Lalitha* was 23, from Petiva Pullumalai, deep in Sri Lanka's eastern interior, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) came for her.
At the time, each family living under LTTE control was required to provide a child to the separatist forces fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for three decades. Lalitha joined up to spare her younger sister.
After heading a female Tamil Tiger team in battle for nine years, Lalitha escaped in 2004 to take care of her then-ailing mother, only to end up on the run.
She was terrified of being identified by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) or the LTTE and putting her family at risk.
"Every day I would change my accommodation so I would not be tracked down," she said. Today Lalitha lives with her mother in their partially built home, earning a small wage managing a makeshift shop in the eastern city of Batticaloa.
According to the World Bank, only one-third of skilled youth are employed in Sri Lanka and much of the Batticaloa's population remains dependent on traditional livelihoods like fishing and paddy farming to subsist.
But for women like Lalitha, that struggle can be more pronounced.
The biggest problem for female ex-combatants in Batticaloa is that a conservative Tamil civilian society does not allow them to use the skills they learnt in the armed movement, said Sonny Inbaraj, a researcher from the UK-based Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, who recently completed a study on the reintegration of female ex-combatants in Batticaloa.
"Society would have them learning how to sew or be domestic helpers, rather than being carpenters, masons, bricklayers or computer repairers," he said.
At the same time, however, Inbaraj believes the women have formed strong support networks among themselves, and are often the heads of households in this post-war period.
"I don't think there is stigma at the community level against the women ex-combatants... Most of them were from areas that supported the Tigers," he says.
Photo: Rebecca Murray/IRIN
|UNICEF campaign for the disarmament of (female) child soldiers|
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has helped 660 ex-combatants, more than 50 of them women, who took the risk to enrol in the government-backed plan in the east.
"These are people in government rehab centres," Richard Danzinger, IOM's chief of mission in Sri Lanka, said. "Once discharged they come to us, and we see what their needs and aspirations are. Then we provide both direct and indirect assistance. For example, business grants, civic education training and vocational training."
Rasenthi*, from rural Thihilivetta in the east, was 13 when the LTTE knocked on her family's door. She survived a fierce battle in the LTTE stronghold of Vaharai when 80 Tigers were killed, including her best friend, and Rasenthi was hit by shrapnel. After an operation by LTTE medics, metal now replaces bone on the right side of her skull.
"When I came home I had a bad reputation," Rasenthi recalls. "Many of my old friends didn't talk to me, and feared to be associated with me." After being identified by the SLA, Rasenthi ran away to hide near Batticaloa town for three years. "I was very scared," she says.
The 22-year-old now says she has missed too much school to return. She has instead enrolled in a six-month bakery course at the national Sarvodaya vocational training centre in Batticaloa, hoping for a steady job.
The Sarvodaya programme is part of the government-backed reintegration programme that offers vocational skills for aspiring electricians, plumbers, beauticians and food manufacturers, and community leadership training.
To date, some 200 people have graduated from the programme, and there is a large demand from the private sector for their skills, E.L.A. Careem, Sarvodaya's long-term coordinator in Batticaloa, says.
"With the last 30 years of war, many youth have had difficulties with work and their future," he says. "Mentally and physically they have had challenges - no father, mother, or sister. And many only have only low-level skills, as compared to youth in Colombo. But gradually we are establishing a new generation."
* Not their real names