Sex work during the Sri Lankan civil war

By Radhika Hettiarachchi, together with The Grassrooted Trust 

Videography and editing - Sharni Jayawardena, Asanka Rohan and Yogan Mahadevan

The Sri Lankan civil war, which began in 1983 lasted 26 years till the LTTE were vanquished by the Government of Sri Lanka on 18 May 2009, with accusations of human rights abuses levelled against how both sides handled the civilian populations.  As a direct result of the Sri Lankan civil war, there are many women from women-headed households who have scant economic means to support their families. As they have borne the economic burdens of their households, they have chosen or sometimes been forced to take up transactional sex work due to their circumstances during and after the conflict. This situation has only been further exacerbated by the post-war socio-economic and other ethno-political issues that have engulfed the country since then, making the impact of conflict continue to affect the ‘survival’ choices of women. In the context of war, how ethno-religious and ethno-geographical and ethno-political environments affect sex work, particularly for economically and ethno-culturally marginalised and vulnerable women, continues to make it a dangerous and insecure profession. In addition, the criminalised nature of sex work, whether they are street-based, home-based or brothel-based sex workers, affects their ability to support themselves and their families in a way that is physically and emotionally healthy and safe. It also affected how and if women sex workers (both trans- and CIS) are able to access justice for the sexual violations, particularly those that are conflict-related, that they have endured. The ambiguity and harshness of the laws, that govern the area of sex work – The Vagrants Ordinance, The Brothels Ordinance and other drug or impersonation offenses – have the potential to increase and negatively affect human trafficking, sexual violence and underage sex, because of the inability to safely and openly engage in transactional sex work for women. 

The Sex Workers and Allies South Asia (SWASA) network, as per the Status of Sex Work report indicates that the average sex worker is a woman between the ages of 26-50 years old. They come from a humble backgrounds such as the urban poor, farming communities or are ‘day-labourers’. Some are married or in relationships akin to marriage, many are widowed or abandoned, and function as  breadwinners of women-headed households to provide for their children and families. They leave their children with relatives or extended family when they go away. On average their earnings provides for 2-5 dependents including children, partners and extended family members.  The war and the securitised context of the conflict and its aftermath are further complicated by the intersection of ethno-religious identity, structural power relations that make women, particularly those belonging to ethnic (numerical) minorities vulnerable, and the socio-economic opportunities available to poor and (conventionally) uneducated women. In addition, the rights of the ‘female body’ and how society views and ascribes sets of value-based conditionalities on what it means to be a woman – embodying society’s own preoccupations with purity, morality and sanctity within the society-determined ‘roles’ as mother, widow and wife –  make sex workers even more marginalised in the context of their safety, security and access to justice. During and after war, these conditionalities also intersect with the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist anxieties of post-war Sri Lanka, especially in the nation-building processes in the aftermath of the war. 






This article looks at some of the ways in which conflict affected sex work in exacerbating the sexual violence against women.  

What was it like for women to enter and remain in transactional sex work during the conflict?

Many of the women whose oral histories are shown in this article are between the ages of 40-65 and many are mothers. They came into these circumstances due to poverty, war, displacement, the loss of a breadwinner or support system, compounded by the desperation of providing for their children/ families. Sex work during conflict, was not limited to those in directly war-affected areas, or in brothels in militarised, conflict-adjacent areas only, but spread throughout the country.


Manjula*, is a Sinhala mother in her sixties from Puttalam in Sri Lanka’s west coast. She lived in Mullaitivu, on the directly war-affected east coast eking out a living with her migrant fisher-family, experiencing war and widowhood. She chose sex work in Mullaitivu during the war



Vishwa*, a Tamil mother of two in her forties from Jaffna, was the wife of an ex-combatant. She has endured war, widowhood and displacement and experienced the direct impact of war in the northern Sri Lanka, including having to live with and battle the stigma and societal condemnation as a sex worker.

What was it like travelling for sex work during war?

During the war many women, come from all ethnicities and had civilian clientele as well as from with the army and police who were the greater percentage of their clientele. Sex workers during the conflict, travelled extensively for their work throughout the country, across natural barriers such as ethnic and language groups and across and through securitised barriers such as check-points and war-zones. In the process, they have experienced acts of conflict-related sexual violence.  

Luxmi* a Tamil mother of four in her sixties from Kilinochchi, who has travelled between Colombo and the north as a sex worker throughout the war to support her displaced family. Her experiences of travel in an era of heavy militarisation, as a sex worker and a member of a numerical minority, illustrate the realities of war and travel during the war. 


Piumi* is a Sinhala women in her fifties from Puttalam. She is her family’s breadwinner. She has worked as a migrant sex worker in a fishing village in Mullaitivu during the war, and negotiates the idea of ‘respectability’ daily, even as she believes herself to be a woman of achievement and strength. 

Sex workers were brothel based and street-based during the war, with more women using phones and ‘sex brokers’ who were usually women) over time (with phones become more ubiquitous in the 2000s) to ensure their anonymity and to protect themselves from societal ridicule. ‘Home-based’ sex work was therefore a way to secure more time to spend with children, on other economic activities or social engagements, but also a way to manage their safety and security. 


Kamala*, is a Sinhalese mother of two in her late forties from a ‘border village’ (close proximity to the warzone) in Polonnaruwa. She has endured war, harassment and sexual bribery as a widow with children to support, to emerge resilient and self-sufficient.


Janaki*, a Sinhala mother of four in her fifties from the outskirts of Colombo where the urban poor dwell, is the breadwinner of her family. She negotiates the socially constructed norms of her life as a woman, mother, wife, and an empathetic caregiver to her drug-addicted husband.

For those who never established savings of their own, due to support their families, old age makes sex workers particularly vulnerable, as they are shunned by society, their own families and most women do not have the opportunity to save through institutionalised processes (which require a stable residence, a verifiable addresses and/or steady income. For many, movement during the war for sex work also meant a disconnect from their kinship groups, children and support systems, that left them vulnerable to abuse, violence and mental health issues. During the war, displacement also left refugee women vulnerable, and desperate for ways to support their families, bartering sex at times to do so. There is an agentive choice in such actions and immense courage to choose sex work as a viable (sometimes only option), managing societal recriminations and religious/cultural inhibitors/ threats simultaneously. 


Malkanthi*, a Sinhala mother of three in her fifties from Anuradhapura, has endured multiple layers of conflict-impact as a woman, a sex worker and a single mother. She continues to suffer the stigma of mental illness which is compounded by the loss of her children to residential care homes

Fathima*, a Muslim mother of four in her late fifties, was born in Hatton in Sri Lanka’s ‘tea hills’. Her story is of strength and survival that spans violence in the tea estates, war in the north, the sudden expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna in 1992, and life as an internally displaced person.

What kind of vulnerabilities did sex workers endure during the war and its securitised environment? 

During the war nearly all women interviewed suffered one or many of the following: sexual harassment while traveling, gang rape, rape (when men absconded after promising to pay as well as when a transactional relationship was not agreed upon), kidnapping, sexual slavery, torture, physical violence, under-age rape, and trafficking. More than half had experience one or many of them at the hands of the military and/police. The sex workers themselves don’t often consider the violence as ‘above and beyond’ because they think that ‘it’s all part of the job’ until they start talking about it and realize that some of the things that happened to them in a uniquely conflict setting in close proximity or within the conflict-affected areas was not the norm. All of the sex workers interviewed have never reported any of these to HRC or police, and never been part of any TJ workshops or included in any TJ related activities/activism.

Kumari*, is a Sinhala mother of three in her late fifties from Anuradhapura, a holy Buddhist city, frequented by military personnel. She has been a sex worker for over three decades, surviving extreme violence and sexual impunity during the conflict.

NASREEN*, Muslim mother of three in her early forties from Mannar. Hers is a long history of violence and abuse, having been sold as a child into marriage and sex work by her family. She speaks of her own courage and resilience in the face of suffering and unimaginable abuse. 

Where there has been childhood rape and sexual violence, while there cannot be a definitive causal relationship established, there is a very probably link to adult sex-work (especially for those violated while they were in refugee camps, or in directly conflict-affected areas, in exchange for food, support, protection or submitted for fear that their family would be killed or penalized). For these women, the idea of transactional sex work was a way to provide for themselves and their families within a context of sexual abuse that was already prevalent/ occurring.


Swarna*, mixed-race mother of two in her fifties from one of Colombo’s poorest districts, away from the primary conflict-affected areas, has experienced the challenges of preserving safety and security by choosing silence over justice

For sex workers, who worked during and in the aftermath of conflict, not just when they were from ethnic minority communities but even as Sinhala-Buddhists (whose privilege was negotiated against their vulnerability as women and criminalised as sex workers) their ability to access justice, accountability or reparations for sexual violence committed against them is nearly non-existent. They themselves, see harassment and violence as ‘part of the job’ which makes it difficult for them to seek justice through formal mechanisms in a post-war context. The criminalised nature of their work, the fact that sexual impunity happens away from the public eye, in spaces controlled by patriarchal power relations, they often feel that conflict-related sexual violence against their person is ‘another layer’ of abuse that needs to be borne and endured by sheer courage rather than something that can be addressed through justice and accountability mechanisms. Without decriminalisation, many do not feel that they have the ability or a society-mandated ‘moral right’ to come forward to seek accountability for wartime atrocities against their person. In a hierarchy of needs post-war, for sex workers, justice is elusive and as such is not an immediate priority. 

Conclusion –

In providing the space for sex workers to narrativise their own experiences, emotional truths manifest that lie beyond the parameters of what they did, what was done to them and what they witnessed. What they think of themselves as sex workers and women, what they think of sex work itself, how they felt and continue to feel about the choices that they have made becomes visible in these histories. Fear, anxiety, regret, anger, pain are shared with equal measure of pride, achievement, care, love and laughter. There is a dimension to memory and historical narrative that these oral histories revel about sex workers in conflict that is nuanced and goes beyond a chronology of events and beyond the realities of sex work during the war. The complexities of sex work during conflict therefore extends beyond the historical moment of war. It highlights how simplistic notions of right and wrong, preservation and desperation, helplessness and choice, visibility and invisibility are complicated considerations for sex workers. The stories reveal not just why they  got into sex work, or in some cases chose sex work as a lucrative ‘rakiyawa’ (job) but why they chose to stay in it – it is not just the money or the lack of opportunity for some. It is also their own agency in the familiarity of the work, the flexibility of time and location of the work, a feeling of already being on the margins of society that offers them a ‘grey area’ to seek out work, and for some stolen moments of care, ‘fun’ and pleasure.  

What is clear is that, they have agency to choose their livelihood even though for many, this agentive choice is predicated by necessity. However, the vulnerabilities they endure within a space that criminalises their work, also prevents them from peace of mind and having a safe space to work without societal recriminations and without ever being able to access justice for conflict-related sexual violence that they have all endured in one way or another. If so, three things matter going forward: enabling sex workers to share their experiences if they so choose to make the public aware that behind each socially manufactures ‘image of a sex worker’ is a ‘real’ person; networking and strengthening sex workers to support each other and to amplify their voices for seeking avenues of justice; and finally, to decriminalise sex work, so that the space to seek justice, to tell their truths without severe punishment, and to work with peace of mind and personal safety is guaranteed. 

There will be a sharing of sex workers narratives titled "Women's Histories of Sex Work: Narratives of conflict, courage and survival" at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies auditorium on December 15 -17 2023. These narratives highlight the complexity of the lives of sex workers in their own words, through objects of memory and research findings. They highlight the social stigmatisation, sexual violence and economic challenges that they have faced, as well as the simple joys, sisterhood and the empowerment they feel for having an independent income. The narratives speak of the need for supporting women sex workers to share their histories, and to amplify their collective voice towards accessing justice and a secure working environment.