Effects of War on Women: Remembering 1983

“Thirty – five years  have passed by and I still have not been able to forget that day in my life; when I am speaking now, I can see our home amidst those hot red flames” shudders 41 year old Shevani from Thirunelvely, Jaffna. Shevani, a mother of two boys considers herself lucky to be alive today, and employed by a bank in Jaffna.

When her parents’ home was set fire to by few groups of Sinhala extremists on 25 July 1983, Shevani was only six years old. After escaping from death, the family had found refuge in the homes of some relatives before bidding goodbye to their friends and relatives, and to the place they thought they belonged to. Together with her parents, siblings and many other Tamils, Shevani arrived in the Northern shores in a crowded ship, which had then carried the ‘riots affected refugees’ (as how they had been termed then) from the capital city and other southern areas of Sri Lanka.

“We suffered a lot after arriving in Jaffna. The war became intense here, and we had to live in fear of death for many decades. And even if I have been fortunate enough to be living a decent life, many women have not been privileged enough. There are many, who like us came to Jaffna from Colombo and lost their lives here; many others, especially the women and children have faced multiple displacements and severe adversities after coming to Jaffna. If only the riots had not taken place. Uhm.……..” sighs Shevani. “….. we women would have had a much secure lives, and our children too. Nothing is certain in this country and for sure not in the North.”

Sri Lanka faced a severe civil riot in the year of 1983 where large number of Tamils living in the Western, Southern and Central parts suffered loss of lives and property to great extents. When Tamils were killed, burnt alive, houses and buildings set on fire, and properties looted, many fled for safety to the Northern part of the country which was home to the Tamils, while some others left the country. Yet their running away from war, displacement and the war itself, did not end for those who had headed towards the North, especially for them in Jaffna.

As in every disastrous situation, the ethnic conflict too made it hard on the lives of women and girls, mostly during displacement, and when hiding in shelters escaping death. During the times of war in Jaffna, people found refuge in temples, churches and schools, and stayed for many weeks and months with no proper food, water, sanitation facilities and health facilities. People were forced to talk to them who they did not know, bathe in the common open water wells amidst strangers, and share the same common space to rest and to sleep with the unknown, which in turn brought insecurity on many young girls and women.

Kala is a victim of rape. Though she is 56 years old, married and with three adult  married children, she still feels guilty for not having been a virgin during her marriage, and believes that her husband married her out of sympathy.  “It was so intolerable and humiliating to have been raped by your own people; and especially when all of us were there for one reason – ‘protection’. I was protected from bombs, but not from my own kin. This is what happens to people because of war. War and death make people frustrated; it makes humans to act inhumanly. There are many like me in this peninsula; many who had been raped have left the country; and some even committed suicide due to shame” stated Kala.

Many women and girls of Jaffna have faced and are still undergoing immeasurable hardships not only due the past war, but also in the post-war era, until this day. Women have been used in several diverse negative means to fulfil the wishes and whimsies of men predominantly, and in some occasions those of women throughout many years.

But even after the war officially came to an end in 2009 with the demolishing of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan Security Forces, people of the North did not find real peace and security. The displaced, wounded, and arrested suffered due to poverty, instability, insecurity and trauma. The sudden changes that took place in the North seemed as heavy loads of unexpected fear, mistrust, and discomfort to many of the northern residents. The fast development, infrastructure building, and new opportunities for them, was only a temporary shadow over their existing problems, without any process mechanisms to address trauma and healing of the effects and aftermath of a severe prolonged war.

Thus the end of the conflict did not bring drastic changes in the lives of the women and girls. In these recent years Jaffna is faced with a new threat. Groups of young men and boys have begun to gang-murder innocent civilians. Even though the reason for these killings is not yet clear, these gangs also attack police officers who inquire or prevent such incidents. While these youth are engaged in taking away the lives of their own people for no exact reason, the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of these men are undergoing constant fear, shame, humiliation and most of all psychological traumas.

Tears roll down the dark cheeks of Ponnamma who is now seventy-five years, when talking about her grandson. “Then, it was the fear of the ‘boys’ [LTTE], later we feared that the armed forces will arrest our children; and now these boys are creating their own destruction. I am sorrier for this boy’s mother – my daughter; she has suffered a lot as a single mother. She lost her husband in war; and now? Neighbors are laughing at us.”

The freedom the Northern Province received after thirty years has brought more destruction amongst the young generation, increasing the sufferings of women and girls. With the roads being open freely with no check-points as before, has made room for all persons to enter Jaffna, and to act in any ill or abusive manner Many travelers to Jaffna have begun to exploit the situation, and the ignorance of some of the innocent people there, for the purpose of making money and to engage in illegal businesses. Increase in sex-trade, human trafficking, rape, abduction are some of the major issues faced by women and girls today in Jaffna and its surrounding areas.

Besides the physical and mental abuse, and harassment, women also endure economic deprivation and material scarcity due to the fact of them being women, not able to involve in certain jobs, and not willing to concede to possible sexual demands of the authorities to obtain favor in their sights.

Forty-nine years old mother of three Vanaja, is living in a resettled area in Jaffna. During war and displacement she had lost her husband and two younger children, and today she works as a labourer to earn a living. Having a financially unstable life has made her vulnerable and unrecognized in the society. Being a female surrounds her with additional challenges.

“I don’t have a land of my own. When we left our home, we thought we would be back soon. But when I returned I was already a widow with two teenagers. Because the land is in my late husband’s name, I still have not been able to succeed in getting it back. Having my own land back, will ease me out financially” laments Vanaja who has been refused the entitlement of her husband’s land, because she is a poor, uneducated, widow.Jeya who is 37 years, living in Nunavil Jaffna now, was born in Colombo. As a two year child, she with her family was displaced to Jaffna after the riots in 1983. Her second biggest displacement was in 1995 when her family left Jaffna to head to the Vanni Jungles when the Sri Lankan Armed Forces captured Jaffna. After living in temporary shelters, welfare camps and amidst war, Jeya returned to Jaffna in 2011. Jeya had lost her husband in Mullaithivu due to shell attack during military operations, 2009. Due to the displacement she was not able to register the death of her husband; she also had lost all personal documents including educational certificates. Jaya though fairly educated, has not yet succeeded in finding a decent employment to support herself and her daughter. “As I don’t have any other support at home, I cannot leave my daughter at home to attend a regular work. So I chose to work from home. I teach little kids at my house. I also cook and sell food parcels to people. These are my mere sources of income. But I live in fear. Men pass hints at me, and try offering money for sexual activities; I cannot be rude as I fear they may harm us, but I also will not give – in to their ill-desires.” Being a young widow and a mother of a girl, has fenced Jeya with intimidation and fright.

There are many women like Jeya in Jaffna who are helpless and vulnerable. The war took the lives of many men and boys, making women responsible for the families. Today there are large numbers of women who are the breadwinner of their families in Jaffna and in the North as a whole. Domestic work, dress making, selling food products, selling firewood, poultry farming, home gardening, selling vegetables, and labour work are the main sources of income for most of these women.

The war and its effects while being cruel to those living in the North and East of Sri Lanka, had been dreadful and horrendous to women and girls. Its grave consequences and the paths it paved for women and girls, is still hard and dismaying for them.

Thirty – five years have passed by since the riots happened on 25th July 1983. Thirty – five years have passed by since when thirteen Sri Lankan soldiers were killed by the LTTE in Jaffna. Conflict did not begin then; it was there always; yet it was silent. But the war began in 1983; and the war ended in 2009. Yet have the troubles ended for the women living in the North of Sri Lanka?

Dewdrops  |  Sri Lanka