Sri Lankan men and rape: What the Sri Lankan media missed

I read with great interest this article in the Guardian about nearly quarter of men in Asia-Pacific admitting to committing rape according to a new UN study. As Sri Lanka was one of the countries that were a part of the study I looked around a little more and came across a few articles in the local media that had run with the title “14% of Sri Lankan men admit to rape”. It seemed that most mainstream print media, including Daily Mirror and Ceylon Today had taken the article straight from the BBC and to my surprise not followed up with this horrific statistic.

If they had bothered to follow up with this study they would have unearthed far richer information and I cannot imagine why there has been no follow up given how troubling the rest of the findings in this study are. When mainstream media puts us through interviews about the healthy diet of well known perpetrators of different forms of violence, it would be nice if it was balanced with other equally important information.

There exists an exclusive Sri Lankan report on this study that looks at the findings in Sri Lanka in depth. When reading the Sri Lanka report, a glaring error in the UN regional study is evident. The UN survey was conducted in nine countries and in some countries it was only conducted in specific areas. The UN report states “Most of the findings presented in the report refer to the nine research sites, except where the sample was national” and “The samples are representative of the selected sites, although in most sites are not nationally representative and not designed to represent the whole Asia-Pacific region”. What this means is that in some countries it was only conducted in certain areas and therefore the findings can only be applied to that area and not the whole country.

The Sri Lanka findings in the UN report are presented as ‘National’ – which means the findings are applicable to the whole of Sri Lanka. So when they say 14.5% of Sri Lankan men admit to rape that is correct. However, this is where the problem lies – the Sri Lanka study was conducted only in four districts (Colombo, Hambantota, Batticaloa and Nuwara Eliya) and the Sri Lanka report specifically states “Under this sampling design, the findings of the survey can be generalised to it’s sample population: men and women between the ages of 18 and 49 years living in the four study districts. Even though the survey provides valuable insight into the knowledge, attitudes and practices of men and women on issues of gender, masculinity and gender based violence, these specific findings cannot be generalised to the total Sri Lankan population”. Emphasis mine.

It may look like I am finding fault with a minor error but it is not – it is a grave error to present data that cannot be applied to the whole of Sri Lanka as national data. If the study was conducted in all 25 districts the figure 14.5% could easily be far higher or far lower – and this is the danger.

What was unfortunately lost with the uproar of the 14.5% rape figure were the significant findings that accompanied the data. The Sri Lanka report makes a disturbing and yet at the same time a useful reading because it reveals attitudes and mind sets of both men and women that have long been ignored in GBV and gender related programmes.

The findings highlighted below are mainly in relation to perpetrator history, intimate partner violence and women’s attitudes – and are just a few of many vital findings that should be discussed and incorporated into any planning around GBV and Gender related policy/programming/activity.

A few of the significant findings from Sri Lanka include –

While these figures do not represent all men and women of Sri Lanka, the data is still extremely useful to get an idea of where we are with regard to Gender Based Violence and the attitudes that allow it to continue and grow the way it does. Like data driven journalism, data driven programming is also extremely necessary and often ignored by organisations working on GBV issues. This data is an excellent starting point in addressing some crucial interventions needed – from working on both men and women’s attitudes towards GBV, gender and identity, working with youth especially to combat GBV and attitudes towards women, the importance of recognising abuse of any form, whether emotional, physical or sexual and enabling educationists from the school level to a) recognise b) intervene and direct students towards support.

The percentage of men who admit to rape is not the most important highlight of this study and in fact it is information if collected through an opinion poll should not be presented as hard data. What is important and needs to be highlighted are the findings that accompany the perpetrators – their history, their reasons for doing so, what ages they are most vulnerable to this kind of behaviour and start our interventions from there, for if this study was conducted all island, I fear the 14.5% figure may be FAR higher.