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Women prove mettle in fighting units

Both, the Lankan Forces and LTTE have been recruiting women since mid 1980s, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jun 18, 2006 16:00 IST

While there seems to be some doubt in the highest circles in the Indian army about the suitability of women for the armed forces, Sri Lankan fighting units, whether of the government or the rebel LTTE, have no doubts about the utility of women.

Both the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the LTTE have been recruiting women in large numbers since the mid 1980s, and have had no reasons to complain.

According to Iqbal Athas, Sri Lanka correspondent for Jane’sDefense Weekly there could be about 5,000 women, including 500 officers, in Sri Lanka’s army of over 100,000 personnel.

The LTTE has a much larger proportion of women. By one estimate, they are about 3,000 out of a total of 11,000.

Both the government forces and the LTTE use women in conflict situations in forward areas, but their use in actual combat is very much more in the LTTE than in the government forces.

Necessity forces recruitment

It was sheer necessity which forced the government and the LTTE to begin recruiting women in the 1980s and the new trend was set by the LTTE.

In her book Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers (1993), Adele Ann Balasingham says that two factors made young Tamil women opt for a tough military career:

The first was the danger they, as women, were exposed to in an on-going war in which they were confronted by “alien” armed forces like the Sinhala-dominated Sri Lankan Army, and later, the still more alien Indian Army.

The second was the intense social oppression Sri Lankan Tamil women had been subjected to traditionally. Women were itching to break the shackles of  tradition and they saw in the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, a revolutionary who would not only liberate the Tamils but rid Tamil society of the bane of caste and gender hierarchies and the rural-urban divide.

It was Prabhakaran who had mooted the idea of a women’s fighting unit in the armed struggle and he trained a unit in India in 1984. As he put it in his message on International Womens’ Day in 1996, he saw women’s liberation as being an essential component of his fight for the liberation of the Tamils.

IPKF era a watershed

At first,Prabhakaran used women mostly in support services.But the war against the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) which began in October 1987, brought about a sea change in his thinking.

“The Indian invasion was a watershed.The Indian Army was brutal and male chauvinist.The rapes and molesting made a bitter impact,” wrote Adele Balasingham in an article in 1990 entitled Freedom Birds of Tamil Eelam (www.eelamweb.com).

It was in the battles against the IPKF that the LTTE’s women’s units first suffered fatalities. According to The Hindu (March 10,2002) over 4,000 LTTE women fighters has laid down their lives since their first deployment in 1985. This is a considerable proportion of the total LTTE dead of 17,000.

Give their superior social and penetrating skills, women have been sent on deep penetration missions, especially infiltration for suicide attacks. By 2002, over 100 of the suicide bombers were women. “Black Tigresses” were sent to kill top leaders like Rajiv Gandhi, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Lt.Gen.Sarath Fonseka.

No quarter given or asked

The LTTE does not differentiate between men and womenat work. Both undergo the same regimen and the expectations are the same. Both are made to experience and get used to the blood and gore, and the blood curdling noises and the nauseating smells of war.

Though respect is shown to women by men as per ancient Tamil custom, under battle conditions, no quarter is given.

And no quarter is asked for, because women make ferocious fighters themselves.

According to Suthaharan,  a top leader of the now defunct EROS,  the militant groups know that the female of the species tends to fight exceptionally  hard if cornered. And women, constantly afraid of being sexually assaulted, tend to fight to the finish, he says.

And the last reason that Suthaharan gives is the fact that the women fighters of the LTTE come from the rural areas, where women are naturally hardy.

SL Army takes cue from LTTE

It was the women’s unit in the LTTE which inspired the Sri Lankan government to recruit women as early as the 1980s, says Iqbal Athas.

The women were first put in the support services to relieve men for combat duties and to guard and question captured LTTE female cadres. But soon they began to be put in the forward camps and at check points in captured areas.

And the women have acquitted themselves well, Athas says.

No man-woman problems

Man-woman relations do not cause problems in the fighting forces of either the government or the LTTE.

In the LTTE, these  relations are strictly controlled, partly by the rigid social norms of Sri Lankan Tamil society and partly by the ideological suppression of femininity or sexuality for the sake of the over-arching political cause.

In the Sri Lankan Armed Forces there is no ideological suppression of femininity. But man-woman relations have not been a problem because in Sinhala society, the genders have a healthy attitude  towards each other.

This is partly due to a relatively high degree of Westernisation and a higher level of general education among the hoi polloi in Sinhala society, as compared to Indian society.