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Breaking Up:
Sri Lanka’s Divorce Rates Rise – And Rise – After End Of Civil War

Since the end of the civil war, more Sri Lankan couples are divorcing then ever. Tamil locals say militant groups kept society conservative and families together.

21.06.2016  |  

“Dad. Dad” The child attempted to follow the man, who was walking away. But upon getting no response, the little boy stopped and returned to his mother. “Why is Dad going away? Is he working here now? Doesn’t he work at the bank anymore?,” the child attacked his mother with questions.
The other people in the Jaffna Magistrate’s Court watched in sympathy as the child’s mother embraces him, tears welling in her eyes. “Dad will come later,” she tells the little boy.The woman was at court that day to get her alimony – she has three sons to support. “The eldest understands the situation,” she explains. “But how can I make the youngest understand at this age?”
Because Maheswary Raviraj fell in love, aged 22, and was soon mother to three. The eldest is now 18.

The Tamil Tigers were famous for strict discipline that included an tightly knit family life.

Raviraj’s former partner is now living with another woman and although the ex-wife is living in Colombo she must come north to Jaffna every month to collect this alimony; she filed for divorce because she found out her husband was with someone else.Although Raviraj is rare in that she says she would return to her husband if he wanted her, she is not rare in being among a growing number of Tamil women divorcing.
Tamil society places great importance on marriage. And interestingly, previous to 2009 and the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, there was very little divorce in Tamil society in the north-east of the island nation.
“Prior to 2009, when one’s very existence was threatened, nobody was thinking of divorce,” says Nalini Ratnaraj, a local human rights activist.
During the civil war, much of the north and east of Sri Lanka was controlled by the militant organisation, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The group, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, were famous for strict discipline that included an tightly knit family life, which translated into a form of cultural control.
As Ratnaraj puts it: “People who live in that controlled environment tended to become more undisciplined after the war. They were not worried about the loss of social values.”
Young people in northern villages were more likely to come together and have children, then break up again. Locals suggest various other reasons for the growing number of divorces too, including economic migration which sees one partner go overseas to work. If the other partner should then find a new companion, this is considered adultery and grounds for divorce.
Some have also suggested that the Tamil Tiger’s 30-year fight for the rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamil people is another reason why there are more divorces now.“The Tamil Tigers movement encouraged women to act as equals with men,” says a local sociologist. “The armed struggle gave the women self confidence and courage. This translated into a willingness to fight against domestic violence and other aberrations and to ask for divorce, after the war ended.”
“The foundation of society was changed by the civil war,” suggests Kanthasamy Thayaparan, a lawyer from Vavuniya. “So there was a lack of support that couples usually had from neighbours and relatives.”When people are displaced from their own lands and resettled in other places, that also increases divorce. Changes in lifestyle also impact on divorce rates, which are on the rise from Point Pedro to Galle,” Thayaparan notes.
Figures from the Sri Lankan courts show that most of the divorces are being sought by locals aged between 25 and 40. The number of marriages failing after two to three years has also increased and one female lawyer said that most divorces came after three years of marriage.Recently the Department of Social Services expressed alarm at the rapid increase in Sri Lanka’s divorce rates ; they are up to around 400 divorces filed in courts per day, which is a major jump in just a decade.“It is sad to see divorces going to court for even trivial things,” says medical sociologist Srikantharajah Sivakanthan. “We see divorce as the solution to family disputes. But divorce can change society in the long term.”
And what about the children of broken families, Sivakanthan asks, pointing out that, while in European countries, there is a lot of thought given to offspring and their reactions to a divorce, this is not the case in Sri Lanka.
There are not enough professional relationship counselors and the ones that do work in Sri Lanka, don’t have enough training, says human rights activist Ratnaraj . “That’s a big reason why reconciliations are so difficult. She believes counselors also need to be provided with security and transport so they can do their work better.