Sr Arasi, Seva Missionaries, Sisters of Mary, looks at the students' jewelery. (Molly Mullen/JRS)
Trichy, 31 October, 2012 – For 30 years, civil war devastated Sri Lanka, forcing many Tamils to seek safety in southern India. While Tamil Nadu may be safer than home, for women in the 112 refugee camps across the state, 'safer' is not enough.

Unemployment, overcrowding, post-traumatic stress and alcoholism have taken their toll on the camp population, now nearly 70,000. However, with forced early marriages and sexual- and gender-based violence, women face additional hardships.

"We focus great attention on girls in the camps because almost all violence you see in the camps is against girls. To a certain extent, all girls face problems in the camps. The houses (more like thatched sheds) in the camps are so small, and there is no privacy. Whatever you say in your home can be heard by the neighbours", said Lilly Pushpam, JRS Tamil Nadu programmes officer.

Alcoholism. Most people in the camps do manual labour on construction sites or farms. They are paid on a daily basis and those with alcohol problems often drink their wages as soon as they receive them. This feeds into a cycle of poverty and depression for families which leads to more drinking.

Sexual and physical abuse often follows, and, according to Ms Pushpam, it is women and girls who bear the greatest brunt. With this in mind JRS field officers and counsellors identify people with alcohol dependency problems and organise appointments with them to discuss treatment options. The most serious cases are referred to specialised centres in the camps. But according to Ms Pushpam, only about 30 percent stay with the recovery programme.

JRS teams focus on changing the attitudes of the young by raising the issue in Arrupe Centres. One group organised a street play about the effect of alcoholism on the family, moving one father to swear off alcohol altogether.

"That was a great success for JRS. Young boys usually see their brothers or fathers drinking and begin to experiment with alcohol at a young age", Ms Pushpam said, hoping the message sinks in.

Impunity. Many cases of sexual- and gender-based violence go unreported. Women fear if they speak out about the violence against them, their neighbours will start talking and shame their family, like in the case of Nila*, who faced a backlash after speaking up.

"There was a married man who wanted to marry me too. He used to follow me. One day when I was alone at home, the man came inside and tried to molest me. I screamed loudly so he ran away. All the camp residents came to know about it and talk about me," Nila reported to a JRS counsellor.

After months of counselling she has resumed normal life, but she will live with the burden of stigmatisation.

Neena* is another survivor of sexual violence who attends the JRS-sponsored Survivor Support Group. She lives alone with her mother and two siblings as her father is still in Sri Lanka. She was completing seventh grade – taking care of her siblings and dealing with the tribulations of adolescence – when she was sexually abused. An older neighbour found the 12 year old alone and repeatedly raped her.

Once JRS was alerted, field staff suggested a medical examination so they could report it to the police. Her mother refused, fearing other people might find out.

"Now I'm never alone. After school I stay with my teacher until I can go to an Arrupe Centre. I can stay there until my mother gets home from work", she said.

The man who raped Neena continues to live next door and has never faced repercussions for his crime. JRS staff try to combat this stigma against abused women by organising public awareness campaigns.

JRS teams have also established an Arrupe Centre in each camp for students to study after school and participate in cultural activities. But in a refugee camp where reputation and community relations are more important than the rule of law, providing safety and counselling are the only options available.

Counselling and safe havens. "We've seen rape used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere…" the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said so candidly in 2009, a fact only the most partial observer could deny.

Although the statistics fail to fully capture this reality, harming women was a clear operational tactic; some were sexually assaulted, others abducted, killed by landmines, stray gunfire or bombardments, or abandoned after their husbands left to fight in the war. It was these first-hand experiences of war which pushed thousands to seek safety in India.

Whether they fled war and abuse in Sri Lanka, or were born in the camps in India, refugee women and girls face hidden obstacles to gaining access to education. While they are entitled to attend Indian public schools, the trauma of sexual- and gender-based violence often causes the survivors leave early. To help them rebuild their lives, JRS has employed 66 counsellors to provide the girls and women with psychosocial support.

More than just counselling services, women need a safe place to learn leadership and life skills. JRS established two centres for young girls who left school early. Here they learn everything from tailoring and computer skills to street theatre and public speaking.

"These girls who have been physically and psychologically abused can come to accept themselves at JRS centres. They are empowered to stand on their own two feet", said Fr Louie Albert, JRS Project Director in Tamil Nadu.

Nineteen year old Kalaiselvi came to one of the vocational centres after family difficulties caused her to leave school early. One of the best parts of her time there was the presence of the Seva Missionaries Sisters who teach in the centre.

"They listen to us, they believe in us, they have good hearts and good minds", Kalaiselvi said with her new English-language skills after six-months at the centre.

Molly Mullen, communications consultant, Jesuit Refugee Service International Office
*Not their real name
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