Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sri Lanka: Female ex-combatants face social stonewalling

Widow of a former Tamil Tiger rebel fighter who is also a former combatant

(IRIN) - Former female combatants in northern Sri Lanka face a tough time returning to civilian life, with fewer marriage, education and job prospects due to stigma, say aid workers and activists.

"Former female child soldiers are just not being perceived positively by society," said Thaya Thiagarajah, a senior official with the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India, noting how cultural and social barriers are the biggest barriers to their smooth reintegration.

Marriage prospects for female former rebels who fought with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are bleak, said Selvanayagam Selvantha, a local aid worker with the same church, located in the former conflict zone.

"Tamil society is very traditional. Parents do not want their sons to marry women ex-fighters," he added, noting how important marriage is to being accepted in the community.

Stigma will be the biggest hurdle in reintegrating female fighters, said women's rights activist Sunila Abeysekara, based in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.

"Women cadres are seen as women who [value] marriage [less because they] took up arms," she added. As a result, most female ex-combatants are "struggling to find normalcy" due to the weight of such judgment and suspicion.

She estimated there were about 3,000 female former rebels, but could not say how many were single.

"LTTE [was] a violent organization; many in society had suffered because of LTTE. Now LTTE is not there, society is free to express themselves against people who have been linked with LTTE. This problem is common for both men and women [ex-fighters]," Abeysekara said.

But it is women who are criticized most harshly, she noted.

Tamil Tiger separatist rebels waged a decades-long war - declared over in May 2009 - that displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern Sri Lanka.

Female ex-combatants face social stonewalling even at the earliest stages of their return to civilian life, according to Clive Jackniek, a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration senior programme manager with the International Organization for Migration.

"The biggest challenge I faced after returning home was the lack of employment, educational and future options to live a good life," said Jeya Kamalrajan, 18, who fought with the Tamil Tigers from 2007 to 2009.

"People do not want to hire me because they see me as a bad woman who joined the Tigers... I do not have a lot of plans - I want to live a decent life forgetting everything that happened in my past," she said.

Nalini*, 19, from Mullaitivu District, told IRIN she feared the Tamil Tiger "label" would be "stuck" with her for ever.

"I really want to move on - but I am not sure how to in this cultural setting because people distrust me for something I am not."

*Not her real name