Women and children in the North: Sexual harassment, grievances and challenges

In September 2013, Watchdog travelled to the Vanni[1] and met with survivors of sexual violence, women’s rights activists and representatives of women’s groups. This report is based on information provided during interviews conducted with them, Human Rights organisations based in the North and Colombo and Government sources. During our interactions with these groups, we learnt of a disturbing trend of minors being subject to sexual violence over the last several months. In addition, we also spoke to war widows, single women and former female combatants who continue to face harassment and abuse at the hands of the military and from their own community.

In December 2011, more than two years after the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, the International Crisis Group (ICG) published a report titled “Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East[2]. The report detailed the plight of women in the Vanni region- sexual violence, trafficking and exploitation of young women, struggles of female- headed households to rebuild their livelihoods, the climate of fear and intimidation women live in, the lack of psychosocial care for survivors of sexual violence and the culture of impunity prevalent in the region. Nearly two years on, the issues highlighted in the ICG report remain mostly unaddressed by the Government and its agencies and, by all accounts, appear to have worsened. Further, the systematic repression of women’s rights and the callous disregard for their security also continues to remain under-reported by mainstream media in the South of Sri Lanka.

Sexual violence against minors

A disturbing trend in cases of sexual violence[3] is the targeting of minors. In Kilinochchi and Vavuniya, between January and Septembder 2013 alone, we learnt of four cases of 7-8 year old girls being raped by either the military or men from the community, highlighting the level of impunity in the community and the helplessness and oppression of women and children living in the North.

In May 2013, a 7 year- old girl child in Nedunkerny, Vavuniya was raped[4] while on her way back from school. The child was punched, her ear and mouth bitten, and blood dripping down her thighs when villagers found her. The man taken into custody was a soldier attached to the Army camp in Kanakarayankulam, Vavuniya. The police had informed the child’s mother and villagers that the soldier had been involved in a ‘similar incident’ previously and news reports indicate that the soldier had been released on bail in the earlier case[5].

While military personnel and those attached to the security apparatus are largely shielded from conviction or prosecution for crimes committed by them, civilian perpetrators too appear to be emboldened by the climate of impunity in the region.  In September 2013, a 7 year old girl in Konavil, Kilinochchi was raped by her neighbour, whilst another 7 year old in Jayanthinagar, Kilinochchi was raped by her brother-in-law. The girl had been admitted to the Kilinochchi Hospital. According to local activists, the perpetrators in both cases, were bailed out in a matter of months, and continue to live among the survivors. Further, local activists told us that as many in these communities are also fluent in spoken Sinhala, they are able to talk their way out of any serious punishment from law enforcement authorities.

In 2012, an 8-year-old was allegedly gang-raped by a group of four men in Aanaivilundhaan (Kilinochchi District). In this case too, the perpetrators managed to evade serious repercussion as the police were paid off to reduce the seriousness of the charges. The girl was later admitted to a hostel, where she still resides. The rapists are all free now and no further progress has been made in this case.

In March 2012, a 13 year old girl from Delft (Jaffna District) was raped and killed by a former EPDP[6] cadre[7]. The accused is still in remand.

On 22 October 2013, a Virakesari report detailed the story of a child who was sexually abused by a monk at a Children’s Home in Vavuniya. The child, a male, who was 8 when he was admitted to the Sethsevana Children’s Home in Attambaskanda, Vavuniya in 2011, had revealed that he was abused by Attambaskanda Kalyanatissa Thero while four others would restrain him. After being refused visits to her son on a number of occasions, the child’s mother had complained to Government officials and the Police after which the child had been allowed to leave with the mother in December 2012. Complaining of pain during urination, he was admitted to Vavuniya Hospital where it was revealed that he had been extensively abused. The mother in her statement says that the monk had berated her in filth and threatened her stating that the Army, Police and CID were “all on his side”. The mother and child are now under the care of the National Child Protection Authority in Colombo where, it is reported, that 27 children from the said Children’s Home have been brought for further care.

Insecurity due to militarisation

Contrary to the government’s claims, the ever increasing presence of the military in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, has only served to disintegrate the social fabric of the community and exacerbate the battles faced by the women of this region.

The specifics of a number of sexual crimes reported earlier this year typify the increasingly violent nature of such crimes.

In August 2013, a woman from Pooneryn was raped and reportedly left for dead by two men wearing khaki pants and green t-shirts. One of the men had sat on her chest while the other had repeatedly raped her. After her treatment at the Kilinochchi Hospital, military personnel had escorted her to the local camp and provided her with dry rations. Local activists had learnt of the incident only after the woman was re- admitted to the Kilinochchi Hospital to be treated for internal bleeding, a month after the rape. Following the attack, the military had handed over a local fisherman to the Police, accusing him of having committed the sexual assault. However, the nature of her injuries indicate that there had been more than one assailant, and the fisherman, currently being held in remand, does not bear the initial description of her attackers.

In 2010, a 22-year old woman from Visuwamadu (Kilinochchi District) was gang raped by 4 military personnel. As the female tenant living in the survivor’s house was originally from the hill country, she was well versed in spoken Sinhala and therefore military persons would frequent their home and chat to her. On the night of 6 June 2010, some of the military personnel who’d visited their home earlier in the day to strike up a conversation with the elderly tenant had come to their house, intoxicated and wearing civilian attire. They had beaten up the survivor’s brother. Having chased the brother out of the house, the military had dragged her to the bushes nearby and raped the 22- year old. They had then left her there and returned to their base. As it had been a rainy day, their footprints leading back to the camp were visible in the mud.

The Visuwamadu Police arrested the 4 men following an identification parade. After being held in remand for 6 months, they were eventually released on conditional bail. One of the perpetrators didn’t show up after several Magisterial Court hearings and his whereabouts are still unknown. The case has now been committed to the High Court and an indictment has been served.

Most recently, the decomposed and mutilated body of a 47 year old woman, displaced from Nelukkulam (Vavuniya District) was found at the temple chariot park site of the Naachchimaar Kovil, in the Jaffna town on 17th October, 2013. Medical sources in Jaffna have confirmed that she had been gang-raped, had acid thrown on her and killed.[8] She had been living at the Holy Family Convent in Jaffna and is reported to have been mentally traumatized by the war. She had been reported missing since the 3rd of October this year.

In February this year Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a damning report[9] on sexual violence inflicted upon detainees in custody suspected of being members or supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The report detailed systematic sexual violence against detainees of both genders, blocking of investigations into the cases, absence of prosecutions of the perpetrators and the lack of services to the survivors of such violence. The report went on to claim that cases of sexual violence, torture and ill- treatment “occurred in military camps and police stations in the capital, Colombo, and other locations in the south and east far from any fighting”[10].

In a report titled “Sexual violence in conflict”[11] tabled at the General Assembly in March 2013, the Secretary- General of the UN expressed concern at sexual violence crimes, sexual harassment and abuse and military presence in Northern Sri Lanka. However, he quoted the Government of Sri Lanka as stating that between January 2007 and May 2012 only 11 incidents of sexual violence were attributed to military personnel and that legal action had been taken against all of them.

In its latest report[12] released this past week, the Minority Rights Group International (MRG) claims that “the government is actively contributing to the insecurity” of these women by “maintaining the climate of impunity” through militarization of the north.

Military Spokesman Brig. Ruwan Wanigasooriya flatly denied[13] the contents of MRG and earlier HRW reports. He noted that during the period of the conflict (January 2007- May 2009) seven security forces personnel were involved in cases of sexual violence. During the post- conflict period (May 2009 to May 2012) ten soldiers were involved in incidents of sexual violence, he added. However, his note made no mention of the specific incidents the soldiers were involved in, or of the status of legal or internal disciplinary proceedings against them.

Sexual harassment of Female- Headed Households 

The case from Mullaitivu, reported below, is clearly indicative of the vulnerability and insecurity faced by women in the Vanni, and exposes the dire predicament of their circumstances. In mid-September, a 19-year-old girl who was walking home from school was blocked by a drunken man who tried to touch her breasts, at which point she had hit him with her slipper and screamed, bringing a village boy to the scene, chasing away the drunken predator. She had then complained to her school Principal who had in turn complained to the Police on her behalf. The Police then sent over a CID officer to inquire into the matter, only to realize that the drunken man and the CID officer were the same. She had been scared to tell anyone this, as she has to take the same route to school each day

Another distressing trend is the rise of late night phone calls and text messages to war widows, female former combatants and wives of disappeared men and frequent visits to their houses by security personnel. These women complained that frequent late night phone calls, usually emanating from the local Police station, add to the climate of fear and insecurity. The anonymous phone calls, sexually explicit in content, would usually start after Army personnel and intelligence officials registered family and contact details of recently returned IDPs in their locality. The callers would speak in broken Tamil and proposition the women. One woman, a mother of three, whose husband had disappeared in Mannar in 2008, also spoke of the harassment meted out by her the Officer in Charge (OIC) of her local police station who would regularly ride past her house, call her out and attempt to engage her in conversation about her marital status and relationships, which she deemed highly offensive and inappropriate.

Local women’s rights activists told us how there are a few Indian Housing Scheme settlements that have primarily women and disabled persons as beneficiaries. They said that these settlements were particularly prone to theft, crime and prostitution. As many of the female headed households have no means of making ends meet, they’re driven to sex work. Such communities are particularly vulnerable as there are only a few able-bodied men living in the community to help keep it secure. Several such settlements in Mullaitivu and Mannar are locally “notorious” for sex work they say, resulting in women residing in these areas being very susceptible to exploitation and harassment.

In Kilinochchi, we learnt that several young women had been coerced to marry Army personnel from camps in their locality only to leave home and return a year or so later. While activists pointed out that there was very little that could be done to prevent such marriages, they noted that all women who had married Army soldiers were in their late teens. On two such occasions the soldiers were already married.

Alcoholism is yet another significant problem in the Vanni as many taverns have cropped up due to the high military presence in the region. Therefore, the local men in the area have more access to alcohol, and as a result the community has become less secure for women and children. Further, women in the area told us how the military would often give children passing by money to purchase alcohol for them. They fear that if their children are exposed to vices such as alcohol at a young age, they would eventually start consuming it too at a young age, which would lead to the further deterioration of the social fabric of the community.

The ICG report[14] too highlighted that the growing consumption of alcohol significantly contributed to the rise of sexual violence and harassment in the region. This was reiterated by the activists we spoke to. The abundance of kasippu (illicit liquor) was cited as a major factor in the occurring of these incidents. They further noted that Police (who are on the payroll of these illicit distributors), often warn peddlers prior to carrying out raids on kasippu dens.[15]

Trafficking for Sex Work

Trafficking and the exploitation of women in the Vanni on the pretext of job opportunities in Colombo and the Middle- East were also reported. Phone numbers of “middle-men” or agents are prominently displayed on buses in rural Kilinochchi. The immediate family of an applicant is promised LKR 200,000 (previously LKR 50,000). In one case a mother of two from Aanaivilundhaan, Kilinochchi was picked up in a three-wheeler by one such ‘agent’. She had later called home from Colombo and then Trincomalee. She had then been arrested by the Kilinochchi Police on charges of prostitution.

When we called one of these numbers on the pretext of pursuing employment overseas, we were told that costs for obtaining passports and other relevant certificates would be subtracted from the LKR 200,000 and that the balance would be given to the next of kin of the person leaving the country on work. We were also given directions to an ‘office’ in Maradana, Colombo, where we could meet with an agent to obtain further details.

Earlier this month, a report published by the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) stated[16] that women from the north were forced to engage in commercial sex work due to very limited livelihood options. The report put the number of female- headed households at 59,000. In July 2009, in a typically angry response[17] to a query posed on a prostitution racket within former IDP camps, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations and recently appointed Chair of its Sixth Committee, Dr. Palitha Kohona, rubbished the claims and stated that “they (the military) could have raped every single woman on the way if they had wanted to” and that “not a single woman was raped”.

Grievances faced by former female combatants

Speaking to a group of young female combatants in their 20’s who live in a safe house run by the clergy in the Vanni, we discovered that as content as they seemed within the walls of their shelter, they dreaded returning home for visits, due to the possibility of harassment and questioning they might face.

Initially, as soon as they were released in 2010, they were subject to strict rules and regulations, such as signing in at the local Police station every month, regular house visits by the CID requesting personal and family details, and to have to carry around a proof of release letter to produce on request at a check-point or by the police. While they said that these practices have seen a reduction recently, their travel was restricted and they felt more secure within the shelter.

Controversy over population control implants

In September 2013, The Social Architects (TSA), in an expose, detailed coercive population control in three villages in Kilinochchi[18]. This report and a follow up report[19] in October 2013 confirmed that the women of Veravil, Valaippadu and Keranchi of the Kilinochchi District had been coerced into accepting population control implants, violating reproductive and women’s rights. TSA goes on to say that the women of these villages were provided with very little post and pre- implant care and information.

However, health officials who had met local activists regarding this matter had denied reports that this programme was directed at controlling the population of any one ethnic community. Further, the officials had admitted that the programme was not ideally conducted due to their being severely understaffed and therefore having to work with a low capacity level. They had added that these were in fact serious administrative concerns that needed to be addressed immediately and that they would carry out the relevant follow-up work promptly (i.e. to print Jadelle[20] cards in the local language, print leaflets explaining side effects and precautions of using available contraceptives and create awareness among the community through Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) and Public Health Midwives (PHMs) and to have men also attend Child and Mother Care (CMC) clinic classes etc.,)

Four years since the end of the war in Sri Lanka, women and children remain as, or more vulnerable and insecure than ever before. With the number of female headed households (i.e. war widows, spouses of the disappeared and long-term detained, teen mothers and wives abandoned by their spouses) and poverty having drastically increased as a result of the war, so have the grievances and hardships they are made to face. The State has set up few (if any) mechanisms/structures to ensure their security, and have nurtured a climate of absolute impunity with regard to how it treats perpetrators, particularly those directly affiliated to the State (i.e. police, military, local authorities).

Recommendations

In light of this bleak situation, we call on the Government of Sri Lanka and the International Community;

  • To comprehensively investigate into all reported cases of rape, harassment and murder of women and children, and ensure that perpetrators are dealt with according to the law.
  • To set in place a fast-track or at least a speedy and victim-sensitive system for dealing with cases of sexual abuse and violence
  • To take every measure to ensure the protection of witnesses and survivors of sexual abuse and violence and their families (i.e. safe-houses).
  • To provide survivors and witnesses of sexual abuse and violence and their families with specialized psycho-social care.
  • To recognize the vulnerability of women in the North and East and encourage, or at a minimum remove barriers to community-based support groups for women.
  • To empower survivors of sexual violence and abuse and their families to attain economic stability and security.
  • To set up mechanisms of monitoring/regulating employment agencies working in the North and East, and investigate into all allegations that a nexus exists between the military/para-military groups and these agencies
  • To build the capacity and resources of local human rights defenders and women’s rights advocates.
  • To raise awareness on issues of gender based violence and human rights within local communities, and educate them on preventive/remedial procedures.
  • To carry out island-wide awareness raising media campaigns to disseminate information on organization working on women and children’s issues.

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For longer version of this report, please click here


[1] The region referred to as Vanni in this report includes the entire districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu and parts of the districts of Vavuniya and Mannar. It does not refer to the Electoral District of Vanni.

[2] Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East. International Crisis Group. 20 December 2011. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full%20Report_428.pdf

[3] Child Rape on the rise in Sri Lanka. Inter Press Service. 23 July 2012.

http://reliefweb.int/report/sri-lanka/child-rape-rise-sri-lanka

[4] சேனப்பிலவு சம்பவம் :  இராணுவச் சிப்பாய்  கைது…  – BBC Tamil. 13 May 2013. -http://www.bbc.co.uk/tamil/sri_lanka/2013/05/130523_vavuniaarrest.shtml

[5] Soldier who raped 6- year old identified. Ceylon Today. 13 June 2013.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/16-34871-news-detail-soldier-who-raped-6-year-old-identified.html

[6]  Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), a former para-military group, now acting as a proxy of the State.

[7] Marisa de Silva, The rape of a 13 year old and paramilitary presence in Jaffna – http://groundviews.org/2012/04/02/the-rape-of-a-13-year-old-and-paramilitary-presence-in-jaffna/

[8] TamilNet, SL military blamed for brutal gang rape, murder at Jaffna suburb – http://tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=36758

[9] “We Will Teach You a Lesson”: Sexual Violence Against Tamil by Sri Lankan Security Forces. Human Rights Watch. 26 February 2013.

http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/srilanka0213webwcover_0.pdf

[10] Sri Lanka: Rape of Detainees. Human Rights Watch. 26 February 2013. http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/02/26/sri-lanka-rape-tamil-detainees

[11] Sexual violence in conflict- Report of the Secretary- General. United Nations. 14 March 2013.

http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/N1325944_0.pdf

[12] Living with insecurity: Marginalization and sexual violence against women in north and east Sri Lanka. Minority Rights Group International. 17 October 2013.

http://www.minorityrights.org/12117/press-releases/minority-women-in-sri-lanka-facing-increasing-levels-of-sexual-violence-and-insecurity.html

[13] Lanka Army refutes HR allegations. DAWN. 19 October 2013.

http://dawn.com/news/1050453/lankan-army-refutes-allegations-by-hr-bodies

[14] Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East. International Crisis Group. 20 December 2011. http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full%20Report_428.pdf

[15] In October 2013, the BBC reported how officers of microfinance institutions in the Eastern Province sought sexual favours from women who were unable to repay loans. The women, largely from resettled communities and rural areas of the Batticaloa District, were provided with microcredit for self- employment. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/tamil/sri_lanka/2013/10/131002_microfinancebatticalao.shtml).

[16] Turning to sex work in Sri Lanka’s north. IRIN. 10 October 2013.

http://www.irinnews.org/report/98919/turning-to-sex-work-in-sri-lanka-s-north

[17] Tamil refugees forced into sex rackets. The Australian. 2 July 2009.

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/tamil-refugees-forced-into-sex-rackets/story-e6frg6n6-1225744996639

[18] Coercive Population Control in Kilinochchi. The Social Architects. 13 September 2013.

http://groundviews.org/2013/09/13/coercive-population-control-in-kilinochchi/

[19] Above the Law: Violations of Women’s Reproductive Rights in Northern Sri Lanka. The Social Architects. 11 October 2013. http://groundviews.org/2013/10/11/above-the-law-violations-of-womens-reproductive-rights-in-northern-sri-lanka/

[20] Jadelle is a brand of silicone birth control implants usually inserted under the skin of the upper arm of a woman.

  • Disgusted

    Really quite shocking what is happening to the Tamils of the NorthEast. Even more shocking is the lack of Sinhala liberal concern … by which I mean action. How can any body say the military is not impeding reconciliation? TIme to get them out of the North East.

  • warforpeace

    by lumping the gender violence done in the local community with that done by the ethnic sinhala military, it is attempting to depoliticize the ethnic nature of the gender violence which forms a part of the oppression against the tamil population. the approach is well reflected in the recommendations.

  • Walter

    Sri Lanka has passed the stage or redemption.
    The majority Sinhala Buddhist’s have handed over this Country to a bunch of hawks of a new variety.
    These Sinhala Buddhist’s themselves their mentality, their concerns are vague, they are in limbo.
    These Politicians who represent them have very cleverly manipulated their foolishness, ignorance and in fact their innocence to the extent that these Sinhala Buddhist themselves have lost their choices and now cannot replace these Politicians.
    These Politicians with their garb of Nationalism and pretending to be the protectors of Buddhism have led these People to believe that Sri Lanka will soon be a Utopia.

  • MaxV

    Isn’t it the same in the South also, where security personnel,well-connected politicos, locals and monks manage to weasel their way out of serious charges of sexual violence? I’ve read reports of soldiers being identified as rapists in Southern regions (as well as gang leaders), pedophile politicos roaming scott-free, and I know one case where a woman was raped by a monk but has been intimidated by police not to file a report. The woman is Sinhalese by the way. Sexual violence is not an ethnic problem, it’s a national problem and should not be politicized in any way.
    Also the whole “population control” debacle has an editor’s note on Groundviews now, and the TSA has re-issued a new article toning down the “eugenics” cry. Knowing how some government health facilities are run, it sounds more like a badly administered women’s clinic run by poorly trained staffers, which the TSA reinterpreted as the government trying to control the Tamil population. Incidentally, similar population control outcries can be heard from the South, often leveled against NGOs.