Sri Lanka's very own GI Janes
VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka - Lasantha Sumathipala joined the Sri Lankan army two years ago without telling her parents, fearing they would oppose the move. Now, they have come to accept what she's doing - helping the state fight the 18-year-old Tamil Tiger insurgency. "My parents now believe that women, too, have a duty towards their country, like the men," she said as she patrolled the Jaffna-Kandy road in the northern Vavuniya district with her colleagues.
Cradling AK-47 automatic rifles, the group of female soldiers in jungle green khaki and camouflage uniforms and blending with the land dotted by palm trees, is part of the Sri Lankan army's Women's Corps that works alongside their male colleagues. Together they walk looking for mines and bombs and then declare the road safe for passenger travel. The women also handle road pickets or do guard duty along the main supply route and on the rail track to Vavuniya.
Vavuniya is a government-controlled town in the north, parts of which are under the rule of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist fighters. The LTTE has been fighting since 1983 for a separate home for the minority Tamil community in the north and the east of the country, a campaign that has cost the lives of more than 60,000 people.
Ten years ago, there were hardly any women in the armed forces. Now female soldiers are being trained for combat duty, but they are yet to be deployed in offensive operations. Some of them, though, have seen action in army camps in war-torn areas under assault by the rebels. "They are definitely an asset to the armed forces," noted a senior male military commander in the north.
At the headquarters of the Women's Corps Fourth Battalion at Medawachchiya, about 17 kilometers south of Vavuniya, visitors are stopped at the gate by women soldiers with guns and a regimental policewoman carrying a cane. After checking the credentials, visitors are sent through. In the camp, men are scarce and everything is spick and span. There is even a bakery, where hot rolls come straight off the oven. In charge of the camp is Lieutenant-Colonel Amita Owitipana, one of the pioneering women who joined the then male bastion in 1979.
Now holding the highest rank that women have reached (there are four other women in the same rank), she heads the Fourth Battalion, with 700 women under her command, serving in the Wanni region, including Vavuniya and Mannar. "Our girls have to provide security to the main supply route which is the one taken by all the convoys bringing soldiers and food to Vavuniya," says Owitigama, a civil engineer. Married to army officer, this kind of job has posed no problem for her. She has a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter who is in Colombo with her grandparents because she has to go to school. "I grew up in an environment where the army was the main topic of discussion because my father was in the army. This is a different kind of job, but a very interesting one," she says.
The Fourth Battalion, Owitigama explains, is a comparatively new regiment formed more than two years ago. The soldiers, between the ages of 18 and 22, were given one-and-a-half months' training with a stipulation they could not marry for three years after joining the army.
At the early stages when women joined, there were a few problems with the men, but stern disciplinary action taken by the high command has a put a stop to that. "Now there are no such problems,'' Owitigama says without elaborating.
Owitigama is proud of the achievements of her soldiers, not only in the field but also inside the camp. "The girls brought the sand and the rubble from a river close by to build the bakery. We only had to buy the cement," says Owitigama, who is "Maam" to her soldiers.
There are about 3,500 women in the five battalions which form the Women's Corps, with about 30 officers in each battalion. This comprises both the volunteers and regulars. For most of the women, their home economic situation has also been a factor in their decision to join up.
A soldier from Kantale in the eastern Trincomalee district says her village is very poor and the 8,000 rupees (US$90) or more that she earns a month helps keep the home fires burning. The majority of Sri Lanka's armed forces are made up of rural youth, drawn more by the need for a job to support the family than protecting the nation. "It's a very difficult job," one private says, adding they have a lot of fun in the camp when they are off duty. "We eat, drink, watch a movie before hitting the bunks."
Commanding Officer Owitigama's face clouds over as she speaks of the casualties among her girls. It had been a double tragedy for the Fourth Battalion, she says. "One girl was caught in a bomb blast when she was travelling home on leave in an army lorry from the Wanni in 1999 and another was killed accidentally in Mannar when she was cleaning her gun on October 26 of the same year."
For Second Lieutenant R P S Kuragoda, this seems an easier posting than her previous ones. She has served in both the north and the east. She recounted she was in Kanagarayankulam in the north with 300 women under her command in May and June of 1998 when battles erupted with the separatists in nearby Mankulam. "We heard the battles, the shelling, and were on the alert. Then we were told to take just our weapons and carry only whatever we could, whatever that was very valuable to us, and make a tactical withdrawal."
(Inter Press Service)
source: Asia Times Online, July 13, 2001