JAFFNA, Sri Lanka: They arrived suddenly on her doorstep pretending to be friends of her dead husband. Faceless men she suspects were security agents, they physically abused her and threatened to come again.
Scared and alone, Gowry did what she always does—she packed in a hurry and fled with her two young children, the third time in recent years that she has moved house in Sri Lanka’s former northern war zone.
“Two men introduced themselves as my husband’s friends, so I invited them in,” she said in Jaffna, recounting the most recent attack that scared her into hiding again. “They forcibly tore at my dress and pushed me into my room. I fell down and screamed.
“After that they ran away but they called me later saying they would come in the night,” she told Agence France-Presse.
Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war may be over, but many women from the island’s ethnic Tamil minority still fear for their safety in former conflict zones amid ongoing reports of rape and sexual violence.
Gowry, who would not give her real name fearing reprisals, lost her rebel husband during the final months of fighting in 2009 when government forces crushed the Tamil Tigers fighting for a separate homeland.
She is among more than 89,000 war widows living in the former combat areas in the north and east. Like her, an estimated 40,000 of them are the sole wage earners for their households.
Many of them face chronic insecurity and increasing marginalization, according to a recent report by the London-based Minority Rights Group International (MRG).
MRG interviewed women in the former conflict zones who said sexual assaults and other abuses have been rising in the years since the war, largely due to the ongoing heavy military presence in the area.
“Because they are on their own, single women have to now more frequently enter the public space which makes them more vulnerable because they have to associate with the military and other officials,” said Farah Mihlar, the South Asia expert for MRG.
Mihlar said that women feel similarly threatened by businessmen from other ethnic groups, many of whom are from the Sinhalese majority, now flooding into the area as investment booms in the former no-go regions.
“Even four years after the war there still is a strong sense of triumphalism, a feeling that ‘we have won the war, so we can do whatever we want’,” she said.
‘Climate of impunity’
A local human rights activist who cannot be named told AFP there have been around 400 cases of rape against women in the Jaffna district since the end of the war, but that these “are just the tip of the iceberg.”
He said most women never report abuses to authorities, and the MRG report blames the government for maintaining a “climate of impunity.”
“There is no justice in the former conflict areas. There is not a single case of a military person being prosecuted for sexual violence against women since the war ended,” said Mihlar.
“As a result, women find it pointless and dangerous to complain as doing so exposes them and only puts them under threat. The perpetrators continue to roam among them, which is extremely threatening and frightening for most women,” she added.
Sri Lanka’s army spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya has condemned MRG’s report and slammed allegations against his security forces as a “myth”.
“We deny in the strongest terms that there is a prevailing culture of silence and impunity for sexual violence crimes,” he said, blaming the Tamil diaspora and their “false propaganda machinery” for fueling mistrust and fear.
According to the army, 17 security personnel were involved in incidents of sexual violence in north Sri Lanka between 2007 to 2012.
“The military has taken strict action to either discharge or award other punishments to these personnel,” he told Agence France-Presse.
But another recent study—by Human Rights Watch—goes even further, suggesting that the ongoing use of rape as a form of torture by Sri Lankan security forces is widespread and systematic.
The report, released in February, documented 75 cases of alleged rape and sexual abuse against women and men in detention centres since the war throughout Sri Lanka.
Most victims were interviewed only once they had fled the country and their testimonies are likely just a fraction of real figures for custodial rape, the report says.
Its authors note that the first cases of rape of Tamil women and girls by the military were first raised by the UN rapporteur on violence against women back in 1997.
Since the end of the war, the number of troops in the country’s northern peninsula has dropped from 45,000 to just 15,000 among a population of less than one million, according to the army.
But human rights experts are less concerned at the size of the military than the extent of its involvement in civilian governance and in the economy, from running hotels and golf courses to directly competing with women in selling vegetables.