54% of adolescent girls in Sri Lanka feel that a husband is justified in beating his wife. The UNICEF Global Report Card on Adolescents 2012 however is not available yet to try and unpack this further. What do they mean?

Surely, they cannot be suggesting that the arbitrary violence that some wives are subject to in Sri Lanka is acceptable; burned rice that results in cut lips and black eyes? It must be wives that were somehow overly flirtatious with another man. Wives that have behaved, or even worse, dressed, inappropriately. Wives that have proved to be whores!

What about those husbands that use wives like dogs? Psychologists call it displaced aggression, commonly known as kick-the-dog syndrome. Surely the adolescent girls can’t mean these husbands? Their wives did nothing more than open the door and welcome them home.

What about the husbands that come home inebriated and then proceed to beat their wives to a pulp for looking at them the wrong way? Do the 54% think this is justified?

Our friends at the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) have a theory that the alcohol socialization process in Sri Lanka begins with the mother at the fence discussing with her neighbour her husband’s need to consume alcohol due to the various problems he faces. ADIC says this results in young people (who accompany their mother to the fence as kids) turning to alcohol to solve their problems – meka bonna ona prashnayak!

Do you think the mothers at the fences talk about how beleaguered their husbands are to rationalize their still bloody noses, or visible grab marks on arms? Perhaps the 54% have stood by holding on to maternal hems listening to why this is ok, understandable even, that’s it, understandable.

Do you think that this level of acceptance among young adolescent girls mirrors our own as Sri Lankans?

Violence is under reported here.  As a Nation, we’re also on record refuting allegations that we in anyway mistreat women. Apparently we revere them, and have placed them in the highest offices of the land as a symbol of our respect and adoration. This ridiculous response however was not pilloried by our free and easy going mainstream press. We seem to accept that this is just the way things are in Sri Lanka…

Is it a really surprise then that 54% of young adolescent girls think that wife beating is acceptable?

We did a series of workshops for the Rotaract Club in 2010 and also 2011 that included a discussion on violence in relationships. Over two thirds of the participants, predominantly from Colombo, affluent, English speaking, agreed that a man can in fact hit a woman, if the woman has done something to deserve it… defining what deserved a violent response in relationships ran the gamut from overcooking rice to being unfaithful. We were surprised at the levels of acceptance that first year, and then, as we did more workshops and listened to what were rational and well thought out justifications for intimate partner violence, our surprise soon gave way to disbelief and finally almost resignation.

This is the way we are. Simple, really. It’s not even about insidious forms of patriarchy. There’s nothing insidious about our acceptance of intimate partner violence… or at least, it’s no more insidious than us using the term intimate partner violence in a bid to be inclusive of men and women who face emotional and physical violence in their relationships, regardless of marital status and sexuality. No, in Sri Lanka, we’re honest, open, even proud of our patriarchal weltanschauung. A man is a man, with man responsibilities and commitments, and similarly, a woman is a woman, with woman obligations and duties. Those who fall between and into the cracks… well, tough, this is Sri Lanka.

Recently we have wondered if Sri Lanka’s patriarchy has its roots in Buddhism. You might think this an unnecessarily reductive approach to what has long be acknowledged as an amalgam of anthropology, religion (especially the people of the book) and their resultant socio-cultural influences. But still, we have to examine our contemporary expressions of Buddhism, which must surely be derived from the various influences just outlined, including the Judeo-Christian God of those who colonized us for nearly 450 years.

Religion’s role in patriarchy is well documented. It is steeped in power. Just read the Ten Commandments. They were written for men who owned slaves, donkeys and women. Nietzsche, before syphilitic insanity claimed him – a judgment from God, of course – spoke at length of how faith and belief was used to manipulate the masses. The herd. The priests didn’t believe in the lie of God, and most crucially heaven and hell. They merely perpetuated it.

Have we men similarly perpetuated a lie that it is in fact normal i.e. the norm, to slap our women about, especially when they deserve it?

Do we believe this, or do we find it convenient? Are we afraid that our women may wake up to the fact that we’re bullies and cheats and, in general, loathsome? Surely this is unnecessary Feminist vitriol? Next thing you know, I’d be advocating that all women become lesbians? That’s what feminists do apparently, even the men.

This last week, we’ve been forced to engage with our Buddhist ways in Sri Lanka.

When we heard of what happened in Dambulla, did we collectively shudder, or did we bang our hairy Sinhala chests in exultation? Nietzsche’s ascetic priest that believes not what he preaches was alive and well. Power was on display. Policemen and the armed forces were mocked and chided.

Is there a connection between Dambulla and the 54% of young adolescent girls who have beatings and marital rape to look forward to? Are they not both a reflection of what we have become… or even worse, who we’ve always been?

There are answers out there, but we mustn’t be afraid to ask the questions.

How do we recover? How do we help the 54% and the rest of our young girls feel self worth and value that will not perpetuate our peculiar patriarchy?

We’re as far from comprehensive sex education – any well structured programme addresses gender and patriarchy – in schools as we’re from freedom of speech. But how far is that really? What is the distance? How many miles to go before we sleep?

The shortest verse in the Bible is John’s Gospel Chapter 11, verse 35: Jesus wept.

This last week, as I watched and read of the ugly militant Buddhism that has raised its head and stripped itself of robes to jump up and down naked and unabashed, all I could see were tears in Buddha’s eyes. Today, reading of the 54%, Buddha’s tears continued to flow.

Buddha wept, and we, if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry too.

  • Iromi Perera


    The UNICEF report is available online – http://www.unicef.org/publications/files/Progress_for_Children_-_No._10_EN_04232012.pdf

    However, country specific data is quite limited. It does not include methodology or sampling for each country. I would be really interested to know how the data was collected in Sri Lanka and how many adolescents were interviewed.

    In the statistical table, the data for the question ‘adolescents aged 15 – 19 who think a husband is justified in hitting his wife’, which you have referred to in your article, the note for the Sri Lanka data (the 54%) says – Data differ from the standard definition or refer to only part of a country. Such data are included in the calculation of regional and global averages.

    Definition of the question – Justification of wife-beating – Percentage of the population 15–19 years old who consider a husband to be justified in hitting or beating his wife for at least one of the specified reasons: if his wife burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children or refuses sexual relations.

    As a statistician, I was hoping that there was some discrepancy in the data and that young Sri Lankan girls did not think this way, despite the fact that SL numbers correspond with numbers in the region also. But going by your experience which you’ve mentioned in your article, maybe the numbers aren’t wrong at all. Such a pity, and very worrying.

    • Thanks Iromi and Lankan Thinker, at the time of writing this on Wednesday I couldn’t find the link to the report. I’m a bit of a Luddite really. Having gone through it now, I am even more convinced that as Lankan Thinker suggests, we need a sustained campaign/programme to address this. I suggest that in order to work it be led by the government, i.e. Ministry of Child Development & Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Education etc. And yes, stakeholders must include Civil Society and development partners, who have experience in this field… this said, it also time to re-evaluate programmes carried out by the development industry that perhaps tick the box but have little or no impact beyond glossy pictures in an annual report that makes the donor community smile.

  • Lankan Thinker

    Actually, it is possible to get more information on this UNICEF report on adolescent health and well being (the full report card can be found here http://www.unicef.org/media/files/PFC2012_A_report_card_on_adolescents.pdf), which reported the 54% statistic. UNICEF also reported that the statistic was taken from a national survey, and sure enough I was able to find the report from the Department of Census and Statistics in Sri Lanka where this was reported – it is the 2006/7 Demographic and Health survey which can be found at http://www.statistics.gov.lk/social/DHS%20200607%20FinalReport.pdf

    On page 194 of the SL Census Dept report, there is a description of the method they used to determine women’s attitudes to domestic violence, which essential involved them asking over 14000 women from across the island whether they thought it was acceptable for a husband to hit the wife in any one of 5 scenarios. The scenarios were: if she burns the food, argues with him, goes out without telling him, neglects the children, and refuses sexual relations with him. The table on page 195 of this report makes for some grim reading:

    According to the Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics, the statistic reported by the Sunday times is true – 54% of the 321 15-19 year old girls surveyed thought at least one of the above reasons justified wife beating. However, even worrying is the information that more than 50% of all the women surveyed (out of a total of 14692) thought at least one of these reasons justified wife beating. One could argue that the reason for such a result might be a lack of education, but it seems that even out of the 10000+ women who had at least a secondary education, more than 50% thought there were justifiable reasons for a husband to hit them.

    It is shocking that this data has been available since 2009 and there has been no mainstream media campaign to address this issue.

  • Ray

    What are you talking?
    In Srilanka, the majority Sinhalese even have the right to abduct, torture and beat up any non Buddhist non Sinhala person. No one could complain to the authorities, because by reporting the abuse, the harassment would get worse.

    • Yawn

      Did they only sample “Sinhala Buddhists” or something?

  • RajasH

    Buddha’s eyes have gone dry and he has no more tears to shed for Sri Lanka. erecting Buddha statues in every nook and corner and illuminating is not Buddhism but it is becoming an eye sore

  • villa

    Buddha too abandoned his wife to seek solution for his (own) confusion as to what is life.
    He also initially avoided ordaining women to be monks.
    Why there were no women saints in Middle Eastern religions? Starting from Adam, Abraham, Mosses, Christ and Mohamed, god only spoke to men and not women.
    In the east the saints and enlightened ones are only men. Are we missing some thing!!

    • sen

      Hi Villa, the missing thing is the URL I posted !!! Why all men, but no women. But with the changing times, this will change too.

  • darshana


    This is a topic that should be addressed, but what you have written just exemplifies what’s wrong with Sri Lankan media today. What is the connection between what happened in Dambulla and the violence against women?

    “This last week, we’ve been forced to engage with our Buddhist ways in Sri Lanka.”

    The line above makes me lol. Do you really want to dig into history of which religions have forced their ways?

    You are making a connection between two topics that has no connection. You just ramble away on these connections without stating any useful facts. You just make a loose connection between the two topics just to calumniate the “Buddhist” ways.

  • villa

    Hi Sen, Sorry I think you didn’t get the cynical not in my writing. I am saying that these religions are not divine as they claim as every one being men only it proves they were made by men in authority. We do not need it to change as you suggest, which means women also claiming to be enlightened ones or chosen ones from above. What we need is for the religions to disappear for women or for any one to be free.

    • yapa

      Dear villa;

      Oh!, I understood your “cynical note” in the previous post. I read that only now.

      But my questions are philosophically still valid and those who think they are relevant for them may answer for the benefit of a wider audience.


  • Sunil

    The main topic is a very important one and is one that has to be discussed openly in the media and in schools and essentially everywhere. But as one commenter has already pointed out, what has this topic, violence against women, has to do with what happened in Dambulla? Is the writer somehow trying to imply that this is a “Buddhist” problem? That, there no Christian or Hindus or Muslims abuse their women in Sri Lankan society these days?

  • Caryll

    Its a sad reflection on our society when young girls think abuse is ok…… Every aspect of normalcy has/is breaking down in Sri Lanka. Check http://m.facebook.com/fightpolicebrutalityinsl?id=219347998178122&_rdr the Police are supposed to protect civilians and keep order, check out Dambulla where Monks we should look up to turned into thugs and made a mockery of the Budhas precepts….President Rajapakse has to put a stop to all the mayham and bring values back to our land or we would have spiralled out of control and will end up as a sad nation.

  • Lankan Thinker

    Darshana, Sunil,

    I didn’t interpret Hans’ article as an attempt to portray this problem as a purely Buddhist one – the point being made is that the lack of importance given by our society to the issue of violence in the home and in particular the seeming acceptance of violence against women stems from a culture where men are valued more than women – in other words a patriarchal culture. So the point I took from Hans’ article is that Buddhism in Sri Lanka has perpetuated these patriarchal attitudes, just as much other religions have done the same in countries (e.g., Hinudism in India).

    The connection to the incident in Dambulla is how those of us in the majority community in this country respond to violence being carried out to another part of society – be they a religious community or women in general. If our reaction is one of justification or denial of the problem, my view is that this is an indicator of something seriously wrong with our society.

    In both cases we must ask ourselves, what have we been teaching our children to have them believe that this type of behaviour is acceptable? Given we are a country where the Buddhists are the majority, we have the most work to do in order to address these problems – first step is to accept there is a problem.