Scarred by Sri Lanka's war with Tamil Tigers, female ex-fighters build new lives
Many women fought for the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka's 26-year war. Critical gaps in education, psychological problems, and physical injuries make job opportunities tough to come by.
Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
Pathma, Rasathy, and Jano aren't your average group of friends. These three young Sri Lankan women, veterans of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war, represent a hopeful sign for thousands of the country's ex-combatants.Skip to next paragraph
The former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters Pathma and Rasathy are each missing an eye from shrapnel wounds during the 26-year civil conflict. Jano, part of the LTTE’s "Sea Tiger" naval unit, lost her leg.
These three women have secured jobs with a garment manufacturer with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM). With most of their peers unemployed, the women are happy to start earning 6,000 rupees ($54) a month producing cotton T-shirts for export. Though they still have plenty of hurdles to overcome, the reintegration of these ex-fighters give Sri Lanka cause for hope as they demonstrate resilience overcoming the poverty that pervades life here.
Up to 100,000 Sri Lankans were killed during the war, which pitted the Colombo government against the LTTE, which was fighting for a Tamil state. In 2004, after LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran’s bitter split with Colonel Karuna and his government-aligned forces in the east, abductions and violence within Tamil communities increased.
Then in late 2009, during the final days of the war, an estimated 300,000 Tamil civilians fled into government-held territory and were held in overcrowded detention camps. Only 25,260 remain, said the Ministry of Resettlement last month. But those released are returning to shattered communities and homes, and their lack of job skills threatens to exacerbate an already grim situation.
The World Bank estimates that even among Sri Lanka’s skilled youths only one-third are currently employed.
For female ex-combatants, critical gaps in education, psychological problems, and physical injuries make job opportunities even tougher to come by.
“First we want a house, and a job. Nobody has any jobs here,” says Rasathy. “I hate the war situation. We want to take care of our families, build a house, and get back to basics.”
The government has built buildings, roads, and bridges in the east this past year, but the majority of Batticaloa’s population still relies on fishing and farming to get by. Alcoholism in rural communities is high, and rumors of land disputes and abductions by factions fuel old fears.
How these women became combatants
Pathma’s father was killed by the LTTE while he was working in his field. Five years later, the Tigers then abducted Pathma, 16, while she was walking to school. “When my mother found out hours later, she went down to the LTTE offices, but they denied taking me.”
Similarly, Rasanthy was kidnapped when she was 15 years old outside her neighborhood temple. While her two friends escaped their abductors, Rasanthy was sent straight to basic training and the big LTTE base in Mullaitivu for battle.
Jano, then 21, was the only one who signed up to join the LTTE cadre, fighting on both land and at sea. During the final month of war in May 2009 – with Tigers trapped by the SLA and indiscriminate shelling of fighters and civilians alike – Jano was pulled into battle with a prosthetic leg after losing hers in a battle years before. “Many, many people died all around us,” she says softly. “I felt so sad. I will never forget this.”
Rehabilitation, path to jobs
Human Rights Watch says more than 11,000 suspected cadre, of which 3,000 are females, were separately detained in government "rehabilitation centers." Women made up one-third of the LTTE’s fighting forces.