Colombo Telegraph

Gendered Violence In The North And East Of Sri Lanka

By Pradeep Jeganathan

Dr.Pradeep Jeganathan

The Sinhala service of the BBC, reported a few hours ago, of an “alarming rise of sexual abuse in Jaffna.” They quoted Dr S Sivaruban, the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) of the Jaffna Teaching hospital: “There were 102 cases of sexual abuse reported in Jaffna in 2010 and it has increased to 182 in 2011,” said Dr Sivaruban.

This sad, troubling statistic and statement is indicative of the breakdown of social structure in Jaffna, something that I’ve been picking up on through anecdotal evidence, on the one hand, and published reports on the other. The break down can be attributed to wild swings in explicitly and implicitly enforced social norms, given a pre war, and war time social structure which saw an intertwining of both extreme patriarchal and puritanical ideologies. With the destruction of kin groups during the war, due to death, injury or migration, and then sudden removal of the enforced puritanism, an intimate, predator patriarchy seems to have emerged, throughout the war affected areas. This is intensified by the world being ‘turned upside down’ during the war. Older, literate elites do not command authority any more, even if they have not migrated. A good deal of ‘unofficial’ authority –social and real capital — seems to be embodied and embedded in shadowy groups intimately familiar with the use of weapons and involved in illegal or quasi illegal business activities.  Tellingly, few people under the age of retirement even use the rebuilt Jaffna library any more.

The break down can be attributed to wild swings in explicitly and implicitly enforced social norms, given a pre war, and war time social structure which saw an intertwining of both extreme patriarchal and puritanical ideologies.

Remarkably and even more troublingly, this telling development is not even refereed to in astatement issued and publicized by a group calling itself the North East Women’s Network. Other issues highlighted in the statement either make little sociological sense or are shown to be partial and partisan by other published reports, which are of course, at best, short term studies driven by rigid advocacy pressures placed upon researchers by donors.

Yet, is seems safe to conclude that there has been a rather large increase in intra-community,  gendered violence after the end of the war, catalyzed by the break down of social structure I pointed to above. The military presence in the north must be understood as a layer that wraps around this break down exacerbating the situation in some areas. It is quite akin to the social context of military bases in other parts of the world; right after a war, even many years after a war. For example, in Germany and Japan after the second world war, and in South Korea during the Korean War and after, as it does in Okinawa; a context addressed by scholars such as Cynthia Enloe.

This relationship between civilians and the military is complicated and skirts the uncomfortable edge of a divide between coercion and consent. Consider this quote taken from a recent ICG report which captures this:

There is also a sense now among many who live and work in the north that women “are not scared of the army like before and the army is not seen to openly engage in violence against women” as they were in the immediate aftermath of the war….”There are many single women – widows or wives of men who are in detention. Life for them is difficult. They have needs and
look for support. If someone talks to them nicely or assures of help, then they are willing to fall into a relationship. It is only natural”. (pages 28 & fn. 196)

The sections in quotation marks here, come from an ICG interview with a “Tamil Politician.” By highlighting it here, I do not mean to imply that all interactions between the armed forces and tamil women have been benign. Indeed not, coercion is coupled with consent.

But I do wish to underline the complex, multi faceted terrain of relations which overlays a broken social structure. Simplifying all this to make an easy, sound bite friendly, political point, does a disservice to the serious issues at stake.

Hence my intervention.

You can read Dr.Pradeep Jeganathan‘s wrtings @ www.pjeganathan.org

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