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.