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Social realities of rural women in the conflict region

Northern and Eastern Tamil and Muslim women as well as Sinhalese women in the East live within a patriarchal structure, though Muslim women are under stricter control than Tamil and Sinhalese women. Women in all three communities subscribe to a similar cultural pattern of behaviour. Their primary functions are reproductive. The sexual division of household labour is deeply ingrained though it is more flexible in the lower castes and classes. Women’s sphere generally includes decision making on household matters, education of children and health. Men make other major decisions such as buying and selling of assets.12

The armed conflict affected women and men differently. Men were the main casualties of war. Of the survivors, women were the most affected by the loss of family members, death and disappearance of income earners, migration of young men and displacement. All women were affected by the conflict though they experienced different effects based on their ethnicity, location, class and socio-economic status. The more affluent Tamil population in the North fled the conflict areas either to the South or to western countries.

The poorer classes found refuge in India or were displaced within the country where they found shelter in camps or welfare centres. Others remained in the conflict areas amidst armed confrontations. The Muslims evicted from the North live as displaced persons in other parts of the country, some on their own and some in welfare camps. Sinhalese women and their families fled the conflict areas to the South but those in areas bordering conflict zones, having lost their spouses, children and livelihoods, eke out a living with fear and insecurity. Women’s responsibilities increased in the absence of basic services and insecurity. Women in LTTE-held areas live in poverty and isolation. Women were victims of sexual and gender based violence; many bear psychological scars (Maunaguru, 2005).

Scholars’ assessments of the conflict’s impact on gender roles and relations differ. Coomaraswamy (2003) argues that the armed conflict brought a major transformation in Tamil society and women’s roles. Most visible is the entry of women, apparently weak and powerless, as fighters. Feminists who envision a non-violent society question the value of women’s role as fighters. Samarasinghe (1996) argues that formation of the Mothers’ Front created a new construction of gender in relation to the exigencies of war that was not a mere extension of everyday roles. Women from the North (and South) organised the Mothers’ Front to protect husbands and sons from the militants and the Government citing their gendered role of motherhood in symbolic protest (Samarasinghe, 1996). Another shift of women’s traditional to strategic roles occurred when women moved out of the domestic sphere and took on male roles in the absence of male family members; women consequently acquired more self-confidence and greater mobility and decision making powers within the family (Bennett, 1995). “We used to do “many things. Especially after the operations by the Sri Lanka Army, we women had to shoulder more tasks and protect our men or send them away” (Quoting Thiranagama in Hoole, 1990).

Cultural conflict in conflict zone

Although common concerns brought people of different castes in the village in the Kaththasinnakulam 215 B Grama Sevaka Division in Vavuniya district together, marked attitudinal differences continue to exist between women from Jaffna who settled in Vavuniya and women born in the locality. Apart from the caste system, other major differences relate to the social practices of dowry and virginity. While Jaffna women’s ideas were rigid, Vavuniya women held more liberal attitudes and rejected social practices. The caste system persists, but the influx of displaced people from Mannar, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, and Kilinochchi into Vavuniya and their subsequent interaction made the caste system less rigid.

Women who became heads of households with the loss of their spouses are the most visible category of women victims of the conflict. Desertion, separa­tion and divorce also resulted in female-headed households. Women are de facto heads of households in instances where the spouse migrated. The inability of the spouse to engage in income generation pushed women to become principal income earners.

Numerous factors contributed to dilution of rigid patriarchal values and the caste system in the North and East. Such factors included population displacement and movement, women moving into public arenas without the protection of male family members, women’s greater involvement in NGO and community based activities and women taking up arms. The large numbers of widows who must fend for themselves erodes social exclusion and taboos against them and results in greater social acceptance of widows and single women (Field assessments).

Despite changes that affected women, traditional restrictions on women persistently were perpetuated through the caste system and attendant social practices, such as dowry, that reinforce women’s lower social status within the family, community and in larger society (Thiruchandran, 1989; Field assessments). The conflict reinforced the practice of girls’ early marriage in the North and the East. Displaced families arrange marriages early to avoid unwanted pregnancies, as a means of providing security to young girls and to avoid recruitment to militant groups. Even LTTE women must abide by traditional forms of feminine behaviour, although marriage is not permitted while a member (TamilNet, 2003).

Women’s physical mobility was restricted during the conflict, and the gradual collapse of support systems due to displacement and migration exacerbated women’s problems. Physical and psychological abuse within the home resulted from increased incidences of alcoholism (Wijayatilake, 2004). Redress usually is unavailable due to traditional insensitivity of law enforcement machinery, the existence of dual justice systems and the challenge to women’s agency (Maunaguru, 2005). While both genders experience stress, women are the more traumatised having to bear poverty, violence in the community and domestic violence (Jayaweera et al., 2004).

Women’s loss in conflict and violence against women: Persisting patriarchy

Kappalthurai is a very traditional village with prevalent patriarchal values. Observers found that women have a lower status in the household and in the community. Many men disapprove of women’s participation in community activities. Men do not disapprove of women’s participation in economic activities, nor do they have compunction in using women’s earnings. Alcoholism is prevalent among men. Gender-based violence reportedly is high and family disputes common. A survey by the Trincomalee District Youth Development Society showed that women are under mental stress due to domestic violence, difficult living conditions and the burden of household management. They also bear scars of the civil war that brought loss of family members, displacement and loss of assets. In the Naanthanvely D.S. Division of Ampara women identified men’s alcoholism as a major problem. Half of the adult males consume liquor, but women sell kasippu (a local brew). Alcoholism and domestic violence which were pervasive, reduced somewhat with arrival of the LTTE in Kalmunai, the signing of the MOU and establishment of a camp.

12 Women in the Jaffna peninsular have property rights but under the Tesawalami law they are unable to dispose or mortgage such assets without the written permission of the husband.

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