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Gendered Genocide: Sri Lanka’s War Against Tamils

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The following address was delivered by Tasha Manoranjan, a graduate from Yale Law School, and founder and director of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), at the 'Feminisms, Structural Violence and Transitional Justice Conference' held at York University, Toronto last month.

"Tamil women have suffered disproportionately throughout Sri Lanka’s decades-long ethnic conflict. They have faced both the structural collapse of communities as well as the erosion of societal norms. In response, an increasing number of women joined the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) starting in the 1980s and throughout the years prior to 2009, and became an integral part of the armed resistance against the government.

As a result of prolonged exposure to this conflict, traditional Tamil gender relations shifted dramatically. Within Tamil society, women were historically valued as the bearers of culture, responsible primarily for maintaining the home. Parents carefully “protected” or controlled women from childhood until marriage, when authority over them would transfer to their husbands. Due to the fact that women’s domains did not typically extend beyond their households, they were generally excluded from the political process. Society rigorously maintained the image of women as sacred bearers of family and community, utilizing females as symbolic markers to measure purity and respect. This cherished image of women rendered the violent experiences Tamil women faced during the war traumatic not only for them as individuals, but for the entire Tamil society as well.

In more recent years, Tamil women had joined the LTTE in greater numbers than their male peers. Though female cadres had different personal reasons for enlisting, many joined after experiencing some form of injustice at the hands of the Sri Lankan Army. Most women came from the heavily militarized north. The permanent insecurity of this environment inculcated a desire for freedom and statehood, which included the motivation to take up arms. One LTTE fighter, Senthulasi, described coming of age in Jaffna, a heavily-militarized city: Her cousin was raped and killed by the Army on her way home. Senthulasi said she ran away from home at the age of 15, to join the LTTE and fight against the helplessness she felt daily. In speaking to me, she urged me to return to America and tell others about Tamils’ plight. She wanted me to say how girls who should be carrying pencils and books were instead carrying guns, keeping watch over the borders of Tamil Eelam instead of studying in school. I was struck by the intensity and commitment she felt for the Tamil struggle; she spoke so simply, with heartbreaking honesty.

Although most women initially joined the LTTE to find respite from this suffocating physical insecurity, their involvement in the armed movement had unintended, yet profound, cultural and social consequences. Local psychologists noted that for Tamil women, “joining the militants [was a] liberating act, promising them more freedom and power…. Tamil society had always suppressed women into a subservient position… it was the war that has had a liberating role.” Many of the female Tamil cadres with whom I spoke expressed their desire to fight for the liberation of both their ethnicity and also their subservient position in Tamil society.

When women first began to join the LTTE, they primarily worked in service and support roles as caregivers for the wounded, but later took on positions as frontline soldiers. This initially met with opposition from within the conservative Tamil community. Many of the earlier female cadres reported that male Tigers “wanted them to flee with the civilians.” Women had to demonstrate their strength and competence to earn the respect of male LTTE cadres; one cadre told me women were “challenged to lift bigger bombs” to prove themselves. One can also attribute the acceptance of women’s participation in the war to the government’s indiscriminate bombings of civilian homes and schools: “a clear sexual division of labor in war… usually disappears when there is no clear differentiation between the ‘battle front’ and the ‘home front’ or ‘rear’.” Women were forced to protect not only their own physical integrity, but also that of their children. Female cadres eventually prided themselves on performing all tasks completed by their male counterparts. The LTTE even established male and female artillery divisions, despite doubts that women could not manage an artillery team due to their weight. Another female cadre, Isaimozhi, remarked with pride that they surpassed male cadres in certain areas of fighting, such as sharp shooting.

The LTTE also explicitly committed itself to gender equality and women’s empowerment. The LTTE expanded the agency of both female cadres and civilian women within its territory by abolishing the dowry system and promoting education. I witnessed the effects of this policy: I saw billboards denouncing the dowry system, encouraging families to value children of both genders equally. Female civilians and cadres confidently drove motorcycles in saris and helmets – unheard of a decade ago.

As Tamil women advanced to new roles in society, they strove to realize their political aspirations. The female cadres with whom I spoke said that Sri Lankan soldiers fought only for a paycheck, whereas the LTTE fought for the freedom of their people and land. Isaimozhi said she aimed to kill on the battlefield, but simultaneously regretted that violence was the only way to actualize Eelam. Isaimozhi cited the decades of police brutality, discrimination, and repression of Tamil rights, and concluded that war was the only path to freedom. Isaimozhi told me, “Tamils have been living as slaves for the Sinhalese for decades. We can’t live like that anymore. We have to all achieve freedom or we have to all die trying.”

Sexual assault has been a perennial feature of Sri Lanka’s conflict, and is traditionally considered a fate worse than death in the Tamil community. One female LTTE cadre, Vengai, described to me the strict policy of never leaving a fallen cadre’s body behind. She remarked, “It is worth risking my life to save the lifeless body of another female cadre…. It would be easier to accept my own death, than the mutilation of their bodies and spirits.” Stories concerning the rape and mutilation of women are well-known among Tamils; Krishanthi Kumaraswami’s death is particularly infamous. Kumaraswami was an eighteen year old Tamil student who was arrested while passing through a Sri Lankan Army checkpoint in 1996. Her mother, younger brother, and a neighbor went to the checkpoint that afternoon to find her, refusing to leave until she returned safely with them. The soldiers killed all three of them. An hour later, they gang raped Krishanthi and buried her body. Reflecting the significance of this crime within the Tamil community, a Tamil schoolteacher Padmini Ganesan, said, “Every Tamil remembers the Krishanthi case…. For us, the checkpoints are slow-motion: the trauma and the fear that we go through.”

However, these stories do more than reflect on the vulnerable position of women in conflict. For many Tamils, the high rates of sexual assault against Tamil women in the war represented an attack on the integrity of their community.

Comparison of Women's status Before and After 2009

Women have been uniquely affected and indeed, targeted, throughout Sri Lanka’s war. Post 2009, Tamil women have been targeted particularly because of the active role they played during the armed struggle. Women who were in the LTTE, or are perceived as being supportive of the LTTE – as all Vanni Tamils are perceived –  are punished as a collective by triumphant Sri Lankan forces.

A report released in March 2014 by Yasmin Sooka, one of the experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General to report on Sri Lanka, found: “Abduction, arbitrary detention, torture, rape and sexual violence have increased in the post-war period . . . .  These widespread and systematic violations by the Sri Lankan security forces occur in a manner that indicates a coordinated, systematic plan approved by the highest levels of government.”

In testimonies revealing the extent of sexual assault committed after 2009, survivors reported being raped by uniformed male officers from the Sri Lankan military.1  One woman was told, “you Tamil, you slave, if we make you pregnant we will make you abort . . . you are Tamil we will rape you like this, this is how you will be treated, even after an abortion you will be raped again.”

Recent reports from local human rights groups have documented hundreds of Tamil women in northern Sri Lanka being forced to accept surgical implantation of long-term birth control. These reports add to previous reports of forced sterilization of Tamil women both during and after the war.

In May 2007, a confidential cable from the United States Embassy in Colombo discussed “an EPDP medical doctor named Dr. Sinnathambi, who performed forced abortions, often under the guise of a regular check-up, on Tamil women suspected of being aligned with the LTTE.”

A Health Department report from the Northern Province in 2012 found a 30-times higher rate of birth control implants of Tamil women in Mullaitivu, compared to the much more densely-populated Jaffna.  In August 2013, government health workers forced mothers to accept surgically-implanted birth control in three villages [[Veravil, Keranchi, Valaipaddu]] in Kilinochchi.  When the women objected, the nurses said that if they did not agree to the contraceptive, they could be denied treatment at the hospital in the future.

According to the Home for Human Rights (HHR), an organization working to protect the fundamental rights of those living in Sri Lanka, more than 80 percent of Tamil women in central Sri Lanka were offered a lump sum payment of usually 500 rupees in return for their ability to reproduce.  After receiving this payment, women underwent surgical sterilization.  Though seemingly small, the sum is large for these predominately plantation workers.  The population of this Tamil group has dropped annually since 1996 by five percent, whereas the population of the country overall has grown by 14 percent.  HHR said: “This systematic pattern of authority-sanctioned coerced sterilizations may amount to an intentional destruction. . . of the Tamil estate population.”

In contrast, police and army officers have been encouraged to have a third child, through payment of 100,000 rupees from the government.  The officers taking advantage of this offer are overwhelmingly Sinhalese.

Cases of coerced birth control and forced sterilization are clear evidence of genocide.  The Genocide Convention obligation to prevent and punish genocide is not a matter of political choice or calculation, but one of binding international law.  The UN Security Council should refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecutions into war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.  Concurrently, courts in countries that may exercise jurisdiction over the events and alleged perpetrators should prosecute these crimes.

Deeply entrenched, institutionalized impunity for Sri Lanka’s past crimes against Tamils has enabled ongoing violations against Tamil women to flourish. Tamils currently live in an environment absent of both war and peace.

Currently, there is 1 soldier for every 3 Tamils in the North: an unconscionably high ratio given that war ostensibly ended over 5 years ago.

In Tamil-speaking areas, the Sri Lankan military has increased its economic role, expanded the amount of land it controls, and is essentially establishing itself as a permanent, occupying presence.

The extreme level of militarization uniquely affects Tamil women. There are approximately 90k female-headed households after the end of the armed conflict. These women are especially vulnerable to sexual violence due to the military’s predatory practices.

NGOs such as HRW and Freedom from Torture have reported on widespread and systematic sexual violence inflicted on Tamil women and men, including in detention and “rehabilitation” centres.

Local NGOs focusing on women’s rights have reported on forced conscription of over 100 (109) young Tamil women and girls from Vanni into the 99% Sinhalese military, under the pretext of performing clerical work. These women were not allowed to leave or contact their families when informed that they would be performing military duties. In December 2012, thirteen of these women were admitted to Killinochchi Hospital – many were unconscious. They were denied access to hospital staff, their families, and a local Tamil parliamentarian who inquired after their condition.


Sri Lanka’s suffocating political environment will only breed further violence and instability. Tamil women must play a greater role in the economic and political development of the northeastern regions of the country, and a just political solution must address their historically disadvantaged situation. The LTTE made strides in this direction when it conscientiously embraced a policy of gender equality, both in its armed movement and in its state-building apparatus. The lives of women in LTTE-controlled areas gradually but markedly improved over time.

These advances have been steadily corroded after the government’s genocidal assault in early 2009. Where women once felt safe and secure, they are now vulnerable under the military’s gaze and thumb.

As evidence of ongoing atrocities adds to evidence of the 2009 massacres – such as the mass graves found in Mullaitivu this year – international pressure for justice for Tamils is growing. The UN HCHR is currently investigating violations of international law in Sri Lanka, and will report to the UN HRC next March about its findings. There are still significant obstacles impeding a future in which Tamils live freely and in peace, but we must recognize how far we have come since the horrific bloodbath of 2009. The world now recognizes SL as an authoritarian dictatorship that cannot be trusted with the fate of thousands of Tamils who were killed in 2009. From this realization, the world must recognize that SL cannot be trusted with the political future of Tamils either."

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