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.
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“[Female ex-combatants] in Batticaloa still bear deep emotional wounds caused by forced conscription by the Tamil Tigers; the witnessing of gruesome deaths; and the physical injuries of war,” writes researcher Sonny Inbaraj, in a study about Batticaloa’s female ex-cadre for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. “Their voices speak of fear, loss of education, and the severance of close family ties. Despite this pain, there is hope for these returned women ex-combatants as they reintegrate into their communities and eke out a livelihood through the support of women in matrilocal household clusters."Skip to next paragraph
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Another such woman making strides to reintegrate is Sudharsini, a former a medic with the LTTE in Kilinochchi. “I looked after both the LTTE and civilians…. There were many severe injuries from shelling and aerial attacks,” she says.
“KilInochchi saw fierce battle at the end of the war,” she remembers, hit by shrapnel herself in the stomach and chest. “It was very difficult. The area’s villages were severely affected by the bombing, and friends, who were civilians, died.”
Like the other three women, Sudharshini is another beneficiary of the IOM program to reintegrate ex-cadres, in this case supporting her neighborhood grocery shop and earning up to 1,000 rupees ($9) a day.
IOM is working with Sri Lanka’s Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) action plan to provide job training and opportunities for ex-combatants. They have 660 people registered in the east, with more than 50 of them female. The most popular programs for women, according to IOM, are tailoring, farming, and cattle rearing. When even one woman becomes trained, studies show that whole families and villages can benefit.
Many women – some widowed – commonly act as heads of households, earning enough for families to subsist and slowly rebuild.
Building upon a standardized international DDR template used in conflict zones like Liberia, the DRC, and Afghanistan, Sri Lanka's plan calls for the disarming and demobilization of cadre, with a heavy emphasis placed upon a "screening process" to determine their risk to the state. Individuals are then registered for reintegration into society through job training programs.
"The biggest problem women ex-combatants have is that civilian society does not allow them to use the skills they developed in the armed movement," explains Inbaraj. "Society would have them learning how to sew or be domestic helpers, rather than being carpenters, masons, bricklayers, or computer repairers... And what about plans to reintegrate disabled Tamil Tiger ex-combatants?" he adds. "Sadly, the National Plan of Action does not come up with concrete proposals to provide assistance in empowering these disabled individuals, whether males or females, to return to productive life."
The International Crisis Group has criticized the program for lacking government agency coordination and a critical legal framework to allay the fears of those identified as ex-combatants. “The Action Plan does not apply and offers no safeguards for the most critical, and dangerous, stage, when people are 'screened' and some identified as eligible for the rehabilitation process, while others are at grave risk of 'disappearing.' ”
The head of Richard Danzinger acknowledges that the ex-combatants' fear of government or community attitudes restricts registration in the DDR skills training programs.
“More time ... needs to be made [for] reaching out to those who need assistance,” he says.
Names of the ex-combatants have been changed to protect their identities.