The state sponsored genocide of the Tamil populace in Sri Lanka is one of the most deplorable acts of violence anywhere in the world. Here’s a little background on how things unfolded and how it affected the refugee women from the said community. The Sinhala nationalist regime of the country actively relegated the Tamils to second class citizens. In response to this, a civil war broke out—anti-Tamil pogroms were rife and there was a mass exodus of the afflicted group to the neighboring country of India.
As per the unwritten rule of any war, this war too was not just fought on land but also on the bodies of women. In the words of Asha Hans, a leading campaigner of women’s rights, “Stripped of material possessions, dignity and self-esteem, they (Tamil women) bring with them into exile the trauma of sexual violation, of helplessly watching their children die, or of being continually stalked by violence.”
Unfortunately, refugee policy and international conventions were oblivious to the lived experiences of these women in camps.
Life Prior to the Civil War
Sri Lankan women were the first group of women to be granted adult suffrage in Asia, but they were still shackled by patriarchal norms. Needless to say, Tamil women had it worse. The intersection of identities of the average Tamil woman meant that she also faced oppression along the fault lines of ethnicity, caste and class.
Despite the negative societal forces that were at play, the Tamil community of Sri Lanka was governed with more liberal rights as compared to its Indian counterpart. Before being accorded the status of refugees, Sri Lankan Tamil women had better legal protection and the country’s outlook towards women’s rights was more progressive. The majority of these women were accustomed to a decent standard of living as a virtue of Sri Lanka’s commendable Human Development Index (HDI). They could boast of high literacy rates and health status. They also donned western outfits for which they later faced censure in India’s Tamil Nadu.
Why Tamil Women had no Choice but to Flee their Homeland?
The year of 1983 bore witness to the onset of the terror that was openly unleashed on Tamil insurgent groups and Tamil civilians by Sinhala supremacists. This prompted the first wave of refugees to flee to India. Tamil women, in particular, were not just victims of genocide and statelessness. Rape and forced prostitution were commoditised as weapons of warfare and were rampantly used against them. Caught in the crossfire, they were not only harassed by Sinhala nationalists but also by the Indian Peacekeeping Force (IPKF) which was sent to Sri Lanka in 1987.
Further, women who were subjected to violence became social outcasts due to stigma and impunity. In view of their mounting physical and psychological traumas, some of them were sucked into the insurgency movement led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant separatist organization. Tamil women were promised social emancipation along with independence from their Sinhalese subjugators.
Thus, they simultaneously became militants and refugees. In an attempt to defend themselves from their oppressors, a group of rural women used chili powder, rice pounders and knives. In the absence of access to ammunition, women across the world are often known to have turned household objects into makeshift weapons to protect themselves. “Natural defiance of the women from the lower classes remained a remarkable feature as opposed to the pliability of upper class women.” Tamil women displayed immense vulnerability and courage as their lives oscillated from occupation and exile.
Life in Refugee Camps in India
Tamil women came to India via the Palk Strait bearing the weight of sexual assault, separation and loss. They were forced to repress their traumas and fend for themselves in exile. Research indicates that a peculiar paradox governs the position of women refugees worldwide. Although they suffer the most and are vulnerable in many ways, it is women who form the backbone of their communities in refuge. Tamil refugee women were not immune to this predicament. The burden of management fell on them and they took up more active roles as compared to their male counterparts. They coped with domestic work and changed familial structures, and were also responsible for keeping their traditional values alive. Further, “…they are the ones who must reestablish the family in exile, so too will they be the ones to recreate the familial environment on return to the homeland,” as Judy Mayotte, an author, commented.
Tamil Nadu is ethnically similar to Sri Lanka, but life here still felt different in many ways. In this altered socioeconomic, political and cultural environment, they were admonished for their choice of clothing. They had to adapt to the dressing style of their host community which included sarees for older women and half sarees for younger women. Men, in contrast, were not exposed to censure of this sort. As it does everywhere else, patriarchy infiltrated life in camps too.
However, single women often took over as camp spokespersons even though the position of camp leaders were reserved for men. Women belonging to the lower castes worked outside the camps, but the family as an economic unit began to lose its former relevance. Teenage pregnancy, sexual harassment and lack of privacy were common problems in camps which compounded the psychological stress of refugee women. They had to traverse long miles for water and bathing. They were only provided with the bare minimum in the prison-like barbed wire camps and the then Government of India practically left them out of its development plans.
The Question of Rehabilitation and Recent Developments
Repatriation began in 1992. Men were repatriated first. They were subsequently followed by women and children, who stated the reason for return as family unification. Returnees continued to live in peril and were not granted the protection they needed. Several women however, wished to stay back in Tamil Nadu as they did not intend to inhabit a land that was still being ravaged by war. Theirs is a story that is tainted by immeasurable trauma along with constant fear, survivor’s guilt and anger. Theirs is also a story of community—shared joys and sorrows, and the display of indomitable spirit.
A decade after the Sri Lankan Civil War ended, the government of India passed the exclusionary Citizenship Amendment Act which rendered this stateless populace even more disadvantaged. According to a news report by Al Jazeera, “India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) aims to fast-track citizenship for persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhist, Jains and Christians who arrived in India before December 31, 2014, from Muslim-majority Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The law excludes nearly 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, an ethnic minority living in India, including about 60,000 in camps in southern Tamil Nadu state.”
Although they were practically left out of mainstream discourse and anti-CAA protests, they continue to demand rehabilitation and redressal in a resolute attempt to restore dignity at least for future generations.
- Sri Lankan Tamil Refugee Women In India – Refuge: Canada’s journal on refugees (by Asha Hans)
- The Quint
Featured Image Source: Ground Views