Sri Lanka: Tamil women and the struggle for freedom

November 29, 2008

The below article is abridged from a speech given by Mano Navaratnam from the Tamil Ealam Women's Organisation (TEWO) at an October 30 Melbourne film screening of My Daughter the Terrorist, organised with the Socialist Alliance. The Tamil people, whose homeland is in the north and east of Sri Lanka, have been waging a long struggle for national self-determination against the Sri Lankan state.

The Sri Lankan government's war on the Tamil people is fought on many fronts. I think most of you only know about the military onslaught, the arbitrary arrests, disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

When we say it is genocide, we mean not only the physical extinction; but also the other forms of genocide — cultural, religious, educational and ecological.

To many who have been following the conflict, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are known only as a fighting force engaged in battle with the Sri Lanka government for the establishment of a Tamil state. Those who have cared to scrutinise beyond their fighting capability, acknowledge LTTE's endeavours and achievements as nation builders.

The defacto administration during 1990-1995 in the Jaffna peninsula and later in the Vanni during the ceasefire period has foreshadowed the potential for advancement towards nation building.

Many of the social reforms during this period stand proof of a just society as envisioned by the LTTE. Visits to the Tamil homelands during the ceasefire were eye openers. It was amazing to see what was achievable.

The LTTE has demonstrated its capacity to administer the Tamil areas, showing that they were not only fighting the massive Sri Lankan army but were also running an effective parallel administration inculcating self sufficiency and self respect in the minds of Tamils.

Though a highly literate society, traditionally most Tamil women were restrained by the age-old traditional manacles. There were selected professions like teachers, doctors and nurses, or office jobs that the women would aspire to.

With the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) atrocities against women and the loss of men, women joined the resistance. The first batch of trained women fighters were shunned by the then battle commanders, who refused to take them to the front.

But today we read how men are at the battlefront under the leadership of female commanders.

Women's advancement during this period was phenomenal. Tamil women have come out as leaders in the running of courts, police forces and other areas of civil administration. These reforms brought about tremendous changes in the mindset of Tamil society.

However, the resumption of war (by the SLA in 2006) has changed everything. We now have a section of the population, women as head of families, without providers as many of the men have perished in battle.

Previously sheltered women are now facing the responsibility of providing for their families.

In any war, women suffer the most. They are the target for sexual violence by the military forces. They are bereft of a livelihood. The disruption of family life has rendered these women totally alone.

Most have become the sole source of support for whatever is left of a family unit.

Added to this is the trauma of displacement. Hundreds of thousands have had to flee their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs, clutching their children and dragging their aged parents after them.

Tamil mothers also battle an inhuman embargo on food and medicines. They helplessly have to watch their children die in their arms through starvation or disease.

The aim of TEWO has been to support projects to help these women find that strength and that courage they so badly need. We also have a vision of what needs to be done both as short term and long term goals.

Most of all, we desire for a return to normalcy, so Tamil women can live the lives that we take for granted. They should be able to see their husbands go out and know that they will come home in the evening. Watch their children go to school and know that they will not be abducted or their daughters raped on the way home.

In the past, TEWO was able to fund a home for the young girls and provide funds for a coconut oil business run by single mothers. We also funded a shelter and care facility for mentally disturbed young women.

Nearly 3000 children have been orphaned by the aerial bombings and killings by the SLA.

With the escalation of the war in the Tamil homelands and the restrictions imposed in Australia on sending money even for humanitarian aid to the LTTE-controlled areas, we have not been able to assist these women and children as we used to.

The NGOs who were providing aid and assistance have been asked to leave by the Sri Lankan government. The Tamil people have been abandoned and now face aerial bombardments, starvation and annihilation at the hands of the SLA.

We need to enlist help for these traumatised women and children to find some sense of balance in their lives. Our long-term goals would be to help in the rehabilitation and empowerment of these Tamil women.

I would like to leave you with the thought that these selfless young women who are laying down their lives for the liberation of their people would, if not for the war, make great leaders, humanitarians and nation builders in a peaceful society.

It is heart-rending to realise that these women are giving their todays for our peaceful tomorrows.

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