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Women turning to survival sex in Sri Lanka’s north

Oct 11, 2013

Sexuality is largely considered taboo in Sri Lanka's north where caste and class are still decisive factors in women’s subservience.

Sri Lanka Girl

Colombo/Kilinochchi: With more women taking up as family breadwinners  in Sri Lanka’s former war zone - the island’s north - the region is recording an increase in women turning to survival sex.

According to estimates by local groups working with women to boost their incomes, the number of women engaged in sex work is said to be as many as 7,000, considered by some as a conservative estimate.

Vishaka Dharmadasa, head of the Association of War Affected Women, a northern-based NGO working with sex workers, told IRIN: “This was a new finding during a [local] household survey on women-headed households and livelihood requirements. They are under immense pressure to provide for families in homes where men are either dead or reported missing. It has made a sizeable percentage of women to reluctantly turn to sex work.”

The government estimates there were over 59,000 women-headed households in the island’s north in 2012.

“They bear economic burdens once carried by their fathers, husbands or brothers. Poverty and lack of options are driving women to adopt commercial sex as an income generator,” Dharmadasa added.

She said the “strong” military presence in the north, along with men from the south taking jobs in the north’s building boom, were “somewhat regular reasons for an increase in commercial sex”.

In addition, an increased number of Sri Lankan-born Tamils from the diaspora visiting their place of origin since fighting ended four years ago, has also increased demand for commercial sex, Shanthini Vairamuttu, a community worker from the district of Jaffna, told IRIN.

Fending for themselves

Sexuality is largely considered taboo in the north where caste and class are still decisive factors in women’s subservience. After fathers, women are cared for by their husbands and, thereafter, by sons. Following almost three decades of civil war, and the loss of thousands of the region’s men, this tradition and structure have crumbled, requiring women to fend for themselves when before they were discouraged from leaving their homes except for agricultural pursuits or education.

“The structures have changed and the trends are changing, causing the emergence of fresh social concerns,” Vairamuttu added. “There would have been the occasional sex workers in these villages but not to the extent that it became known to the community,” she added.

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