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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    A former female Tamil Tiger rebel dressed in bridal attire looks on as others dress up another bride during a mass wedding ceremony at a government rehabilitation camp near Vavuniya in northern Sri Lanka in June.
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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.

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.

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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.

“[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."

Step by step

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.

The DDR action plan was authored by the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, with technical advice from various UN organizations, and the International Red Cross.

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.

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