Tamil women denied the right to live in peace
- Published: 16 May 2010
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In developing parts of the world like Sri Lanka, women remain more or less subjugated, writes Kalyani Inpakumar.
As Tamils in Australia, we feel for our brothers and sisters back home in Sri Lanka. The Australian Tamil Congress (ATC) was formed to unit all the Tamil organisations to make our voice more powerful.
ATC is part of a global organisation which is Global Tamil Forum and in March Global Tamil Women’s Forum was also launched.
I am from Tamil Eelam, a land that has been torn by the struggles of war for the last 30 years.
Women are the most vulnerable victims in armed conflicts and post conflict situations. No age group is sheltered from the heinous acts of rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, prostitution and murder.
Innocent females face the painful aftermath of short and long term physical, psychological and social trauma which is further complicated by the absence of adequate facilities and trained staff in war-torn settings.
For those who have no carers to provide basic psychological support, the emotional injuries may be as debilitating as any physical injuries. It could have easily been me or my daughters who are going through all our nightmares, which is the Tamil women’s reality in the island of Sri Lanka.
In the 19th and 20th centuries the status of women improved the most in economically progressive areas dominated by Western culture. In Australia, North America and Europe, women have enjoyed a rising status - getting closer and closer to achieving economic, social and political equity.
In developing parts of the world like Sri Lanka, however, women remain more or less subjugated, and in some countries they are stripped of any human rights.
It is the stripping of these human rights that I would like to talk about.
It is the stripping of these human rights that results in an estimated 35 million people worldwide being displaced by conflict, and most of them are women and children.
One of the consequence of these abuses are the recent boat loads of asylum seekers attempting to seek refuge in Australia. Recently we saw the 100th boat for the year.
Increasingly, these people are from Sri Lanka and they are Tamil. While the media and our politicians argue about people smugglers and border security and who should and shouldn’t be allowed to be part of Australian society, the reason – the oppression that forced these people to risk their lives, paying thousands of dollars to get into leaky boats and attempt the dangerous voyage to Australia, continues.
Many western countries have started to acknowledge the Sri Lankan government’s unacceptable treatment of Tamils and spoken out.
Australia is yet to openly show disappointment. As Australians we need to demand that our government deplore a regime such as that of Sri Lanka.
Since early 2009 young Tamils including 556 children held in detention centres in undisclosed areas by the military – have no access to ICRC (the Red Cross) or any other international agency.
While the war in Sri Lanka has been over for months now, peace does not prevail.
Despite hostilities to the country’s civil war being declared 'over' by the Government of Sri Lanka in May 2009, some 100,000 Tamil citizens remain illegally held in squalid internment camps wrought by allegations of torture, rape and abductions.
As you can imagine, as always, women - as widows, mothers and victims of rape and abuse - bear the brunt of this.
Today 100,000 Tamil people remain in these internment camps – denied access to proper healthcare, sanitation or even their loved ones… let alone the freedom of speech, cultural rights or the right to self determination that we all enjoy.
100, 000 people are being denied the right to go back to their homes, establish new lives for themselves and live peacefully.
But it’s not simply a matter of going back to live peacefully. This is hardly possible for most Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Continually we hear reports and stories about the ongoing discrimination and abhorrent treatment of Tamils in their homeland, continually under scrutiny and suspicion of anti-state activities, they cannot lead peaceful lives.
Unfortunately, the Australian media does not report on it too well, but recently in the international media I read that it was a very sad day for one young asylum seeker on Christmas Island.
He learnt yesterday that his 14-year-old brother (back home in Sri Lanka) had been kidnapped and then murdered. He comes from a reasonably well off Tamil family. The inability and unwillingness of the Sri Lankan authorities to protect Tamils is another reason why they are fleeing from their lives.
Background to Sri Lanka
To provide some context to the situation in Sri Lanka, I’d like to tell you a little bit about the country’s history. I’ll try to avoid giving you a history lesson but I think it’s a really important to grasping my story, and the plight of the Tamil people.
In Sri Lanka, the Tamil community constitutes a large majority in the northern part of the island, but a small minority in the country overall. Tamils are a distinct people: they are culturally different from the dominant Sinhalese, have a different heritage, speak a different language and most have a different religion. Prior to colonisation, the Tamils had their own separate kingdom on the island.
During the colonial period, the Tamils, a very hardworking nation were generally better educated and formed the backbone of the civil administration. This permitted resentments against them to grow.
Independence was granted in 1947, just as in India. But whereas India was partitioned, Sri Lanka was not. As a result, the Tamils became a permanent minority in the new nation.
Racist laws against the Tamils were enacted almost immediately. The parliamentary and legislative system did little to acknowledge, let alone protect the rights of minority groups and, a process of parties outbidding each other in the demonisation of the Tamils ensued.
The measures adopted against the Tamils became increasingly discriminatory, to the point where we were effectively denied tertiary education altogether and even tuition in their own language. Politicians whipped up pogroms in which thousands died, often with the police looking on or participating, and systematic 'disappearances' of Tamils were common.
Our struggle for freedom and independence had taken many different paths and phases. The first phase was a peaceful struggle but the Tamil people were met with state sponsored violence and death and conventional warfare ensued. It’s been described as one of the longest, bloodiest and protracted wars ever.
The Tamils sought an independent homeland, Tamil Eelam, in the north of the island - and for decades, in fact, they ruled such a homeland, amidst a bloody conflict.
Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil population have endured more than half a century of marginalisation and subjugation.
The government of Sri Lanka has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Anyone interfering with its rule is at risk of extrajudicial murder. Many journalists and editors - even those of Sinhalese background - have been killed.
As I mentioned earlier last year, the civil war came to an end but as it did Sri Lankan government troops indiscriminately shelled hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians trapped in a small area. On 18 May, Tamil leaders, seeking to prevent further bloodshed, arranged with international mediators that they would carry white flags and give themselves up. When they did so, they were murdered in cold blood.
Now that the decades-old civil war is over, hundreds of thousands of Tamils remain behind barbed wire in unsanitary concentration camps.
Now we are in another phase of our struggle. Hopefully this phase which is peaceful will achieve the freedom that all of us crave.
As a woman, and as part of this struggle I often reflect on the experiences of my sisters back home.
Women experience armed conflict in diverse ways as victims, survivors, leaders and peacemakers. Violence against women in conflict zones is often an extension of the gender discrimination that already exists in peacetime.
Because of their lack of status within society women are systematically excluded from decision-making opportunities, they are often stereotyped as victims and their experiences and contributions are virtually ignored in conflict zones and in nations emerging from war.
Despite this women can also play a significant part in peacemaking if they are properly supported and genuinely included.
Today, as a Tamil and as a woman I am trying to be part of this, through the Australian Tamil Congress.
We are asking the Australian government to join other Western governments like the UK in condemning and holding Sri Lanka accountable for its blatant abuses of human rights. I invite you to join us.
We will continue to pressure the Sri Lankan government to release the victims detained particularly those at risk including women and children. We intend to increase awareness of the dire situation for Tamil women who are living in fear, and advocate at regional and international meetings.
We intend to address the issue to international court to acknowledge that rape has and is continuously being used as a weapon of war and that the perpetrators should be charged. The war is over but the fight for freedom still continues.
Kalyani Inpakumar heads the Women’s Advocacy Group of the Australian Tamil Congress. She also a leading member of the Global Tamil Women's Forum, which is part of the Global Tamil Forum - an international organisation for Tamil solidarity. She can be contacted at Kalyani [at] australiantamilcongress [dotcom].