Sri Lankan officials presented her with a sewing machine.
It was 2011, and the woman had just been released from a rehabilitation camp for former Tamil Tiger fighters. She had signed up as a teenager and spent seven years as a member of the militant group’s women-only Malathi Brigade.
Fighting was what she knew. She had no interest in sewing. She tried raising chickens, but the venture failed.
“I’m tired of the burden I have become to my family,” said the 35-year-old, who asked not to be identified out of fear of repercussions. “Every time I go out, I have to ask my father for money.”
Her story is a familiar one.
Lured by an intoxicating promise of a Tamil homeland and female emancipation, women were recruited to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in large numbers and made up nearly one-third of the separatist organization.
Then, in 2009, the LTTE’s three-decade campaign for sovereignty came to a bloody end, crushed by government troops.
With their defeat, the militaristic brand of feminism that had liberated the female Tamil Tigers came to an end, too.
After years of equality with their male counterparts, the women were suddenly expected to marry, have children and tend to household chores. They swapped trousers for saris and grew out their short hair to appease judgmental families and neighbors.
There was nothing else to do, said a former Sea Tiger — a veteran of the LTTE’s naval division — who also asked not to be identified.
The 39-year-old still has shrapnel peppered throughout her body from battles waged during the 1990s. (She signed up at the age of 12.) She managed to keep from being swept into the system of government-run camps set up to hold the defeated rebels, camps that have been dogged by allegations of torture and rape — and that has enabled her to avoid being placed under surveillance.
“I wanted to start offering karate and self-defense lessons to girls,” she said. “But my husband said, ‘No, don’t do that, it will draw attention to you, and people will start suspecting your background.’ ”
Alan Keenan, the International Crisis Group’s senior Sri Lanka analyst, said little has been done to address the basic socioeconomic needs of these female ex-combatants.
“And ex-combatants continue to suffer ostracization from the rest of the Tamil community, for a variety of complicated reasons,” he said.
In their desperate final days, the Tigers alienated many Tamil supporters — who for years had remained loyal to their cause — by forcibly recruiting child soldiers and cynically using civilians as human shields.
The army, for its part, incessantly shelled designated “no-fire zones,” killing thousands and setting the stage for a fraught path to normalizing relations between Tamils and the Sinhalese majority.
Ananthy Sasitharan, the Northern Province minister for women’s affairs, whose husband was a high-ranking LTTE leader, is one of the few Tamil female politicians and is regularly in contact with former Tigers who come to her for “livelihood assistance.” She said many are living a sparse existence without husbands or jobs and are careful to conceal their ex-combatant status because of continuing state surveillance.
“They dress in a manner so you can’t see that they are injured, but they can’t work much because of that,” Sasitharan said.
Their hidden struggle is illustrative of a society that in many ways remains fractured.
The north saw major postwar infrastructure investment under hard-line former president Mahinda Rajapaksa — who was also responsible for crushing the Tigers. But according to Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council, the projects didn’t benefit the poorer communities.
That has begun to change since President Maithripala Sirisena took office in 2015, Perera said.
And this year’s budget, for this first time, contained a section specifically devoted to reconciliation. It sets aside approximately $80 million for reconciliation projects, including subsidies for businesses that hire at least five ex-combatants or war widows.
“Despite winning the war, we have yet to win the peace,” Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera told Parliament when announcing the budget.
Another ex-Sea Tiger — who joined in 2001, at 16, and spent eight years in and out of the LTTE — moved to a modest home in her new husband’s small village, where she said she is “limited in terms of what she can do as a housewife in this area.”
“I got training in how to make small snacks to sell at shops, and I was doing that, but now I’m feeling too unwell,” said the 33-year-old, who was pregnant and had flesh wounds on her right leg that she said were caused by the shrapnel that remains lodged there. She sustained the injuries after leading a group of female fighters into battle with the army in 2008.
Her husband is disabled, so with the added responsibility, “I don’t feel like the second-in-command,” she said.