Despite Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war being declared over in May 2009, scholars continue to describe the post-conflict state of the country as “fragmented.” With an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 citizens killed, according to the United Nations, and an unknown number raped and sexually tortured during the ethnic clashes, whole sectors of Sri Lankan society were left in pieces: civil society, ethnic groups, food supplies, and media outlets, to name a few.
Starting in 1983, the country’s civil war was rooted in ethnic tensions between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil-speaking minority. Sinhala nationalism gained power once the country gained independence from Britain. As the BBC reports, Tamils in the post-colonial period lobbied for self-rule—a separate, independent state called Tamil Eelam—while the Sinhala majority, previously marginalized by the British ruling powers, fought to crush them. In July of 1983—what is now called “Black July”—Tamil rebels killed members of the military; race riots broke out in retaliation, and between 400 to 3,000 Tamils were estimated to have been killed in just one week, according to the BBC.
Relatives of abducted civilians cry while holding pictures of their loved ones during a meeting of the Civil Monitoring Committee in Colombo in April 2007. More than 1,000 civilians have been abducted in the last 16 months, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission. (Amantha Perera/IRIN)
The official conflict came in stages, with three separate “Eelam wars” from the Tamil Tigers’ perspective. By the war’s end, the Sinhalese government became known for its use of mass murder and its tactic of using rape and sexualized torture as a weapon. Charu Lata Hogg, a scholar who penned a groundbreaking Human Rights Watch report released in February 2013, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that the use of rape as a tactic likely peaked right after the war ended.
But what sets Sri Lanka’s conflict apart from many others is that sexualized violence was not used by all sides. While government, paramilitary, and rebel forces all violated human rights, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or the Tamil Tigers, successfully trained their fighters not to rape, according to multiple sources. The LTTE, famous for suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, displacement, forced recruitment of child soldiers, and murder, reportedly did not use sexualized violence as a weapon.
Adding to Sri Lanka’s instability during intervals of brutal ethnic conflict was a tsunami that devastated the nation in 2004 and killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankan citizens, according to Jason Enia, a scholar at the University of Southern California. In the aftermath, as Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine and as Sri Lankan activists report, the Sri Lankan government and foreign investors took advantage of the post-disaster chaos to build a glittery tourism destination where fishing communities had previously existed.
In his 2012 book The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, Gordon Weiss, a journalist, former aid worker, and former UN spokesman, writes: “Under the guise of development, the Sri Lankan government is indeed using its army to control the economy of Tamil-majority areas, and to change the demography. Rather than justifiable security precautions and policing, its writ is characterized by disappearances, sexual violence, and a menacing presence to enforce a programme of exploitation.”
But reports of sexualized violence in Sri Lanka are hard to investigate, according to experts who spoke to WMC’s Women Under Siege. Local activists say that organizations are forced to seek permission from a presidential task force to work on issues of sexualized violence, which means that most organizations are thus prevented from working on the issue at all. The sources say that several researchers are working to interview and organize survivors furtively, without permission from the authorities.
We spoke to one Sri Lankan activist, whom we’ll call “SP” to protect her safety. SP, who is also a community organizer, conducts research on the forbidden topic of state-sponsored sexualized violence. She told us that in early 2013, an intelligence officer surprised her at her home and questioned her about her research. SP, along with other, U.S.-based activists who frequently travel to the region, said that any mention of their organizations, let alone their names, would put them in great danger because their work is de facto illegal. She said that other researchers or activists who have documented state-sponsored violence have been attacked by members of the military, and that female activists in particular are sometimes targeted with sexualized violence.
The Sri Lankan government has also cowed the local media into silence, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Many journalists have said they practice self-censorship out of fear for their lives. The country is one of the worst in the world for deadly, anti-press violence, CPJ research shows, and is ranked fourth on the organization’s Impunity Index, which “calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country’s population.”
How Sexualized Violence Is Used as a Weapon of War
To exert power: State security forces appear to have been the main perpetrators of sexualized violence. A groundbreaking Human Rights Watch report on sexualized violence against Tamil citizens, released in February 2013, found that rape is a regular aspect of military and police proceedings, with “army, police, and pro-government paramilitary groups frequently participating.”
To control communities, territory, or natural resources: The Sri Lankan government, known for its lack of accountability and continued violence, acknowledged using rape as a tactic in certain instances for this reason. In a 1997 government report, the state’s own representatives found that “violence against women was used as a tool of control of a community (family, village, peers).”
To gather information: HRW states that rape was “one of the unlawful tools used by the Sri Lankan military and police” to gain intelligence about the Tamil Tigers both during and after the war. Sexualized violence was also used to force detainees, like the ones HRW interviewed, to “confess” to LTTE membership.
For ethnic cleansing: Although state security forces have used rape against other communities as well, their main target has been the Tamil population. Indeed, HRW says, “there appears to be no category of Tamil who, once taken into custody, is immune from rape and other sexual violence.”
SP explained how sexualized violence fits into the larger context of “Sinhalization”—the Sinhalese government’s attempt to stamp out Tamil culture on several fronts. In the post-conflict period since 2009, the state has continued to employ militarized zones that aid in “land grabbing” Tamil areas, and has tried to eradicate the Tamil language by employing tactics that include using only the Sinhala language to advertise public bus routes.
Human rights workers, as the U.K.’s Telegraph reported in 2009, have also accused the government of ethnic cleansing (however, they have done so anonymously, presumably for their own on-the-ground safety). In this context, rape perpetrated primarily against the same group may constitute part of a larger pattern of ethnic cleansing.
The U.N. defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing not only makes women subject to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy "inferior" wombs with "superior" sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of "inferior" groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.
Patterns of Violence
● Researchers agree that the LTTE, though known for murder, displacement, and the forcible recruitment of child soldiers, including young girls, purposely avoid sexualized violence, including the use of rape against civilians and the use of sexualized slavery and rape within its own ranks. Elisabeth Wood, a political scientist at Yale University, found in her research on sexualized violence in conflict that the LTTE, while actively committing other war crimes, eschews the use of rape as a weapon against civilians and even punishes any members who do rape.
Jo Becker, an expert on child soldiers in Human Rights Watch’s children’s rights division, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that LTTE members strictly avoiding using rape within their own ranks as well. When she interviewed former girl child soldiers from the conflict, they reported a lack of sexualized violence—something Becker called “one of the most interesting aspects” of her research, given that children in other conflicts have “routinely reported rape or being forced to become a wife [or] sexual slave to a military commander.”
● The rape and sexualized abuse of detainees by Sri Lankan government forces has been widely studied. Human Rights Watch reports that state security forces continue to detain mostly Tamil women and men, accuse them of being affiliated with the LTTE, and subject them to sexualized violence. There have also been cases reported to HRW of state security forces using sexualized violence against Sinhalese women and men in police custody, and against Muslim Tamil speakers (as opposed to the Hindu Tamil speakers at whom much of the state’s violence has been aimed).
● In documenting 75 detention-related cases of sexualized violence, HRW found that the direct perpetrators were male, but that “uniformed female police officers assisted in the torture and rape of both men and women. … Women police officers tied up and shackled detainees to expose them, stripped them of their clothes, threw chili powder in their faces, and participated in their near asphyxiation with petrol-infused plastic bags.”
● Human Rights Watch also found reports of sexualized violence and torture in addition to rape, including “bites on the buttocks and breasts, and cigarette burns on sensitive areas like inner thighs and breasts.” Sexualized torture is not limited to female victims, HRW writes. Two men reported to the organization that security personnel had inserted a sharp needle into their penis. In one case, “this was used to insert small metal balls into their urethra by army personnel; the metal balls were later surgically removed by doctors abroad after the victim complained of discomfort and pain.”
● SP told WMC’s Women Under Siege that pro-government forces currently abduct and rape girls or young women for several days, then send them home blindfolded so they are unaware of where they were held. (HRW’s interviews with survivors corroborate this pattern.) SP also said that survivors are prevented from reporting the rapes through fear of retaliation. “They are kept quiet—so quiet,” she said.
● Sexualized violence is used against women whose husbands have already been disappeared or detained, SP said. She said one woman received a letter stating that her husband was being held in a jail far from her village. The woman followed the letter’s instructions so she could speak to the individuals who claimed to have information about her husband’s whereabouts. But she realized too late that it was a trap. Men abducted the woman and raped her for hours. The woman reported the attack to the police, who merely laughed at her, SP said.
● Activists say that in another pattern—revictimization—the women who report being raped face additional brutality or harassment from the police. SP said she has heard of multiple instances in which women report attacks to the police and are then sexually harassed by officers, who use their contact information to make lewd and threatening phone calls late at night.
● Reports have also surfaced about crimes being committed by “grease devils”: military men who are naked and put grease on their faces, presumably to hide their identities, and attack women in their homes at night. SP says that women have told her about grease devils raping them and also biting their breasts—a violation reported by various survivors.
But some journalists, such as Charles Haviland at the BBC and Hannah Tennant-Moore in a story for Guernica, have questioned the boundary between “fantasy” and reality in this regard. In 2012, Tennant-Moore published an article under the title “The Grease Devil Is Not Real,” while Haviland stated in 2011: “Some insist it is some kind of government plot; others believe it is a spike in crime—or a figment of people’s imagination.”
Yet Sri Lankan activists maintain that the grease devils are real and, in addition to committing rape, sometimes also steal the victim’s belongings.
● A type of sexualized violence called “survival sex” also seems to be increasing among internally displaced women. Many who live in displacement villages are becoming sex workers—although the term may be inaccurate, given that they are not freely entering into the sexual relationships, SP points out. In IDP and refugee camps throughout the world, a sexual act in exchange for rations or other survival aid occurs under force and is therefore defined as rape, according to the International Criminal Court.
● As in many global IDP camps, women may also be targeted while they are searching for resources outside their displacement zones, one U.S.-based expert told WMC’s Women Under Siege. In Sri Lanka, women used to collect resources in groups, she said, but the military has issued a rule that says displaced women can search for resources from the sea, like fish, only two at a time—which may make them vulnerable to attacks.
● Research shows that citizens who have lived abroad—many to escape the violence at home—are often raped upon their return to their country. In its report on sexualized violence in Sri Lanka, HRW states that a number of cases involved individuals returning from abroad because they had either returned voluntarily or been deported. The report documented one case in 2010 in which a man said he was taken into custody upon arriving at the Colombo airport after “having exhausted his asylum claims in France.” He said he was detained for more than a month, interrogated about LTTE activities in France, burned, beaten with hot metal rods, and repeatedly raped. In April 2013, ABC News wrote about a Tamil man who had fled Sri Lanka to live in Australia and said he was raped by security personnel within a week of returning to Sri Lanka.
A 2011 United Nations report on Sri Lanka states that rape and sexualized violence “against Tamil women during the final stages of the armed conflict and, in its aftermath, are greatly under-reported.”
The Human Rights Watch report on the rape of 75 detainees states that as a result of the organization’s inability to conduct research openly in Sri Lanka, or to interview people in custody, the number of cases it cited “likely represent[s] only a tiny fraction of custodial rape in political cases.” However, the report states, “the relatively large number of sexual abuse cases we were able to document among a group of former detainees using similar methods and occurring in a number of locations across the country strongly suggests that these abuses were widespread and systematic during the final years of the conflict and in the years since.”
Hogg, the expert who authored the HRW report, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that although it is “difficult to assess numbers and patterns … sexual violence appears to have been more rampant during 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.” At this time, Hogg said, “a large population was detained” without access to international or domestic humanitarian aid, and security forces were targeting displaced persons under suspicions of ties to the LTTE—targeting that continues today.
A study conducted in 2000 by members of Médecins Sans Frontières also highlights some concerns of under-reporting. The study, which was published in 2002 in the medical journal The Lancet and evaluated IDPs in Sri Lanka for exposure to traumatic stress, finds: “Instances of rape were low (five of 162), but there were concerns about under-reporting since 60% of respondents (97) claimed to have heard of rape cases.”
And although this statistic wasn’t parsed in terms of conflict-related violence, the International Business Times reported in January 2013 that the Sri Lanka’s Socialist Women’s Union had determined that a woman is raped “every 90 minutes and that almost one-half of all crime recorded in the country are rapes of women and girls (mostly females under the age of 16).”
SP said five cases of rapes-disappearances take place every day in the country’s north and northeast regions. That estimate is based on her own research, she said, which includes interviews with survivors.
HRW also reported that although much research focuses on the rape of Tamil women and men, “rights organizations monitoring torture in Sri Lanka have documented over a thousand cases of torture of Sinhalese men and women in police custody over the past dozen years, many of which involved sexual violence and rape.”
Cultural Gender Attitudes
In 2010, the UNDP ranked Sri Lanka 72nd on its “Gender Inequality Index.” But perhaps more helpful in illustrating the tenor of gender relations is one women’s group’s estimate that “90 percent of women who ride on public transport have been ‘abused’ in one way or another by men.”
SP put it another way: A woman in her country is viewed “as an entertainment good, not a human being.” Women are so devalued, she said, that when a couple gets married and tries to have a child, “they expect a boy first.”
And despite the fact that women contribute to their family’s income and that of their country, their work is devalued as well. As Sepali Kottegoda, director of Sri Lanka’s Women and Media Collective, puts it, “Prevailing social norms place men as heads of households, as the key decision maker in the family despite women’s equal or at times higher economic contributions to many households.”
First-person testimonies are hard to obtain in communities still threatened by rape and ethnic-political violence. Human Rights Watch has published what is likely the most comprehensive set of testimonies to date, though they state that the testimonies are limited to stories of rape in detention, as opposed to those within villages, battlefields, and other settings.
A 27-year-old woman whom HRW calls DV told researchers that army personnel abducted her from her home after she had lodged a complaint about the illegal detention of her husband several days earlier. She described the slur they used as well as the sexualized violence:
The officials who came for me behaved indecently. They abused me and called me a "Tamil bitch" in Sinhala. They pushed me into a van. I was held face down in the van. They drove me for an hour, then stopped and took me out. I was taken to a small, dark room where they recorded my details. I later came to know that they took me to Panagoda army camp.
They started questioning me. They asked me about my husband’s involvement with the LTTE. They beat me with sticks and wires. Always, the questions were followed by beating. They sexually harassed me during the questioning. They touched me indecently and told me I was beautiful. There were always two or three people who questioned me and tortured me. They showed me some photographs and asked me to identify the LTTE members. The officials who questioned me were in Sri Lankan army uniform.
At night, I was left alone in the room. On the first night, two officials came to my room and dragged me to another room that looked like the duty officer's room. There was a bed in the room. The two officials raped me one after the other on the floor.
DV told Human Rights Watch her uncle had to pay a bribe to a brigadier at the Panagoda army camp in order to get her released. Even so, she was released on “reporting conditions,” meaning that she was required to make regular visits to the police station following her ordeal.
A 25-year-old woman called UM recounted how security forces raped her repeatedly. UM had first fled Mullivaikal in April 2009, in the last weeks of the war, and was then detained at Arunachalam camp. In 2009, she told HRW, army personnel took her to another camp:
They questioned me about my links with the LTTE and asked about my activities. I said I was forced to work for LTTE and didn’t know anything. They didn’t believe me. They beat me, pulled my hair, and banged my head on a wall. They beat me with their hands and kicked me with their boots. One of the soldiers said, "We will teach you a lesson." I lost consciousness that day and when I came to, I realized I had been raped. Then more soldiers came and raped me. This went on for many days. I can’t remember how many times and how many soldiers raped me.
Rapes have continued since the war’s end. A 29-year-old Tamil man told HRW how officials raped him after arresting him in April 2012—three years after the war was officially declared “over”:
The police officials accused me of being an LTTE member and returning to Sri Lanka from abroad to revive the LTTE. They blindfolded me and pushed me into a jeep. They kept asking me the same questions, about which other LTTE members I worked with, my activities abroad. I kept refusing to answer. I was beaten up with several objects, burned with cigarettes, suspended from the ceiling, sexually abused, and raped. I was raped by different people for three nights—it was dark so I couldn’t tell their faces.
Violence, including sexualized violence, continues to haunt civilians. As Patricia Lawrence, an anthropologist who conducted research in eastern Sri Lanka on MacArthur Foundation and other grants, writes in Women and the Contested State: Religion, Violence, and Agency in South and Southeast Asia that women in the Tamil minority “confront life on a contested terrain where torture, disappearances, displacement, and politically motivated murder persist.” Some, she says, “have chosen to take up weapons with the LTTE” to fight the government for Tamil self-governance, others “view the violence of war as the enemy, and still others have experienced such severe personal disabilities and loss that a sense of agency in relation to the war is unavailable to them.”
The International Crisis Group has said that the civil war has “badly damaged” the country’s social fabric as a result of “alarming incidents of gender-based violence, including domestic violence within the Tamil community, in part fuelled by rising alcohol use by men.”
Human Rights Watch describes the dearth of options for support that women can receive for the trauma they experienced during the conflict and its aftermath. “Since mid-2011,” HRW writes, “a small number of NGOs have been given permission to provide psychological counseling and related support so long as they work through local government health services.”
Still, Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, said in a press release that Sri Lanka’s government has “hindered medical and psychological treatment for rape victims.” Adams explained that in the country’s largely Tamil north, “the army has effectively prohibited local and international organizations from providing services for sexual violence survivors.”
The ICG also corroborated what WMC’s Women Under Siege has learned from Sri Lankan activists. Women, the group says, have been “forced into prostitution or coercive sexual relationships,” while others have been trafficked both within the country and abroad. Moreover, the fact that women must rely on the military for everyday needs means that women’s agency has been further curtailed, the group explains.
In an April 2013 story, Time magazine cites Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of Sri Lanka’s Center for Policy Alternatives, speaking about the violence that has continued since the conflict was declared over in 2009. “It was the end of a war, but not the end of conflict,” Saravanamuttu says.
In March of 2013, the Wall Street Journal reports, 25 of 46 member countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva “voted for a strongly worded U.S.-sponsored resolution” calling on Sri Lanka’s government to conduct an “independent and credible investigation” of alleged war crimes against the Tamil population. But what the Journal calls “strongly worded” was “watered down,” according to some rights groups. As The Australian reports, “Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said the original UN resolution had been watered down at the insistence of India, which had been seeking a consensus vote that would garner Sri Lanka’s co-operation.”
Although the government has created commissions of inquiry to “examine a number of serious human rights issues,” the UN states in its March 2011 report on accountability in Sri Lanka that “overwhelmingly these commissions have failed to result in comprehensive accountability for the violations identified.” The UN identifies “typical flaws” in the commissions, such as failure to sufficiently protect victims and witnesses and political manipulation of a commission’s work.
Other human rights groups, including HRW as well as the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International, “refused to appear” at a 2010 commission, according to the BBC, citing a lack of independence and international standards.
Before these more recent international legal motions, the government of Sri Lanka made its own move to deal with the rape crisis. In 1995, as HRW explains, the state “reformed Sri Lanka’s rape laws to better address the rape of detainees,” with penal code changes that recognized rape in custody and gang rape as crimes. Yet those laws do not seem to have changed much in practice. As HRW’s more recent report shows, the government continues, 18 years later, to use rape in custody as a weapon.
In its 2013 report, HRW states: “Impunity for serious human rights violations, including torture and rape, by state security forces is endemic in Sri Lanka.”
(Michele Lent Hirsch/published on July 12, 2013)