Women in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil-speaking north and east are facing a desperate lack of security in the aftermath of the long civil war. Today many still live in fear of violence from various sources. Those who fall victim to it have little means of redress. Women’s economic security is precarious, and their physical mobility is limited. The heavily militarised and centralised control of the north and east – with almost exclusively male, Sinhalese security forces – raises particular problems for women there in terms of their safety, sense of security and ability to access assistance. They have little control over their lives and no reliable institutions to turn to. The government has mostly dismissed women’s security issues and exacerbated fears, especially in the north and east. The international community has failed to appreciate and respond effectively to the challenges faced by women and girls in the former war zone. A concerted and immediate effort to empower and protect them is needed.
Thirty years of civil war between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has resulted in tens of thousands of female-headed households in the north and east. Families throughout those areas experienced many waves of conflict, displacement and militarisation. In the war’s final stages in 2008 and 2009, hundreds of thousands of civilians in the northern Vanni region endured serial displacements and months of being shelled by the government and held hostage by the LTTE, after which they were herded into closed government camps. Most lost nearly all possessions and multiple family members, many of whom are still missing or detained as suspected LTTE cadres. When families eventually returned to villages, homes and land had been destroyed or taken over by the military. There was less physical destruction in the east, which was retaken by the government in 2007, but those communities have also suffered and now live under the tight grip of the military and central government.
These events have left women and girls vulnerable at multiple levels. In the Vanni in particular, their housing is inadequate, and they have limited means of transportation and employment opportunities. Many do not have sufficient funds to feed their families, let alone to care for those who were maimed or disabled in the war. The continuing search for the missing and the struggle to maintain relations with the detained are further strains. Children’s education was severely disrupted for years, and many are only slowly returning to school. The trauma of the war, especially the final months in 2009, is evident in every family. The conflict has badly damaged the social fabric.
The consequences for women and girls have been severe. There have been alarming incidents of gender-based violence, including domestic violence within the Tamil community, in part fuelled by rising alcohol use by men. Many women have been forced into prostitution or coercive sexual relationships. Some have also been trafficked within the country and abroad. Pregnancies among teenagers have increased. Fear of abuse has further restricted women’s movement and impinged on education and employment opportunities. The fact that women must rely on the military for everyday needs not only puts them at greater risk of gender-based violence, but also prevents them from building their own capacity within communities. The island-wide spate of attacks on women by individuals labelled “grease yakas (devils)”, which reached the north and east in August and into September 2011, and the lack of serious response by the security forces (except to brutally crack-down on protesters across the north and east, and especially in Jaffna), exposed the near-complete collapse of trust in law enforcement.
Militarisation and the government’s refusal to devolve power or restore local civilian administration in the north and east have directly contributed to this complex societal distress, which comes on the heels of the collapse of the repressive regime run by the LTTE. Over decades, the Tigers created an elaborate coercive structure around which people organised their lives. The absence of this structure has left many adrift. While this has had some important positive consequences, including for women, the devastation of the final year of war and the replacement of the LTTE in effect by the military and its proxies negate the gains for these communities. The experience and perception of pervasive insecurity are having profound harmful effects on women’s lives.
Instead of recognising these vulnerabilities and taking steps to protect women and girls, the government has largely ignored them. The heavily militarised and centralised systems of control in the north and east exclude most residents, but especially women from decisions that affect their security. While there are some female civilian officials and some programs nominally directed at women, all activities occur within a male, Sinhalese, military structure. The government has constrained access for international humanitarian organisations and even more so for local civil society. The vision of security the government has pursued is a masculine, militarised one. Human security is lacking.
The current situation in the north and east comes in the wake of serious accusations of sexual violence by the military against Tamil women at the end of the war and in the months thereafter. There is credible evidence to support some of these accusations. Yet cultural stigma, decades of impunity, and the government’s refusal to allow any independent investigation of the end of the war and its aftermath make it impossible to determine the full extent of misconduct. In a well-known rape case in the north in June 2010, criminal prosecution has been pending for eighteen months against four soldiers following concerted pressure from local women’s groups. But this is a striking exception.
The government’s overwhelming response to allegations of sexual violence has been to reject them, as it has done with video footage that shows what appears to be Sinhalese soldiers making sexual comments while handling the dead, naked bodies of female suspected LTTE fighters, some of whom have their hands bound. The long-awaited report of the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was delivered to the president on 20 November 2011 and released to the public on 16 December. Among its recommendations is one that the government initiate yet another “independent investigation” into the footage, which officials repeatedly have said was “faked”. Another government assessment of it now – without a complementary international one focused on alleged sexual violence – risks further feeding Tamil fears of such violence and the exploitation of those fears by some diaspora activists.
The international response to women’s insecurity has been unnecessarily muted. Not only have Sri Lanka’s international partners, including the United Nations, failed to speak out publicly and clearly about threats to women and allegations of abuse, but they have agreed to work within militarised structures that have amplified vulnerability and reduced transparency. Unless they do more to demand changes to those structures and to target funding and assistance at initiatives that can help protect and empower women, their engagement will be ineffectual, at best.
The following recommendations supplement and complement Crisis Group’s continuing calls – as set forth in Crisis Group Asia Report N°209, Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever, 18 July 2011 – for an international inquiry into the alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both the LTTE and government forces in the final stages of the war, as well as for the restoration of the rule of law and an end to corruption, impunity and authoritarianism throughout the country. While the government has promoted the LLRC as the cornerstone of its post-war accountability process, serious deficiencies in its independence, mandate and witness protection capacity have crippled it. The LLRC’s report, which acknowledges important grievances and makes a number of sensible recommendations, ultimately fails to question the government’s version of events with any rigour. Thus, in terms of accountability, the question remains: is the government willing and able to hold accountable those responsible for alleged crimes? To date it has failed to demonstrate that it is.
To the Government of Sri Lanka:
1. Acknowledge that women and girls in the north and east face serious threats to their economic and physical security and commit to reduce those threats, including by:
a) reducing the military presence in those areas substantially by closing military camps and checkpoints, returning all property seized by the military to rightful owners, ending the military’s involvement in commercial activities, fully demobilising troops – including investigating and prosecuting alleged abuses – and reintegrating soldiers with their families and into their communities;
b) devolving power to provincial and local government structures and officials in the north and east, including by expediting elections for the Northern Provincial Council and decentralising decision-making on economic development;
c) reforming the police presence in those areas by recruiting male and female Tamils and Muslims at all ranks and giving them real authority to better reflect the populations served, and by training the police to anticipate and respond to the security needs of women and girls, including as regards gender-based violence; and
d) prioritising reconstruction and development projects that will protect the rights of and empower women in those areas, including by committing government funds (see Recommendation 5 below for suggested projects).
2. Revise government policies that are increasing women’s vulnerability in the north and east, including by:
a) ending what is still in effect a state of emergency and military rule and ensuring anti-terrorism laws and practices are brought into line with international legal standards;
b) making available to family members the names and locations of all individuals detained for suspected involvement in the LTTE, including those in rehabilitation centres; providing detainees with access to lawyers and ensuring basic due process rights; and allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to monitor conditions of detention and facilitate family visitation and communication with detainees in all parts of the country;
c) stopping all ad hoc visits by the military to women’s homes as well as all surveillance of alleged former LTTE cadres unless it is demonstrated through a credible judicial process that they pose a threat to public safety; and otherwise ending the exercise of civilian functions by the military;
d) issuing accurate death certificates or declarations of absence for those who were killed or went missing in the conflict, without compromising the rights of family members to seek further information or remedies;
e) permitting full freedom of movement and assembly in the north and east, including for local women’s organisations; and
f) reducing restrictions on and improving access for humanitarian and civil society groups, and allowing them to increase levels of assistance – including to address psycho-social issues, reproductive health and gender-based violence – with input from local communities and local women’s groups.
To Sri Lanka’s International Partners, including China, India, Japan, the U.S., UK, EU and UN:
3. Evaluate all aid, investment and engagement in light of the risks of a return to conflict and of increasing women’s insecurity in the former war zone, and insist on meeting international standards and ensuring the highest levels of transparency, external monitoring and non-discriminatory community participation in setting priorities.
4. Highlight consistently in public and private communications the issues that affect all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities, including growing authoritarianism, militarisation, weak rule of law, impunity, corruption and repression of dissent, as well as gender-based violence and economic inequities for women.
5. Convene a high-level meeting of donors and other development partners, including the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, as well as community leaders and activists knowledgeable about women’s issues in the north and east, to agree upon and ratify with the government a strong set of principles for the delivery and monitoring of assistance – including accountability for past and continuing human rights abuses; and to fully fund a concrete set of reconstruction and development projects to be completed in 2012 that will help protect and empower women in the north and east, such as:
a) a comprehensive, independent assessment of the needs and vulnerabilities of this population;
b) expedited construction of safe, permanent housing and sanitation facilities for those at greatest risk of violence;
c) training, equipment and professional support for mobile health clinics staffed in part by local female residents;
d) support to and protection for local women’s groups to establish women’s centres for meetings, training and collective work spaces;
e) a nationwide program led by ICRC and local non-governmental partners to register and trace missing persons and facilitate family access to detainees;
f) initiatives to start collecting comprehensive data on, and better respond to, gender-based violence, including a nationwide violence-against-women help-line, the appointment of judicial medical officers (JMOs) for every district, and the establishment of women-friendly desks in all police stations so women can make complaints in their own language and in the presence of female officers;
g) training on gender-based violence and national domestic violence laws for all government officials and police officers in the north and east; and
h) training on gender-based violence and national domestic violence laws, reproductive health education and support, psycho-social support and demobilisation counselling for current and, as needed, former members of the security forces – provided by qualified local or international experts, not by other national militaries.
To the UN and Member States:
6. Endorse the findings and recommendations of various UN bodies regarding Sri Lanka, including the forthcoming report of the Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Conflict-related Sexual Violence; the Secretary-General’s upcoming review of UN actions during the final stages of the war, as announced in September 2011; the November 2011 report of the Committee Against Torture; the April 2011 report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability, and the February 2011 report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women – and ensure that the UN system, including the country team in Sri Lanka, works toward fulfilment of these recommendations.
7. Take action on these findings and recommendations, including at the Human Rights Council session in March 2012 and during Sri Lanka’s second Universal Periodic Review in September 2012.
8. Ensure, in particular, that the UN country team in Sri Lanka takes a strong stand to demand access and speak out about protection concerns, including for women and girls in the north and east, and that all UN staff and staff for UN-funded programs working in the north and east are adequately trained on the post-war needs and concerns of women in those areas and to engage the expertise of local women’s groups.
9. Review Sri Lanka’s contributions to UN peacekeeping operations and refrain from accepting new participation of its troops until there is a credible investigation of the allegations against the military in the UN panel of experts report.
Colombo/Brussels, 20 December 2011