The Sunday Leader

Vulnerable Among The Vulnerable

By Waruni Karunarathne

The war that lasted for over 30 years in the country has left many women in the North and East in a very sad state of poverty resulting in many women becoming widows or the sole bread-winners of the family. A large number of women who head their families struggle due to poverty, scarcity of livelihood options and social-cultural marginalization. They are further subjected to being harassed, misused and taken advantage of by male chauvinists in a double standard male dominant culture – where many women are coerced into providing sexual favours –transactional sex or sex in return of a favour, service or other forms of gifts even at the hand of some public service officers and bureaucrats.

Kumudini Samuel, the founder of the Women and Media Collectives – told The Sunday Leader that this is a very sensitive issue because if incidents of this nature are brought out in the open, it is the woman who will be ostracised once again by the society and their families.

She added that some such incidents are coerced; some of them may be definitely because women have no other means of livelihood. Some women are getting into relationships on their own will – in any scenario it is the woman who is always vilified whereas the involved men are never questioned. She explained that a number of women in a society get earmarked for being involved in transactional sex – many based on assumptions, the other women in that particular society also face repercussions and get ostracised by the society especially when it comes to single women. When handling such situations lack of community support and a double standard in the society cause huge barriers.

Single women as well as women who head households due to reasons such as their husband are dead, disabled or have abandoned them or have left after impregnating them, deal with lot of social pressures and expectations – these women are sandwiched between accepted social norms and daily needs of their families. Kumudini added that war has revoked lot of such situations where women are left to deal with such vulnerabilities, marginalization and poverty.

“The causes vulnerable women are compelled to engage in transactional sex can be their livelihood issues, poverty, and loneliness – these situations we have to deal with by taking into account the level of state and the level of the society they live in as well as the level of their families. We have to focus on how to counsel and offer social services support, livelihood assistance and to find ways to make these women self sufficient and self confident – that is just one side,” Kumudini explained.

On the other side, she added, we have to question why men demand transactional sex when a woman goes to get something done to an official. “Why do these men expect a favour in return? These men, the bureaucrats, who expect something in return are never ostracised. They keep their positions, their jobs and the society never points their finger at them even though very often people know about it. Then why only the woman gets vilified? That means the society is double standard,” she added. It is observed that even though in general it is the men who abuse women, the blame is constantly only on the women.

She pointed out that in order to address this issue, we need to have a very good programme to support war affected single women and women headed households. “At the moment a committee has been set up by the Prime Minister to look at this issue of war widows and single women headed families. This committee needs to work very carefully with local civil society organisations. Appointees should not be only at the national level. They should work closely with people working in the local community level who understand the situation. Because we do not want to doubly victimize these women,” she insisted.

Kumudini further emphasised that there needs to be a very holistic approach not only in terms of livelihood but also in addressing other needs; type of social and emotional support to deal with loss of family members, post-war dilemmas, widowhood, abandonment and taking responsibility of the family etc.

Like women in politics, especially single women face lot of character assassinations. It is same with the working women if they are not fit into the norms of the society. “The community is not sensitive and generous enough to understand these women situation and help them. The fundamental issue is the way the society deals with this changing aspect and female autonomy. Women may be autonomous. The society should not be afraid to allow women to have this autonomy and should not vilify women just because they are not following the norm,” Kumudini added. According to her, it is necessary that the community is secure for these women to move around. To establish this security, it is necessary too to make men aware that they do not have the right to abuse women in vulnerable situations.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Shreen Saroor, founder of the Mannar Women’s Development Federation and Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy referred to a recent incident where a North based politician had taken advantage of several women by providing them with jobs and various other forms of gifts in return of sexual favours – when it was revealed, one woman of them committed suicide. Therefore she insisted that these cases need to be handled in a sensitive manner as it is always the woman who faces repercussions.

She alleged that this particular local politician had exploited many women – and even though a couple of complaints were lodged against him, the police had been inactive as he was a politicians. In situations like this, inaction of the authorities can largely contribute to silencing women in any vulnerable community.

She added the existing male dominant society and male chauvinism make it very difficult to stop sex being used for bribes and power purposes. She accused that within the male chauvinist political and government structure, even men like the Northern Province Chief Minister talks of women in a very demeaning manner in his public speeches which explains the extent of chauvinism in the society. Such attitude of responsible people further marginalizes women.

Leave alone the sexual abuses – even if a woman goes to the police to lodge a complain against a domestic violence, certain police officers tend to call the woman in the night and try to make advances and take advantage of the situation. That is a huge issue not only in the North and East but also in other parts of the country,” Shreen added.

Shreen explained that most of these women in the North and East have a heap of troubles on their shoulders – they may have to support and attend to their war injured husbands or children. They may have to look after little children and in some cases the whole family. It demands a big income as well as their whole time. Thus some women are compelled to engage in sex trade or transactional sex. “A woman once claimed that if she works at a road construction, she will be paid monthly about Rs. 5,000. For that money, she has to leave her child next to an army camp and amidst unknown people and work for 8 hours every day – but if she makes the choice of doing sex work she can easily earn about Rs. 500 for 2 hours job which is economically more sensible,” she pointed out.

She (Shreen) insisted that if we are to solve this issue we need to provide these women with alternatives. “Once they started recruiting women in the North to the military – however the Tamil community opposed that move saying it’s against their culture. These women were getting paid about Rs. 35,000/- in the military but that opportunity was blocked. Then we need to be able to give them other alternatives. Even if we give alternatives it is up to them to choose the best alternative,” she added.

She reiterated if a woman chooses to be in the sex trade for whatever reasons, they have to be given sex education about safe protective sex – to help improve their condition and minimize unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. In a country where abortion is a taboo, pursuing an abortion in case of an unwanted pregnancy is hardly a choice for these women. “Many of these women do not go to clinics and thereby live not knowing even if they are infected – they spread diseases due to lack of knowledge,” she pointed out.

A women’s rights activist in the North added that she has come across a good amount of cases in the North where women are coerced into transactional sex. “There are situations where women are being tricked and manipulated to have sex favours in return of a service- it is as bad as seeking access to their lands. Land issue is still a huge problem in this part,” she added. According to her, even when it comes to getting other infrastructure facilities like electricity, water and loans, a high number of women have faced abuse and coerced into transactional sex in return of such services.

She added the abusers have been very tactful and put pressure on vulnerable women in such a way to get sexual favours. “Some men in decision making levels and service provisions demand sexual favours. These men are the very men who talk ill of these women and criticise them on the ground of culture and norms when such incidents happen. Women are the ones who are stigmatised although both parties were involved in the act,” she said.

There should be a system in place to help women who were coerced into giving sexual favours, she said. “There should be a place to complain – a place that is accountable and can understand the situations. Women should be educated and they should know that they have the option not to give sexual favours in return of a service or a job. But often these women are not in a position even to think of rejecting any such suggestions. Their vulnerability is to such an extent that they think they would do it only once and get it over with but that is where it all begins,” she said. She added that there are incidents women have been blackmailed afterwards with videos and photos of the incidents resulting in these women having to continue providing sexual favours.

Ashila Niroshani Mapalagama of the Stand-up Moment added she has not seen even a one case out of 100 that is a personal choice when it comes to women who are engaged in sex trade. “They have chosen it mainly due to severe injustices that they have undergone in the hand of men and due to their poverty. I have come across cases where some women were promised a job outside their villages and then men have taken advantage of them,” she added. When it comes to war-torn area, mostly women lack skills, education and they suffer due to poverty and they have a very less opportunity to find a different job – so they are compelled to do sex work or engage in transactional sex.

“We have done a case study covering about eight districts and found cases where war affected women, war widows and girls working in garment factories etc have been pushed into situations where they were compelled to engage in sex work. There are other cases of sex trafficking, rapes and poverty, leading them to make such choices,” she explained.

It is crucial that the state to build a viable system to ensure proper psycho-social support, counselling and advocacy for these women who are “the most vulnerable among the vulnerable”.


2 Comments for “Vulnerable Among The Vulnerable”

  1. gamarala

    Relatives of women recruited by the army are searching for them.
    Where are they?

  2. Tungsan Yu

    This is the classic example i keep giving of the absolute inactivity of the northern provincial councils and specially its chief minister.
    Instead of moving useless statements in the council they should be focused on developing the economy of the north.

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