issue of sexual violence except to recommend yet another “independent investigation” into video footage that shows what appears to be Sinhalese soldiers making sexual comments while handling the dead, naked bodies of female suspected LTTE – footage that government officials repeatedly have said was “faked”.
“The LLRC’s report acknowledges important grievances and makes a number of sensible recommendations, but ultimately fails to question the government’s version of events with any rigour”, says Robert Templer, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “The crisis of security for women in the north and east warrants a serious financial and political commitment by the government and its international partners, as well as renewed efforts to ensure transparency and accountability, especially around the issue of sexual violence. Without such efforts, the government risks feeding Tamil fears of such violence and the exploitation of those fears by some diaspora activists, both of which could increase the risk of a return to violence”.