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Women after war

Technically, the war in Sri Lanka has long been over. The over 25-year-long conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in 2009, after the loss of some 80,000 lives. In the Northern Provincial Council elections in 2013, the Tamil National Alliance won 30 out of 38 seats.

The development promised that conditions for the long beleaguered minority in Sri Lanka’s north would improve. Conditions for women, it was expected, would also get better, a cessation in sexual violence born of post-war reconciliation.

A recent report authored by scholar activists Nimmi Gowrinathan and Kate Cronin-Furman, The Forever Victims: Tamil Women in Post-War Sri Lanka, reveals a more complex reality, one in which the very means of reducing violence against women have become progenitors of further subjugation.

While the military’s presence ensures political peace in the public sphere, it seems to encourage violence in the private sphere. Focusing on how the maintenance of Sri Lanka’s precarious ‘peace’ influences formerly embattled communities, the report offers unique insights into how post-war efforts in torn communities fail women in particular. Given Pakistan’s own conflict in the northwest and the displacement and killing of thousands, the lessons from Sri Lanka can be considered premonitions — that is, of course, if and when the fighting ends.

When Sri Lanka’s war ended, over a quarter of a million Tamils believed by the government to be either fighters or sympathisers were held in ‘rehabilitation’ camps and villages that were supposed to de-programme them away from their supposedly terrorist agendas. These included women taken into custody if their men had been killed in the fighting or because they were themselves believed to be fighters.

In any case, this group of women, by far the most vulnerable, was cut off from all other family members and the larger community. The bar on media access further meant that none of their stories would get out. By 2012, the camps had largely been dismantled; but the burden of memory carried by those who lived through it is a heavy one. The words of one survivor related in the report sum it all up: “I did what I had to do to get out of there, I cannot talk about what happened to me inside of that place.”

As per the maxims of transitional justice and post-war reconciliation, these memories must be filed away for peace and for a better future. An end to the fighting means an imposed and accepted forgetting.

The peace that exists in Sri Lanka as a result of this forgetting is maintained by a continuing military presence. A reported 160,000 soldiers were stationed in the north in 2014. Their presence creates its own incentives and hazards. As with military camps elsewhere in the world, the presence of armed forces creates fear in communities, with women’s freedom of movement in their own communities compromised.

Since the military officers or the civilian peacekeeping forces that are deployed in the areas rule the day, few can object to what they do. In less dire scenarios, other economies are created owing to the presence of soldiers. In many places, women, particularly those who no longer have male family members to protect them, often need to exchange sexual services for access to, for example, electricity. The villages do not often have electricity; the military camps do.

At the same time, while the military presence maintains political peace in the public sphere, it seems to encourage violence in the private sphere. While accurate statistics are not available because of bars on reporting, the beginning of peace has not meant an end to violence against women within the family. The end of fighting, for women at least, has not meant an end to war within; the frustrations and traumas of the past haunt them behind closed doors. The enforced ethic of silence, so practically useful in constructing peace in Sri Lanka, has also imposed its quietude on the intimate crimes that proliferate under its power.

There are many lessons from Sri Lanka’s story. The most obvious among them is that the entrenchment of military forces, however benevolent or well-intentioned, alters communities forever. Women, at the heart of all communities, bear the burden not only of war but also the peace that follows. The bloodshed may end, but women, as the carriers of memory, bear these scars for far longer and pay in silence the price at which peace has been bought.

An analysis of what has happened in Sri Lanka and what is happening in Syria and in Pakistan’s own northwest reveals the paucity of military definitions of war and peace. In technical terms, hostilities begin on specific dates and end on others; the eliminating of the insurgency and the skirmish, of the leader or the fighting network, the brokering of ceasefires and surrenders, all bode an end.

In reality, the altered communities left maimed by displacement and death are likely to breed misery many decades into the future. Villages may be re-populated and air strikes may cease but the communal mechanisms that ensure that the most vulnerable in a community, widows and orphans, are not left bereft and desperate are perhaps gone forever.

In the new set-up, marriages are negotiated in desperation, lived in frustration, the checks and controls that worked before are all broken and failing those that counted on them. In the forcible proximity of camps, every man becomes a predator and every woman a victim; the crimes that occur between them are considered inconsequential and uncounted against the greater imperatives of a politically viable peace.

The fear and silence that hangs over Tamil women in Sri Lanka is but one iteration of what millions of others, in Pakistan and Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, are also facing. The vast disruptions of war and violence that have swept over them in the past five years have left them vulnerable to the worst, preyed upon by their own and then again by others.

As in Sri Lanka, peace will come, politically brokered and publicly pandered — and hiding the shreds of broken communities, their burdens resting on the shoulders of the women left behind by war.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy. rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Rafia Zakaria, "Women after war," Dawn. 2015-09-02.
Keywords: Social sciences , International issues , Political aspects , Armed forces , Tamil women , Political peace , Government-Sri Lanka , Violence , Nimmi Gowrinathan , Kate Cronin , Afghanistan , Sri Lanka , Syria , LTTE