Janaki Rajendran doesn’t remember how many times she and her family were displaced during Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. She remembers that material possessions were always the first to go: clothes, cooking utensils, and other household goods. And then people’s jobs disappeared. Her husband was a daily wage laborer in the construction industry, but when the fighting broke out and continued unabated for decades, no one was building anything of significance.
Rajendran, now 52, was first displaced in 1983, when the country’s civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (also known as the Tamil Tigers) and government forces broke out.
Tensions between the country’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils had been brewing for decades following British colonial rule. In the 1950s, the Sinhalese, resentful of their place and treatment under the British, reasserted their culture, language, and Buddhist religion by taking steps like making Sinhalese the national language, effectively reserving the best jobs for their own people.
The predominantly Hindu Tamils, who make up about 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, were angry that the new constitution, formed in 1972, formally made Buddhism the country’s primary religion. Civil unrest followed as the Sinhalese imposed discriminatory laws, leading to the proliferation of militant Tamil groups.
The Tamil Tigers, which formed in 1975, were fighting to create an independent Tamil state called Tamil Eelam in the north and east of the island. Their goal wasn’t achieved, and the United Nations estimates 150,000 were killed over almost 30 years of war marked by brutal atrocities on both sides.
Rajendran wasn’t overly political in those days. But still, she “had to face the consequences of the war,” she says, including giving birth twice while she was displaced. Over the years, her family lived in bombed-out houses of relatives and displacement camps in the northern part of the island, where they had no opportunity to make a living wage. Twice she and her family ended up living in camps in the capital, Colombo, where at least her husband could earn money.
“I remember always running with a baby in my arms,” she remembers. “Women were suffering. I know some who had to deliver in underground bunkers. I saw all the women suffering like I did; it wasn’t unique to me.”
Although Sri Lanka’s war ended almost a decade ago, its legacy is omnipresent. Bullet-ridden homes line the pot-holed streets in Jaffna, the capital city of the northern province of Sri Lanka. The province’s missing men are another obvious legacy. In a deeply conservative society, many of these women are heads of households; thousands are widowed, while thousands more have injured husbands or husbands who are still missing.
Throughout the war, women played pivotal roles: they were fighters with the Tamil Tigers, they were activists. They survived atrocities. And so when the war ended, women, particularly former Tamil Tigers cadres, expected that their newfound freedom and activism outside the home over the previous decades would translate into a progressive society, one with less rigid norms and expectations. But they were wrong.
In the postwar era, countless Tamil women have become primary income earners for their families, leaving behind traditional domestic roles. They’ve entered the public realm to engage politically, economically, and socially — something many could never have imagined prior to the war. But while they’ve broken ranks, they are still bound by harsh cultural and social practices.
Many women suffered gender-based violence and abuse during the conflict and continue to do so. Domestic abuse, alcohol addiction, and mental-health problems abound. Women, many of whom are widowed, have crippling trauma and face poverty and the stigma of being single.
Rajendran never imagined she would be a politician, but she knew she was dedicated to improving women’s lives, especially those who had suffered the most throughout the course of the war and its aftermath. In 2011, she ran for Sri Lanka’s version of local elections in her district just outside Jaffna city, called Thenmarachchi. While Sri Lanka is a middle-income country, Thenmarachchi and the surrounding villages lack any proper roads, electricity, and a constant water supply.
“At the time, I had no idea about the governance structure and how it functioned, but that was true of all women,” Rajendran says. While a free education system was introduced in post-independent Sri Lanka, education favored boys over girls, whose roles were confined to the house.
“I knew women were suffering because of it: they were being kept out of all the policy decisions,” Rajendran explains. “I thought, I have to break through this so even if I don’t achieve anything, the fact that I’ve made that breakthrough means women can, after me, take it further.”
Of the fifteen people who were elected in her district, she was the only woman. But her position wasn’t without its challenges. Not only was she flying blind, with no training and no woman before her to look up to, she faced relentless sexual harassment and hostility from the community, such as men calling her names for leaving the house and commenting on her appearance.
“2011 was a very dangerous time,” Rajendran says. It was when Sri Lanka’s largest ethnic Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, won two-thirds of local councils in the north and east of the island.
The central government was against Tamil politics of all sorts. “Women in the community weren’t supportive. They were very, very scared to be seen with me,” she recalls.
Nonetheless, with publicly available funds from taxes and fines, she managed to help bring electricity into villages that had only dreamed of it, along with water pumps and cemeteries for the communities to bury their loved ones.
But she didn’t do enough during her five-year term for women and children, she says, which is why she ran for another term earlier this year. And she was successful. In February, she was reelected as a member of her local government municipal body.
“I want to make women economically independent and socially better off from their current position. I have to study what can be done to provide them with livelihood initiatives,” she says. “Last time, I was the only woman in local government. I couldn’t take forward women’s issues. Now, it’s changed.”
Two years ago, recognizing that Sri Lanka needed to improve the status of its women in war-affected areas, a local organization, Center for Women & Development, began training Tamil women interested in entering the political sphere. At first, only a handful of women turned up. Now, it is training 300 women across five districts, in no small part because in 2016, Sri Lanka’s parliament introduced a 25 percent mandatory quota for women in local government to increase their participation in politics.
Rajendran has been participating in the training, which includes public speaking, engaging the media, and tips on how to figure out the most pressing problems facing particular communities.
“In Sri Lanka, people only know men to participate in politics, and they just know women to be in the kitchen,” says S. Vimaleswary, who works at the organization and carries out the training along with other female staff.
“Men don’t understand women’s issues,” she says, including a desire for economic independence, job opportunities, and protection from gender-based violence, and the stigma of being widowed. “Now we have more and more women wanting to get into politics. They want to end abuse, drug and liquor use in their communities, and to improve the status of women.”
But there’s a long road ahead. For now, Rajendran is hopeful about the progress she and other women involved in politics can make in the future. “There’s still trouble, but at least women are now supporting each other. I’m still learning, but this time … I will talk to women, and I will say, ‘I will do something for you.’”
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the South Asian Journalists Association.
Sophie Cousins is a health journalist based in South Asia. She is currently writing a book on women’s health in the region.