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Armed conflict in Sri Lanka opened space for Tamil women to change gender roles

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Contrary to earlier research, this study shows that at times of armed conflict or other social transformations women's roles are not static and ambiguous.

"The armed conflict encouraged women to take up roles not traditionally sanctioned for them," says Doreen Arulanantham Chawade who has written the thesis.

"They became warriors because of the war. They became heads of household because their husbands were living abroad, unemployed, missing or dead. They became political activists because of the extensive injustice towards minorities, and they became peacebuilders to put an end to the war," she says.

Doreen Arulanantham Chawade made her field study in the Jaffna region of Northern Sri Lanka. There she carried out in-depth interviews with local people who had first-hand knowledge of women and Tamil society in the context of armed conflict, e.g. academics, NGO officials, members of the clergy and journalists. She gathered the women's own narratives through in-depth interviews and focus group discussions, and made observations in order to understand the contexts of the areas researched.

She found, through the narratives of women, that not only had women seized an opportunity that the patriarchy had never before offered them, but also that the changed roles prevail after the conflict.

Earlier studies claim that, even if findings show that women take up new roles in times of conflict – because of the forced situation the conflict creates – traditional gender roles usually return once the conflict is over. Doreen Arulanantham Chawade's results points in a different direction, however.

"Using the space that arose during the conflict, women claim they exposed their capacities by assuming multiple roles. And Tamil society was forced to accept women's new roles," she says.

"The 'forced situation' was, therefore, not forced upon women, but forced upon society."

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