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Meena Kandasamy
Meena Kandasamy

THE F-WORD

Ground report

Ground report (File) A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard next to a fence, as internally displaced civilians look on in the background at a camp for displaced in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka in 2009| AP
  • This brief report is brilliant, powerful and hard-hitting in its exposition of the ground reality. It highlights how the restrictions placed on women’s political agency can leave them powerless and open to exploitation, economic dependence and sexual violence.

Months ago, I blogged about the brutal murder and rape of Vidya in Sri Lanka, and what it meant for Tamil women to be living in the heavily militarised north of the island. This week, as Tamil Nadu gears up to protest the visit of Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to India, and in the context of the UNHCR Report going to be released shortly, it is interesting to once again turn our attention to the situation of Tamil women there.

A sparse but politically-charged report The Forever Victims? that looks at the condition of Tamil women in post-war Sri Lanka has been released on August 28, 2015. This “White Paper” authored by Nimmi Gowrinathan and Kate Cronin-Furman, and published by the Colin Powell School for Global and Civic Leadership is available for online access here.

This report is ground-breaking in many senses. It unveils the full extent of the oppression faced by Tamil women in the militarised areas of the north; it captures the climate of fear that these women inhabit, the complete lack of a justice mechanism to those who are victims of violence, and makes several clear linkages between the lack of women’s economic agency/power and their vulnerability to sexual violence. It also points a finger at various “empowerment interventions” put forth by the state and the NGOs that does not change the women’s situation and neither does it grant them the power to participate politically.

Speaking to this blogger, one of the authors of the report, Nimmi Gowrinathan, a policy analyst, humanitarian and scholar, said that the specific impetus for this report was the aftermath of the “Vidya moment”, when “a somewhat distorted conversation around sexual violence on the island began circulating—one that vacillated between rumour and politicised patriarchal agendas”. She also points out that the knee-jerk reactions, unsubstantiated by ground-level research contributed to “particularly damaging narratives” such as “the military doesn’t rape anymore, only the Tamils do”, and so on.

“I grew tired of Tamil politicians using women's sad stories to support their agendas, while creating no political space for them to engage, of NGOs pushing failed empowerment programming through a livelihoods approach, and the dangerous narratives that militarisation is no longer an issue in the north and east,” Gowrinathan says.

Unmasking the feminine roles that the NGOs have sought to create for the Tamil women, the report highlights that “international actors impose even heavier gender restrictions than conservative Tamil society does”. It quotes a woman complaining about the training to sell pastries, and how focus on 'traditionally feminine' activities comes at the cost of women’s long-term economic prospects. Further, it also highlights how a majority of these “livelihoods programs” serve to depoliticise women.

The report also shows some disturbing facets of the life of female ex-combatants, who are accused sometimes of being spies for the state, or the weight of their past seen as too dangerous for a life of normalcy.

This brief report is brilliant, powerful and hard-hitting in its exposition of the ground reality. It highlights how the restrictions placed on women’s political agency can leave them powerless and open to exploitation, economic dependence and sexual violence.

The nostalgia for the past, however emotive, must be replaced by a more active engagement of women in the political sphere. Tamils in Sri Lanka have Ananthi Sasitharan, a very articulate and powerful woman, no doubt, but to make real change, voices like hers must be amplified a thousand-fold. Moreover, Sri Lanka’s north is one of the most militarised regions in the planet—there is one soldier for every six civilians. Such a report, from the prism of looking at the lives of women and the politics of sexual violence in the region, also lends strength to the people’s call to end the almost siege-like circumstances that characterise their lives.

Read the report:

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