More than two years after the end of the 30-year war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels, women in the north and east of the country still suffer from sexual violence, poverty and displacement, according to a new report.
The conflict between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) displaced hundreds of thousands of people, destroyed many homes and resulted in the death or detention of many men in the region, leaving tens of thousands of women to head households alone, according to the report – “Sri Lanka: Women's Insecurity in the North and East.”
“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,” said Alan Keenan, senior analyst and Sri Lanka project director at the International Crisis Group.
“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.”
Women in the region, which is now under the control of the almost exclusively male Sri Lankan military, have limited means of transportation and employment opportunities, making it difficult for them to support their families.
The report points out that, in the absence of a civil administration in the region, women must rely on the military for their everyday needs. This reliance not only puts them at greater risk of gender-based violence, but stops them being able to rebuild their communities.
“The consequences for women and girls have been severe. There have been alarming incidents of gender-based violence, including domestic violence within the Tamil community, in part fuelled by rising alcohol use by men,” the report said.
“Many women have been forced into prostitution or coercive sexual relationships. Some have also been trafficked within the country and abroad. Pregnancies among teenagers have increased,” it said.
It added that fear of abuse has restricted women's movement and impinged on education and employment opportunities.
There were reports of sexual violence by the military against Tamil women at the end of the war and post-conflict, but the government has refused to allow any independent investigation of the abuses, ICG pointed out.
“The government's overwhelming response to allegations of sexual violence has been to reject them…,” it noted.
ICG also said a report by the government's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) – released to the public on Dec. 16 – was inadequate. ICG said the government report's failure to address video footage, that shows what appears to be Sinhalese soldiers making sexual comments while handling the dead, naked bodies of female suspected LTTE fighters, may contribute to the risk of further violence.
Sinhalese people make up the biggest ethnic group in Sri Lanka.
“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,” said Robert Templar, 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,” he said.
Read the executive summary and recommendations of the ICG report