Tamil women who survived Sri Lanka's civil war now face widespread sexual exploitation by officials in their own community as well as from the army, the head of an ethnic reconciliation body said Wednesday.
Former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the chairman of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, said women who were widowed during the 37-year conflict were among the victims of abuse by officials who frequently demand sexual favours just to carry out routine paperwork.
"There is a lot of sexual abuse still going on by officials, even Tamil officials and even at lower levels, the grama sevakas (village officials)," she told Sri Lanka's Foreign Correspondents' Association. "Even to sign a document, they abuse the women and of course some people in the (armed) forces" continue to commit sexual abuse, she said.
Kumaratunga, who lost an eye in a Tamil Tiger suicide bombing when she was president at the height of the conflict, said the best way to make women less vulnerable was to improve their livelihoods. "We feel that when women have livelihoods, they will be empowered... they feel safer and they don't have to be exploited," she said.
Kumaratunga said many women had been traumatised as a result of the sexual abuse and needed psychological support but the authorities lacked qualified experts to treat them. "We cannot bring counsellors from abroad because they won't know the language," she said.
Many women, particularly widows, have struggled in the war's aftermath to obtain identity papers and birth certificates which are essential to obtain government handouts and other aid.
Prosecutions of military personnel or officials for sex crimes are rare in Sri Lanka, although four soldiers were jailed for 25 years for the gang-rape of a young Tamil mother in 2010, a year after the war ended.