The number of women engaged in sex work is said to be as many as 7,000, considered by some as a conservative estimate.
Vishaka Dharmadasa, head of the Association of War Affected Women, a northern-based NGO working with sex workers, says:
“This was a new finding during a [local] household survey on women-headed households and livelihood requirements. They are under immense pressure to provide for families in homes where men are either dead or reported missing. It has made a sizeable percentage of women to reluctantly turn to sex work.”
The government estimates there were over 59,000 women-headed households in the island’s north in 2012.
“They bear economic burdens once carried by their fathers, husbands or brothers. Poverty and lack of options are driving women to adopt commercial sex as an income generator,” Dharmadasa added.
She says the “strong” military presence in the north, along with men from the south taking jobs in the north’s building boom, were “somewhat regular reasons for an increase in commercial sex”.
In addition, an increased number of Sri Lankan-born Tamils from the diaspora visiting their place of origin since fighting ended four years ago, has also increased demand for commercial sex, Shanthini Vairamuttu, a community worker from the district of Jaffna, said.
Fending for themselves
Sexuality is largely considered taboo in the north where caste and class are still decisive factors in women’s subservience.
After fathers, women are cared for by their husbands and, thereafter, by sons. Following almost three decades of civil war, and the loss of thousands of the region’s men, this tradition and structure have crumbled, requiring women to fend for themselves when before they were discouraged from leaving their homes except for agricultural pursuits or education.
“The structures have changed and the trends are changing, causing the emergence of fresh social concerns,” Vairamuttu added. “There would have been the occasional sex workers in these villages but not to the extent that it became known to the community,” she added.
Sex work is illegal under Sri Lankan law.
“Thousands of Tamil men have died due to the war or been reported missing. [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/98715/analysis-mental-health-cost-borne-by-families-of-missing-in-sri-lanka ]
“There is no point in sweeping this issue [of women turning to sex work] under the carpet of cultural conservatism. It is happening and we require better livelihood support initiatives,”said Shreen Saroor, founder of the Mannar Women’s Development Federation and the Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy, which work with conflict-affected women in the north.
The director of the Jaffna-based Centre for Women and Development, Saroja Sivachandran, whose organization conducted a survey from 2010 to date of 1,500 female-headed households in the north (the survey is being finalized), said there is reason to believe the sex trade is “slowly taking root in a region that boasts of tradition and culture”.
Few livelihood options
Sivachandran said improved conditions are needed to give women (traditionally homemakers) sources of income other than sex work.
“We try to encourage them to look for other options. But they say they have little choice,” said a health worker working in the north’s Mannar District who preferred anonymity. “We provide the women with condoms and give advice on contraception as protection.”
“We may not know the level of the problem. In a country where commercial sex is illegal, the chances of finding the numbers would be difficult without substantial studies. But it deserves attention and action,” the country’s deputy minister of social services, Chandrasiri Sooriyarachchi, said.
The north’s patriarchal and highly conservative social structure linked to Hinduism, which is the predominant religion practised in the north among Tamils, has made it difficult for researchers to study sex work there, but health workers and activists working with women say the loss of so many of the region’s traditional breadwinners (men), intense disruption to women’s livelihoods wrought by the conflict, and the slow return to normalcy are key reasons behind their turning to sex work.
“I did not want to be a sex worker. I come from a respected Hindu family. My father and husband both died due to the war. I am the eldest in a family of three girls. I have to provide for my mother, two sisters and my only son,” said 29-year- old Vasugi Ramalingam*, a Kilinochchi resident, widowed since the age of 20.
Traditionally, Hindus consider widows to be inauspicious and unfit for remarriage, leaving Tamil women to care for their families alone in a region marked by widespread unemployment. [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/95488/sri-lanka-legacy-of-war-unemployment-and-homelessness ]
Separatist rebels with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) waged war for 26 years to carve out a separate ethnic state in the island’s north where the Tamil ethnic minority – 12 percent of the country’s population – forms the majority.
An estimated 60,000 lives were lost in the war which came to an end in May 2009 with the crushing of LTTE by government forces.
A UK-rights group has accused the Sri Lankan government of failing to address the marginalization and sexual abuse of women living in these former war zones in the north and east, an allegation officials dismiss as coming from a “diaspora-led false propaganda machinery”.
A report recently published [ http://www.minorityrights.org/download.php?id=1296 ] by the London-based Minority Rights Group (MRG) said rape and sexual harassment of women in former war zones in the north and east are continuing even after the end of a 26-year civil war in 2009, and that 89,000 widows (based on a 2010 government estimate) – including some 40,000 female-headed households [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/98285/bleak-future-for-sri-lanka-s-female-headed-households ] – are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, exploitation and assault by army personnel, domestic tourists and others due to the women’s poverty.
In a general culture of impunity, MRG authors wrote, Tamil and Muslim women (the two largest ethnic minorities in the former war zones, 12 and 8 percent of the general population, respectively) have feared reporting crimes to police.
The report cited data from Jaffna Hospital in the north of 102 reported cases of rape and “severe violence” against women and girls from Northern Province in 2010, 182 in 2011 and 56 in just February and March of 2012.
MRG’s South Asia expert, Farah Mihlar, wrote:
“Tamil and Muslim women are especially concerned for their safety and freedom, and yet have little course for redress since they fear reporting attacks against them to the authorities.”
The island’s military spokesman, said that of 125 people found guilty in civil courts of perpetrating sexual violence in the north between January 2007 and May 2009, seven were security forces personnel.
After fighting ended, from May 2009-2012, of 307 people found guilty in civil courts of committing crimes of sexual violence, 10 were soldiers, based on a military assessment.
He added: “We deny in the strongest terms that there is a prevailing culture of silence and impunity for sexual violence crimes,” noting that the government has taken “legal action” and that convicted soldiers are referred to the military tribunal for court martial.
Citing the army assessment, he wrote in a statement recently sent to journalists:
“It is worthwhile to notice that only 11 incidents out of a total 375 reported incidents [from January 2007-May 2012] can be attributed to security forces. Therefore the inference that the presence of the military contributes to insecurity of women and girls in the former conflict affected areas is baseless and disingenuous.”
The demographic shift following the civil war – from a largely homogenous Tamil community to one that includes more ethnic groups, including Muslim returnees [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/97297/briefing-sri-lanka-s-muslim-idps-25-years-on ] who had been forced out by Tamils in the late 1990’s, domestic tourists and, the authors wrote, the government-sponsored relocation of workers and households from the majority Sinhalese ethnic group, has heightened the threat of women being sexually exploited by armed forces and other men (sometimes from their own ethnic community) due to poverty.
“With the increasing presence of Tamil diaspora in their home towns (places of origin), community women have told us that their daughters are often being viewed as sexual objects and in some cases, been sexually assaulted,” a leading woman’s activist working in the north said.
For almost three decades, separatist rebels known as the LTTE fought for an independent state in the north carved along Tamil ethnic lines. Fighting ended in May 2009 with the crushing of rebels by government forces.
“After the conflict the situation has got a lot worse. People are less disciplined. There are outsiders who have come from other areas. There are lot of army people; they are in buses, everywhere,” said a Tamil woman from Mannar District, as cited in the MRG report.
The report explained how during the war, LTTE fighters (mostly followers of Hinduism) maintained a rigid code of conduct in areas it controlled, with sexual relations monitored and restricted to married couples. “While women do not necessarily approve of what the LTTE did, nor any similar regulation of their personal lives, the current context has left many feeling disoriented and insecure,” MRG wrote.
The current commissioner of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission [ http://www.hrcsl.lk/ ] (appointed by the president), Prathiba Lamanmahewa, told IRIN the island is committed to investigating all rights violations but will not be “bulldozed” by groups with vested interests.
“We have come a long way in post-war recovery. Most recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) [ http://www.presidentsoffice.gov.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=54:llrc-report&catid=53:nomenuarticles&Itemid=290 ], the blueprint for reconciliation, have been implemented.
Adequate steps have been taken to restore civil administration in the north and now there is a provincial council [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/98885/tough-times-ahead-for-sri-lanka-s-northern-provincial-council ] there. It is a process and Sri Lanka has fared better than many other conflict-ridden countries,” he said.
But local activists and residents continue calling for more [ http://www.irinnews.org/report/95785/sri-lanka-lot-of-talking-and-not-much-improvement-in-the-north ].
In interviews with some 1,800 households, a citizen group published a report in March [ http://groundviews.org/2013/03/14/the-numbers-never-lie-a-comprehensive-assessment-of-sri-lankas-llrc-progress/ ] this year concluding “little progress” had been made on the recommendations.
For allegations of sexual abuse, the MRG report called on the police to create Tamil-speaking desks in all police stations in former conflict zones, boost female representation among government officials in the north and east, as well as prosecute perpetrators.