With more women taking up as family breadwinners in Sri Lanka’s former war zone - the island’s north - the region is recording an increase in women turning to survival sex.
According to estimates by local groups working with women to boost their incomes, the number of women engaged in sex work is said to be as many as 7,000, considered by some as a conservative estimate.
“This was a new finding during a [local] household survey on women-headed households and livelihood requirements. They are under immense pressure to provide for families in homes where men are either dead or reported missing. It has made a sizeable percentage of women to reluctantly turn to sex work," a local researcher working on public health, told IRIN.
The government estimates there were over 59,000 women-headed households in the island’s north in 2012.
“They bear economic burdens once carried by their fathers, husbands or brothers. Poverty and lack of options are driving women to adopt commercial sex as an income generator,” Vishaka Dharmadasa, head of the Association of War Affected Women, an NGO based in Kandy (Central Province) that has programming on livelihood and public health, explained.
The “strong” military presence in the north, along with men from the south taking jobs in the north’s building boom, were “somewhat regular reasons for an increase in commercial sex”, she said.
The increased number of Sri Lankan-born Tamils from the diaspora visiting their place of origin since fighting ended four years ago has also increased demand for commercial sex, Shanthini Vairamuttu, a community worker from the district of Jaffna, told IRIN.
Fending for themselves
Sexuality is largely considered taboo in the north, where caste and class are still decisive factors in women’s subservience. After fathers, women are cared for by their husbands and, thereafter, by sons. Following almost three decades of civil war, and the loss of thousands of the region’s men, this tradition and structure have crumbled, requiring women to fend for themselves when, before, they were discouraged from leaving their homes except for agricultural pursuits or education.
“The structures have changed and the trends are changing, causing the emergence of fresh social concerns,” Vairamuttu added. “There would have been the occasional sex workers in these villages but not to the extent that it became known to the community,” she added.
Sex work is illegal under Sri Lankan law.
"Thousands of Tamil men have died due to the war or been reported missing.
“There is no point in sweeping this issue [of women turning to sex work] under the carpet of cultural conservatism. It is happening, and we require better livelihood support initiatives,”said Shreen Saroor, founder of the Mannar Women’s Development Federation and the Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy, which work with conflict-affected women in the north.
The director of the Jaffna-based Centre for Women and Development, Saroja Sivachandran, whose organization conducted a survey from 2010 to date of 1,500 female-headed households in the north (the survey is being finalized), told IRIN there is reason to believe the sex trade is “slowly taking root in a region that boasts of tradition and culture”.
Few livelihood options
Sivachandran said improved conditions are needed to give women - who are traditionally homemakers -sources of income other than sex work.
"We try to encourage them to look for other options. But they say they have little choice," said a health worker from the north’s Mannar District who preferred anonymity. "We provide the women with condoms and give advice on contraception as protection."
“We may not know the level of the problem. In a country where commercial sex is illegal, the chances of finding the numbers would be difficult without substantial studies. But it deserves attention and action,” the country’s deputy minister of social services, Chandrasiri Sooriyarachchi, told IRIN.
The north’s patriarchal and highly conservative social structure, linked to Hinduism, which is the predominant religion practised in the north among Tamils, has made it difficult for researchers to study sex work there, but health workers and activists working with women say the loss of so many of the region’s traditional breadwinners (men), intense disruption to women’s livelihoods wrought by the conflict, and the slow return to normalcy are key reasons behind their turning to sex work.
“I did not want to be a sex worker. I come from a respected Hindu family. My father and husband both died due to the war. I am the eldest in a family of three girls. I have to provide for my mother, two sisters and my only son,” said 29-year-old Vasugi Ramalingam*, a Kilinochchi resident, widowed since the age of 20.
Traditionally, Hindus consider widows to be inauspicious and unfit for remarriage, leaving Tamil women to care for their families alone in a region marked by widespread unemployment.
Separatist rebels with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) waged war for 26 years to carve out a separate ethnic state in the island’s north, where the Tamil ethnic minority - 12 percent of the country’s population - forms the majority.
An estimated 60,000 lives were lost in the war, which came to an end in May 2009 with the crushing of LTTE by government forces.
*not a real name