The Gendered Refugee Experience: Inside Camps, Outside Battlefields:Security and Survival for Tamil Women

Nimmi Gowrinathan | Published on June 3, 2013 at 8:28 pm

In May of 2009, images of displaced Tamil people trapped behind the barbed wire of internment camps flashed across the world. “Everybody wanted to get out of those camps, but they were too scared to discuss their rights”, one priest recalls.

The Government of Sri Lanka had just declared a military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (ltte), an insurgent group that waged a thirty-year war for a separate state for ethnic Tamils living among other minorities and the Sinhalese majority on the island. On the front lines of this resistance movement, Tamil women were in constant motion. Displaced, resettled, and recruited, these women are part of a growing number of female combatants in rebel groups whose experiences, motivations, and politics continue to complicate our understandings of warfare.

Among the many reasons why women take the risks associated with armed rebellion, the impact of lived experiences with displacement and gender-based violence has not been seriously examined. Existing scholarship finds that prior movement activism, biological availability, emotional trauma, social ties to the movement, and contextual pressures can all play a role in a woman’s decision to take up arms.3 Within these, state repression is identified as one of the contextual pressures responsible for the emergence and continued violence of armed insurgencies for both men and women. When looking specifically at female combatants, scholars identify state repression as a catalyst acting either independently or in conjunction with multiple factors5 enabling women to be independent “ideologues” and active revolutionaries.6 An overemphasis on women’s emotional responses,7 coupled with a tendency to cast women as victims, has limited existing research, and has robbed women of agency in their social and political beings.8 Where experiences with displacement and other forms of state repression are considered in their ability to shape and motivate female fighters, they are often addressed only in a very broad sense as a contextual background to participation, or are confined to considerations of psychosocial trauma. This study pulls experiences with displacement and gender-based violence out from ambiguous categorizations of trauma or contextual pressures, locating them as indirect and direct forms of state repression.

Looking at the case of Sri Lanka, this paper examines the distinct impact of both on the formation of Tamil women’s political identities. These identities can then be mobilized through violent and nonviolent forms of organizing. Displacement is often seen as an inevitable by-product of warfare rather than a calculated political act within it, and is therefore ignored as a form of state repression. While some of the more obvious forms of state repression (exclusion from government jobs, targeted violence against ethnic Tamils) existed throughout the conflict in Sri Lanka, displacement is a less direct form of repression that has had a disproportionate impact on Tamil women.Created and prolonged by an intractable political conflict, experiences within the context of displacement can have a formative impact on women’s political selves. Among these, increased levels of gender-based violence in particular will inform new perspectives on social justice and equality. The process of being unsettled and later resettled due to ongoing violence has, and continues to have, a profound impact on social structures and particularly on women captured within a specific context.As political actions, displacement and gender-based violence will have a political impact. Looking at the position of Tamil women in Sri Lanka, I argue that the context of displacement and experiences with gender-based violence are acts of state repression which play a significant role in forming political identities activated through violent forms of resistance. This argument requires a new approach that moves beyond established binaries for female fighters of “victim vs. agent”,disaggregates forms of state repression, and focuses on individual experiences framed in a collective struggle.

By so doing, we can better understand the specific political impact of displacement and gender-based violence, elevating the role of state repression as a motivating factor for female fighters. The arguments made here rely on a unique set of direct interviews with former fighters conducted in Sri Lanka during and after the war. In addition, extensive conversations with members of Sri Lankan civil society and victims of gender-based  violence, as well as humanitarian reports contribute to the analysis.

Addressing the need for “culturally specific knowledge informed by the experiences of people themselves”,14 this study combines an analysis of secondary literature with extensive field interviews to understand the impact of displacement upon individual women’s lives.15 In this paper, I draw on three distinct data sets. Trust built within the Tamil community over a decade enabled me access to these populations during challenging periods of ongoing violence. The first is a set of in-depth interviews with former female fighters and civilians conducted between 2000 and 2010 for academic research. The second is a detailed analysis of humanitarian and human rights reports (both public and private) from ten organizations that look at humanitarian crises in Sri Lanka occurring from 2000 to 2010.16 Using these reports, I track the reporting of conditions in displaced camps. The categories created were developed to follow the key issues that arose in direct interviews.

The final data set was compiled through policy research done for the International Crisis Group from 2009 to 2011.18 It relies on seventy-five direct interviews conducted in India, Sri Lanka, and London with members of civil society, lawyers, physicians, and survivors in order to understand the prevalence and impact of gender-based violence in resettled areas of the North and East.


Extract from Nimmi Gowrinathan,s “Inside Camps, Outside Battlefields: Security and Survival forTamil Women,” St Antony’s International Review 9, no. 1 (2013): 11-32.

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The Gendered experience


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The Gendered Refugee Experience: Inside Camps, Outside Battlefields:Security and Survival for Tamil Women

In May of 2009, images of displaced Tamil people trapped behind the barbed wire of internment camps flashed across the world. “Everybody wanted to get out ...