Home » Women in the North Fight Against a Patriarchal Society for Survival

Women in the North Fight Against a Patriarchal Society for Survival


In all conflicts around the world, women are deeply affected. Sri Lanka’s 26 year civil war is no exception. Women in the war torn areas have faced violence, sexual abuse, displacement and loss of family and property; they have witnessed the very tearing of the fabric of their society.

The war resulted in a dramatic rise in female headed households as husbands, sons, brothers and fathers were killed or disappeared. Many of these households remain without access to resources, unable to fulfil their basic needs while facing poverty, vulnerability and social exclusion.

A survey conducted by the Jaffna-based Centre for Women and Development (CWD) revealed that the Northern region had about40,000 female headed households, including more than 20,000 in the Jaffna District, while the combined figure for the north and east is 90,000. This number does not include those who do not have proof of death of their husbands or whose husbands are missing.

“Widows and women who live alone without male family members face low social standing and are often marginalised and excluded from society. Even if they have a legitimate source of income, they risk suffering from social stigma based on a false presumption that the income is earned by engaging in prostitution. Other studies indicate that women from these households often confront problems relating to child bearing, child rearing, undertaking household chores and taking care of other family members,” according to a report published by UNFPA.

In the Northern Province, female headed households include widows of LTTE and other cadres and widows of civilians who face several problems including economic hardship, exclusion from inheritance, inability to claim property rights and lack of access to land. Women adopt strategies to cope, negotiate and reduce the negative impacts on their lives in many ways including marriage or sexual alliances with men, the report said.

The destruction of property and social structures and the lack of capital and opportunities have negatively impacted upon women’s capacity to rebuild their lives, resulting in the majority of women and female headed households living in absolute poverty in the north, the UNFPA report said.

Despite social upheaval caused by the war and the increase in women having to earn a livelihood and provide for their families, women in the north are still victims of a patriarchal society which shuns widows and judges those who have to make traditionally unacceptable decisions.

Rajany Rajeshwary is a freelance consultant based in Jaffna working in the northern and eastern provinces on women’s rights. She is part of the Vallamai Movement and the Women’s Action Network, which give support and assistance to vulnerable women in the post conflict areas.

“Women face challenges from all directions because of the effects of the war and because of the patriarchal nature of society. The courts and the police do not deal sensitively with women’s problems despite participating in many workshops and programmes. Women’s problems are not taken seriously,” Ms Rajeshwary said, pointing out that in most cases of domestic violence, for example, the police and the lawyers urged the woman to go back to her abusive husband.

In instances of rape and sexual assault, there was still a stigma for women to come forward and report incidents. Even when they did, there was no legal system to support them therefore it was difficult to file a case. Judges were also unsympathetic to women. Ms Rajeshwary cited a case where a senior lecturer from an university who had been accused of raping his 14 year old domestic worker was asked to speak at a seminar on human rights.

Cases of child abuse were also high, particularly sexual abuse of children, because of a lack of knowledge and awareness of rights. Sex education was taught in schools in a clinical manner describing body parts but without the aspect of emotions and explanation of the dangers that went along with engaging in sex at a young age. Children were not taught to distinguish between good touch and bad touch, for example. Ms Rajeshwary cited a case of a 15 year old who had been sexually abused by her uncle from a young age but did not realise it was wrong or that she had the right to say no.

Another category of women who faced many challenges were ex-combatants, especially in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts where practically every household had been impacted by the war. “If they face domestic violence, they are not willing to go to the police because they were LTTE fighters. Many have lost their husbands and enter into unofficial relationships and have children. Often the men desert them and they have to earn a living. In Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu women work in garment factories where they are treated badly,” Ms Rajeshwary said. She had complaints from garment factory workers who had to stand for many hours in the production line resulting in severe back pain. They took pills to stop menstruation so that they would not have to take sick days. They were victims of rape and pregnancies and had no access to psychological support.

Throughout the Northern Province, women are in the forefront of the struggle to find missing relatives with continuous protests and marches demanding answers. Those who keep on pursing their quest for truth and justice were regularly harassed and intimidated by security personnel. Memorialisation is forbidden and those who dare to remember their relatives lost in the war are targeted and kept under surveillance.

Ex-combatants in the north were still constantly under surveillance by CID officers who came to their houses at night dressed in civilian clothes. Some women faced sexual abuse or entered into sexual relationships with the officers for protection. They were dependent on others for their basic needs and had no assistance from the government.

Drugs and alcohol addiction, especially among youth, was another problem affecting communities in the north. Young people received money from the diaspora and did not see the need to study in order to earn a living. Many were aspiring to leave the country rather than trying to get a job or start a small business in their home town, Ms Rajeshwary said.

She was of the opinion that the Rajapaksa regime had wanted to damage the Tamil community and keep it suppressed, dealing with issues such as poverty, sexual violence and drug and alcohol abuse rather than demanding their rights to land, human rights and freedom of expression.

Despite fighting for the same causes for the past 20 years, Ms Rajeshwary is not discouraged but takes heart from the fact that she is witnessing a change in attitude among the younger women who were now talking about women’s rights and speaking out against gender discrimination. Local women were engaging in politics with 11 of them being elected to local government and they were also occupying high level jobs in divisional secretariats and other government institutions. The governor of the Northern Province was a woman. The Vallamai Movement and the Women’s Action Network keep women’s rights in the forefront by regularly lobbying lawmakers and taking part in demonstrations demanding rights and justice.

“Men have to recognise women’s rights. We are not requesting men to give us freedom; we will fight for it,” Ms Rajeshwary said.

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