Women under LTTE: 'Cannon fodder' or women's liberation?

Standing during peak hour in 2004, on the main road that runs through Kilinochchi, which was the last administrative capital of the LTTE, all visitors experienced a feeling that they are witnessing something very different - no one on the road was obese; the dominant mode of transport, bicycles and motorcycles; the fifty percent women among the peak traffic; both sexes equally distributed among the riders; female traffic police directing the peak traffic; and of course the LTTE women in their striking uniform. It is indeed this high visibility of women in the public space that was most striking. If the visitor had delved a little deeper into this feature of women in the public space, they would have found a unique kind of feminism that had developed in Vanni. This article will explore this unique feature and the two decades long multi-faceted social process that created this.


Vanni was the large swath of continuous land mass with a population of approximately 400,000 people that was administered by the LTTE with Kilinochchi as its administrative centre. The LTTE shifted its administrative centre in Kilinochchi in 1996, following its eviction from Jaffna. The demography of Vanni was mixed with, Tamil people seeking safe haven from other parts of Tamil Eelam that was occupied by the Lankan military and Upcountry Tamils escaping violence against them.  LTTE’s de-facto Tamil Eelam state building project in Vanni had been ongoing for several years prior to the 2002 Norway brokered ceasefire was signed.

As visitors to Vanni in 2004 could observe, women in Vanni were out in the public space in large numbers. They were the LTTE women, civilians employed by the LTTE, and self employed women. All of them interacted closely in a manner that did not exist outside Vanni. Through this close interaction they managed to create a network to pick out the women who needed a helping hand. Be it in the spheres of economic assistance, domestic violence, child educational negligence or housing need, they were on the lookout. There were established channels and institutions to which they could turn in order to bring this to the attention of those who can help. Because of these available mechanisms, women did not hesitate to be watch-full and they did not turn their face the other way as women must do in most parts of the world. This culture more or less permeated the entire female population. That was the unique feminism – elimination of destitution through universal women’s action.

Sustaining this female culture was several LTTE institutions of health, welfare, banking-development, police, law and media. They all had more than fifty percent female representation. Some of them were run solely by women, both LTTE and civilian.

The largest women run institution was CWDR (Centre for Women’s Development and Rehabilitation) under the women’s section of the LTTE political division. Everyone permanently employed by this institution was a woman, including its drivers. Men were employed only on a casual basis. It had a head office in Kilinochchi and sub-offices in all the eight districts of the homeland. It had very wide ranging projects from welfare centres for mentally affected women to employment giving ventures. A strong testimony for its effectiveness was the absence of destitute women and children on the Vanni roads. The institution could not have achieved this without the social awareness of all women in Vanni.
LTTE women in the political wing and women in all women institutions like CWDR discussed domestic violence issues freely and enabled the affected women to seek them out for assistance. It had been a long standing policy of the LTTE to engage in domestic violence issues through their legal system. Women’s institutions provided refuges, counselling as well as legal assistance. The near fifty percent representation of women in police and among judges also facilitated effective handling of domestic violence. This however did not mean domestic violence was eliminated. Despite this astonishing work on domestic violence, there was also great reluctance to publicise this work. In fact when international NGOs attempted to collect statistics on domestic violence it was viewed as an assault on Vanni. The underlying suspicion that such statistics could be abused to discredit the defacto-state project prevailed in Vanni. The paranoia was partly justified because many other social issues relating to the LTTE were in fact distorted by the outside world to create a very negative image of the LTTE.

The extensive and intensive women’s network in Vanni drew even the poorest of women in, bringing to them the awareness of the women’s work in the public domain. It encouraged women to enter the work force as self employed often in traditional areas such as small scale retailing, farming and sewing but also into small boat fishing, mechanics and driving. Though their ventures were small scale their participation in large numbers promised greater things to come. In fact, following the devastating 2004 tsunami there was promise of international funding for tsunami recovery. Plans were put in place to use this funding for extensive network of all-in-one woman centres to serve women in the fields of health, economy and law. This never eventuated because the Sinhalese forced this promised international funding to be shelved.

In this Vanni culture, women, especially LTTE women, were able to think and act independently, within the broad parameters set by LTTE policy, without the oppressive pressures from their families and husbands. They never had to be concerned about getting permission from their husbands when making decisions in their line of duty. How did the men, especially the LTTE men, adopt to this evolving female culture. It is natural to expect such changes in the female culture to have a corresponding effect on the male culture too. Indeed substantial changes did take place within the male culture in Vanni and especially within the LTTE male culture. This topic has not been studied sufficiently. An obvious aspect of this change is the degree of respect long standing LTTE men afforded to women. This was visible both in the private as well as the public spheres. Many women from Vanni who are now living in the “normal” patriarchal societies, both in the island and elsewhere, are presently experiencing stark existential differences between their life in Vanni and their present life.


The evolution of this Vanni culture started throughout the homeland during 1970’s. Militant young Tamil men had already formed themselves into several small armed groups and operated throughout the homeland attacking the state apparatus. Tamils proudly referred to the members of these armed groups as “our boys”. The reference reflected pride in the ownership of such “boys” among them who stood up to the violence perpetrated by the state on the Tamils. The 1983 pogrom was the watershed moment for the Tamil armed struggle. The atmosphere in the homeland was charged with militant politics. The multitude of armed groups swelled in numbers. The LTTE was the only group that did not embrace everyone who wanted to join them. In the view of Sivaram (Taraki), famous Tamil journalist murdered by the state, this highly selective recruitment by the LTTE during their early phase of growth was one of the reasons for its success as an organization.

Tamil women were already playing supportive roles to the militant armed groups providing food and caring for the injured “boys”. The July 1983 outrage stirred many young women who wanted more active participation in the struggle. There were many other push factors; the least of all was the ongoing and pervasive Lankan military sexual harassment. Many of the Tamil armed groups began taking in girls as members; initially for the purpose of political education of the general public. The LTTE resisted recruiting women fearing problems of discipline which was one of its overarching principles. However, senior LTTE leaders like Thileepan and Kittu were already encouraging political activism among young women eventually leading to recruitment.

By the time the IPKF, the very large contingent of Indian military, landed in the Tamil homeland in 1987, the LTTE was dominating the scene after having virtually destroyed or absorbed the other groups. Women in LTTE had already taken part in combat roles and this continued when the war started between the LTTE and the IPKF. Sexual violence by the IPKF became rampant in the Tamil homeland. A notorious statement by an IPKF commander to the people, who took to him complaints of sexual violence by his forces, made clear that the IPKF did not consider sexual violence as a serious crime. These crimes by the IPKF became the strongest push factor for women to join LTTE in even greater numbers.

Patriarchal discourses in many cultures are more or less exclusively centred on the woman’s body. Celebration of virginity, strict dress code, and prescribed permissible body language are its main features. Indeed, feminist discourses in these cultures have attacked this use of woman’s body as the centre of cultural discourses. The pre-1970’s patriarchal cultural discourse in the Tamil homeland was no different. Thus when rape and other forms of sexual violence became, a common occurrence during the state sponsored pogroms, a pervasive weapon of the occupying Sinhala military, and a permitted practice of the Indian military, it was a very effective push factor for women in this patriarchal culture to join armed militant groups.  It was an empowering move by victims and potential victims of sexual violence. The increasing number of rape victims had other effects on the women too. Female LTTE members have said on record that rape must be seen as another form of torture and nothing more.

Publicly declaring the loss of virginity by rape in a patriarchal society was impossible. Thus when women joined armed militants to avenge the crime the fact was never made public. Indeed all widely reported rapes of Tamil women were those in which the woman was murdered after gang rape by the occupying force. What kind of depravation would then make a Tamil woman comment that LTTE women are “armed virgins” as described by Radhika Coomarasamy in 1997 and happily repeated by others because Coomarasamy was once the UN Rapportuer on violence against woman! Did the UN Rappoteur on Violence against women deliberately distort facts or was she ignorant? Neither can be excused from a Tamil woman in that position. Young Tamil women have been continuously experiencing sexual harassment at the Lankan check-points for over two decades. In the past, touching of their private body parts in the pretext of checking was also common. The Lankan military’s creativity in gruesome violence on the woman’s body had no limit. Practices like cutting off women’s breasts to decorate the crime scene and exploding bombs in the woman’s genitals have had two decade long history. The British Channel-4 for documentary, “Sri Lanka Killing fields”, of May 2011 was unique only in that it was widely broadcast. The absence of such widely broadcast documentaries on the violence faced by Tamils during the earlier period provides a valuable lesson. Could it be because during this earlier period Tamils also had an effective military power in the form of the LTTE? Aiding the blockade during this period were “international experts” like the former UN Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radhika Coomarasamy, whose tenure overlapped with this earlier period of pervasive sexual violence against Tamil women. That she had nothing to say about it is a commentary not only on her but also on that UN post.

The departure of IPKF from the island in 1990 marks the beginning of two processes that was to become the two defining features of the Tamil armed struggle until the LTTE was defeated in 2009: the powerful growth of the de-facto Tamil state and the incessant global attack on numerous aspects of this de-facto state creation by the LTTE. 

When the Indian military departed from the homeland the vacuum was seized by the LTTE and for the first time sufficient space became available for the state building project. Women too, who had already entered the public space, now had greater freedom to act in this public space. Women could do things that they could not do before and demonstrate their abilities in the public sphere. The seeds for the integrated female culture observed in Vanni that was described earlier were sowed during this time.

Unlike in the eastern areas of the homeland, in Jaffna which was a stronger patriarchal society, dowry practice had grown into a scourge. The massive drive against this was launched in 1994 and the female LTTE members played a very active role in the research leading up to this campaign and also the subsequent campaign itself. Female police force was created and new laws for the evolving de-facto state were created. Customary dowry laws were scrapped. These gave the emerging de-facto state a strongly pro-woman character. When the LTTE was forced to abandon Jaffna as its administrative centre in 1996 and set up in Vanni the process continued. 

The push and pull factors that made women join the LTTE can be broadly summarised. Over and above national liberation ideology, the condition of women in the traditional society and gender based violence against women by the occupying military were additional push factors that made women join the Tamil armed movements during the early phase. As the armed struggle progressed, displacement and poverty also became push factors. The status of women within the LTTE and the respect afforded to them as equals was the strongest pull factor for women to join. The growth and development of women in the organization also provided role models for young women and acted as a pull factor.

Negative portrayals

The 1990’s was a busy time for writers, both academics and journalists, to analyse the LTTE phenomenon in general and the LTTE women phenomenon in particular. By then LTTE was not only successful militarily, the participation of women within its ranks in the military and social sphere had become problematic for the dominant global paradigm and also for the chauvinistic Lankan paradigm. Both Tamil and Sinhala writers who needed to exist within these two paradigms tried many approaches to depict the participation of women in the LTTE as victims of a patriarchal project. Quadri Ismail in his 1992 article, “Boys will be boys”, even dragged Frantz Fanon to make the point that the LTTE ideology was a strictly male ideology.   Other Tamil feminists existing in the above two paradigms used their access to LTTE discourses to selectively use comments made in LTTE publications to create further distortions. There were certainly some male chauvinistic comments made in some early LTTE publications. In hindsight, knowing how the women in the LTTE evolved to their status in Vanni, it is clear that these outside analysts were more intent on creating negative perceptions using selective material rather than bring out the true condition.

Improvements took place over a period of a decade of activism by female LTTE members unnoticed or rather ignored by these analysts. It was only after the 2002 ceasefire and the opening of Vanni to the outsiders that feminists, who felt comfortable to extent into LTTE’s alternate paradigm, were able to carry out field work. Writings by authors who had carried out field work in Vanni began to reflect cautiously on some of the positive aspects that have evolved as a result of women’s participation. In this respect Miranda Alison’s 2003 report is worth noting where she challenges the earlier negative portrayals. “Remote field work” through recycling old negative comments of the 1990s by those, who had never visited Vanni, also continued.

Black tigers (suicide bombers) in general and women black tigers in particular had also seriously bothered those living in the global paradigm. This had resulted in the depiction that theLTTE exploits vulnerable women as suicide bombers. Statistics can sometimes be very revealing. Based on the 2008 LTTE statistics, female LTTE members killed represents 20 percent of the total LTTE members killed and female black tigers killed also represents 20 percent of the total black tigers killed. There was no exploitation of women as suicide bombers. This article will not delve into the rights and wrongs of the use black tigers in general.

Barathy was a female LTTE leader in the political wing. She was killed in 1992 when she mistakenly entered Lankan military area. Her political clarity that comes through her poetry unfortunately evades all those writers who commented so negatively about the women in the LTTE. She writes,

The vultures stomachs are fattened on the lives of the poor
UN, the ostrich, you are hiding your head in “world peace”.
Your face is not so visible but your body is so naked....
Closing comments

In the present time in human history, national liberation movements by their very nature must start off as a male ideology because most oppressed nations remain patriarchal. When this is the overarching goal of a movement, anti-patriarchal feminism will invariably be subordinated. History has many examples of such national liberation movements which also took up the women liberation torch only to abandon it once the main goal was achieved. Algeria, Cuba and several other national liberation movements are cited as examples. It is natural to have expected a similar outcome in Tamil homeland.

Feminist writings within the dominant global paradigm have no solution to women living in the pervasive patriarchal societies of the wretched on the earth. There are no examples of anti-patriarchal feminism that has successfully changed the conditions of the women in any of these societies except perhaps some transient changes in highly localised areas. Many local NGOs working among the wretched of the earth for the betterment of women receive funding from global bodies. No one is kidding that the changes they bring about are substantive. They can never bring about mass mobilisation.

Male dominated mass mobilisations have been the only channel through which women have emerged in the public space in large numbers. For these women who enter the public space through male dominated mass mobilisation, it is impossible to be militantly anti-patriarchal. This has lead to the return to old state of affairs after the male dominated mass mobilisation comes to an end. It would be dishonest to say that this would definitely not be the case for the LTTE women even if the LTTE was not destroyed. However, anyone who stayed in Vanni for any length of time had reasons for hope.

LTTE women were in charge of several sections, both military and civilian based, in which they were responsible for both sexes working under them. The work of such units did not reach the media. For example, the responsibilities of the political division were divided at eight district levels each of which was further subdivided into five or six “koddam”. While no woman was ever in charge of any of the eight districts, women had been the heads of “koddam”. These women were responsible for the political operations in that “koddam” needing on the field decision making. If there were no visibility of female decision makers within the LTTE, the reasons were many. Women’s age and seniority within the 30 years old organization was definitely lower than that of the men because women joined almost 10 years later. As the responsibilities of the position went up, the demand on the leader increased exponentially. The LTTE leaders in high responsibility worked extremely long hours. This type of demands did not suit many of the capable senior female members who were married with children by the time they reached that seniority.  Sharing of top leadership can become feasible only in peace time with more regulated working hours. This limitation certainly limited women’s participation in top level leadership. However, as more and more capable women rise up the LTTE hierarchy would have been forced to make the necessary changes to accommodate them in the top leadership. The LTTE simply could not have afforded to ignore high quality human resource.

In Vanni during 2006/7 plans were afoot to implement Vanni wide training of all school children in karate. Vanni wide karate competitions were annually held to encourage karate and it was indeed becoming popular. The greatest beneficiaries of this project would have been the girls. Can one contemplate the implementation of such a project in any of the present day patriarchal societies? 

The widespread participation of women in the public space and latent feminism among many LTTE members were evident in Vanni. Also, 30 percent of the Tamil population from the homeland are living in western countries where women enjoy an elevated status. They remain emotionally connected to the homeland project. If the Tamil Eelam project had not been destroyed, they too would have provided the impetus prevent reversal of the gains women had achieved during peace time. A potentially great feminist project was destroyed together with the LTTE.


Dr. N. Malathy is a Tamil expatriate living in New Zealand, who returned to the north of the island to volunteer with her people rebuilding following the 2002 ceasefire.  She ended up working in the Vanni with the North East Secretariat for Human Rights, the Child Protection Authority and the LTTE Peace Secretariat, living there from 2004 to March 2009. She is the author of 'A Fleeting Moment in My Country' (2013).


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.