The gang-rape and murder of Vidya, a 17-year-old school girl, this May in Punguditivu, a tiny islet in Sri Lanka’s North, has led to mass public outrage and protests across the Tamil-speaking areas. Schools have been closed in Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Vavuniya, and reports on the ground attest that the protest movement is spreading to the East of the island as well. A BBC news report has labelled this “the biggest shutdown in the north since 2000.”
When Vidya went missing on 13 May and her parents lodged a complaint, it was met with trademark police apathy—accusing the girl of eloping with her lover—instead of launching an immediate search. When the girl’s body was discovered later and subsequent arrests were made, it became clear that the perverse rapists had invited their friends to come and join in the rape. Police callousness and the general lawlessness in the North has triggered unforeseen anger and call-to-action.
This is not the first rape-and-murder of a Tamil schoolgirl in the island’s embattled North. In February this year, another schoolgirl Saranya died at the Kilinochchi base hospital as a consequence of being gangraped. Police threatened her grandmother with legal action if she spoke of the sexual violence surrounding Saranya’s death. These are not isolated incidents at all.
Efforts by some Sinhala women writers to blame the rape and murder of Vidya and other similar incidents on the lack of sex education and to posit educational reform as a weapon against rape is well-intentioned, but grievously misplaced. A “revolution of the mind” is a nice trope to play around, but the truth is that Sri Lanka deserves more than just a change of attitude towards sexuality.
In the post-2009 period, stories of sexual harrasment and intimidation of Tamil women by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the heavily militarised North are regularly heard, exchanged and documented, but rarely systematically probed. As if the military upperhand and subjugation of the Tamil people was not enough, in the post-war period, criminal elements, thugs and gangs among the Tamil populace have been allowed a free run, in a possible effort to extricate the occupying forces from being the focal point of all blame. In this kind of deteriorating situation, the cultural taboo that surrounds rape and sexual assault within the Tamil community and a patriarchal attitude which blames the victims, compounds the problem of sexual violence even further by maintaining a studied silence around this issue instead of a much-needed, loud and clear condemnation. Moreover, in the daily struggle for survival, discussion about domestic violence and sexual violation is relegated to the background as a mere “women’s issue”, instead of being tackled as one of the primary problems hounding a war-torn community.
The fact that the men suspected of being the rapist-murderers of Vidya are also Tamils points to how rape—which was primarily a weapon of war by the Sri Lanka military on the bodies of Tamil women—has now metamorphosed itself into a cancer that afflicts antisocial elements among the Tamil society, making a thorough and honest discussion even more complicated.
It is in the light of this silence and silencing that we can understand the sudden eruption of people’s protests in the North that seems to have caught everyone by surprise. It is easy to attribute this massive protest to the democractic nature of the new government holding fort in Colombo—but as much as the environment for dissent has changed at present as opposed to the Rajapakse regime, one must bear in mind that this outpouring of anger is not about one rape, one murder, or one incident of police-apathy alone. It is impossible for Tamil people to forget the horrors of rape committed by the IPKF, or the Sri Lanka Army on the bodies of Tamil women, including the female fighters of the LTTE. This is the anger of a people who are traumatised by the memory of the rapes and murders of Krishanthi and Koneshwari, of Isai Priya and Logarani.
The thousands of Tamil students who have taken to the streets demanding justice for Vidya stand testimony to this anger. It is the anger of a people who are fighting not only a rape culture that is a remnant of war, but also the lack of accountability which has been a permanent feature of the system.