Casualties of War: Helping Sri Lanka's Female Soldiers

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Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi / Reuters

Female Tamil Tiger rebels run on a street as they head back to base after overnight guard duty in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka, on July 12, 2007

Right through our one hour interview, she kept twitching her fingers nervously. A blue handkerchief, neatly folded when we sat down, was a crushed mess by the time the we stopped talking. She did not want her real name used; instead, she wanted me to call her Selvi. A former member of the women's wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Selvi is, for the first time in her adult life, unsure about what she will do next. Like many of the women in their ranks, Selvi was a semi-forced recruit of the Tigers. Now the insurgency, is no more, their once-feared military might brought to naught by Sri Lankan government forces in May 2009.

In 1998, when Selvi was 18, the Tigers came to her home in the eastern district of Batticaloa looking for her brother. The insurgents' policy was for one member from each household to join them in areas they dominated, a rule that was strictly applied when they were hard pressed during prolonged military campaigns. The choice for Selvi's family was either the youngest boy or one of the two older sisters. As the eldest, Selvi volunteered, serving for eight years until, at a moment when the group was under increased pressure from government forces, she fled.

Now the Tigers are gone and war is no more. But with the best part of her youth wasted as an armed fighter with cropped hair and a gun in her hand, Selvi has few options. "What do I have? I have no education, no money, no job," she says, her voice cracking. "My life was robbed from me."

Stories of women falling victim to the vicious quarter century of war on this island are all too common. Sri Lanka's infighting ended almost two years back, but women on both sides of the former war divide are still battling hard to enjoy even the simple niceties of peace. "The women are a group of silent victims. They find it hard to raise their voice, individually or collectively," says Arundhathi Chandrathileke, the disaster relief coordinator for the Sri Lanka Girl Guides' Association that recently launched a national program to assist female victims of war.

There are those like Selvi, either forced in to combat or who participated in it by choice. Of the over 11,000 Tigers who surrendered or were taken into custody by government forces when the war ended at least 3,000 were female, more than half of which have now gone through government rehabilitation programs and been released. Then there are the widows of civilians killed during the war, the widows of combatants and wives of government soldiers injured or left handicapped who are now struggling in their new role as breadwinner. "What we found was that [the wives] are very young, in their 20's, and mostly did not have the professional training to find a job on their own," Chandrathileke says. According to a recent report on the former war zone by the Sri Lankan government and the UN, as much as 30% of some 110,000 families who fled the fighting are now headed by single women.

Gnanaganeshan Sivagowri is one of them. A resident from the village of Tharmapuram, in Killinochchi, once the political and administrative showpiece of the Tigers, her husband was killed in the final battles between the insurgents and the government as the family tried to flee to safety in April 2009. Since then, the 33 year old, who has no formal education, has been sewing to make a living to look after her five young children and her aging parents — a blind mother and a father with a bad knee. On a good day she barely makes $2 (Rs 200). On bad days — of which there are plenty — she makes nothing. "It is a daily struggle," she says. "When there's no work, the family suffers."

In Sri Lanka's east, where the fighting ended early in 2007, some estimates suggest that there are as many as 49,000 war widows, most of them who are now only in their mid 20s to 30s. And despite the new responsibility that brings, the patriarchal nature of their communities still dictates their lives. "It is still very much a set-up where the man does all the talking," says Chandrathileke. The Sri Lanka Girl Guides' Association provides vocational training, cash for income generation programs and helps out in job placement for women to help them adjust to their new roles. "We are slowly beginning to realize that there are thousands of women desperately needing help, all over the country."

Even if they find employment, for those once closely associated with the Tigers, that only guarantees partial security. "There is a lot of stigma," Chandrathileke says. Selvi knows it all too well. "Who would want to marry me?" she asks. "Even people in my own village prefer to keep their distance from me. I am the one who returned from the leper colony."