The Gendered Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms Commentary
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The Gendered Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms

In the summer of 1983, ethnic violence swept the island nation of Sri Lanka. Known as Black July, the outbreak of communal violence between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority communities left thousands dead and hundreds missing. Four decades later, the legacy of the violence lives on, searing Sri Lanka‘s social and political landscape. This is part four of a five-part series compiled by JURIST contributor Dr. Thamil Ananthavinyayan, lately of the University of Nottingham Human Rights Law Centre, who has gathered a group of scholars from his home country of Sri Lanka to reflect on the lasting impact of Black July. 

The recognition of equal rights and non-discrimination for all individuals, regardless of gender, has garnered significant global attention. However, even with these advancements, women in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka continue to endure the profound impact of armed conflicts and colonization, which continues to manifest in lasting consequences, even decades later. Women in this region often face a dual burden as victims of armed conflicts, resulting in disabilities primarily caused by sexual violence. Moreover, the historical legacy of British colonization exacerbates the challenges faced by women with disabilities.

Gendered impact of the Sri Lankan armed conflict

The ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka emerged because of the marginalization of the Tamil minority by the Sinhalese majority-led government. Communal violence escalated after 1956, leading to the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), advocating for the establishment of ‘Tamil Eelam’. The conflict reached a critical point following the tragic events of ‘Black July’ in 1983, resulting in a significant loss of life and extensive destruction of Tamil properties. The war ultimately concluded in May 2009.

Over the course of decades of conflict, women in the war-torn Northern region undertook diverse and crucial roles, serving as combatants, victims, and survivors. Living in the militarized North, these women confronted profound vulnerability to rape and sexual violence, perpetrated by military forces, intimate partners, acquaintances, and strangers during and after the conflict. As a highly vulnerable group, they experienced elevated risks of disabilities, primarily attributable to their exposure to sexual and gender-based violence. Consequently, women with disabilities endured enduring repercussions stemming from the prolonged conflict characterized by violence and rights violations in both public and private spheres. The impact of disability hindered their personal development, effective social participation, and social mobility.

Legal subordination in Tesawalamai

The historical colonization of Sri Lanka introduces an additional layer of rights deprivation for women with disabilities. The Matrimonial Rights and Inheritance Ordinance (Jaffna) of 1911, which was later amended in 1947 and commonly referred to as Tesawalamai, was enacted during the British colonization and specifically applied to the Tamil inhabitants of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. This ordinance undermines women’s property rights by mandating written consent from their husbands for any transfer of immovable property, rendering property transactions null and void in the absence of such consent. Originally, Tesawalamai only required ‘consent, but later ordinance introduced the specific requirement of ‘written consent’ in an attempt to protect married women from imprudent property disposition based on their husband’s marital power. Furthermore, if a wife is deserted by her husband, separated by mutual consent, or if the husband is imprisoned, of unsound mind, or cannot be located, and unreasonably withholds consent, the wife is compelled to petition the District Court for authorization to deal with the property. This legal framework perpetuates the perception that women in the Northern Province lack the status of ‘femme sole’ and remain subordinate to their husbands, whereas women in other parts of Sri Lanka are regarded as ‘feme-sole’ under the General law. The imposition of such requirements can lead to undue hardship, suffering, and restrictions on the enjoyment of human rights for women in the Northern Province. Despite the inconsistencies with fundamental rights, Sri Lanka’s Constitution upholds the validity of Tesawalamai and allows for the application of unwritten customary practices. The absence of post-judicial review hampers the alignment between legislation and the protection of fundamental rights.

In considering the international conventions, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) advocate for the non-discriminatory protection and promotion of the rights of women with disabilities.  However, the legal recognition of these rights faces obstacles within legislative and executive domains, largely due to the prevailing charity-based approach rather than a rights-based approach. Additionally, the direct applicability of CRPD and CEDAW rights to Sri Lankan citizens is hindered by the country’s dualist nature, resulting in limited acknowledgment of the rights of war-affected women with disabilities. Consequently, these women with disabilities encounter barriers in accessing their fundamental rights.


Women with disabilities face a complex array of economic, social, and cultural challenges, necessitating urgent attention, empowerment, and redress. The legal subordination enforced by Tesawalamai further compounds the violation of their rights, resulting in a state of double victimization. Considering recent political changes, it is imperative for the newly established government to prioritize support for these marginalized Tamil minority women with disabilities, elevating their socio-economic status, and ensuring the protection of their rights. These women should be acknowledged not merely as recipients of welfare but as individuals who assert and demand their rightful entitlements.

Nirogini Vichvaneadhdhiran is a law lecturer at the University of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. This is part four of a five-part series on Black July.

Suggested citation: Nirogini Vichvaneadhdhiran, The Gendered Legacy of Sri Lanka’s Black July Pogroms, JURIST – Academic Commentary, August 17, 2023,

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