Groundviews

The rape and murder of Vidya: Do women really matter in Sri Lanka?

Editors note: Original image was taken from Icarus Wept. Rather than the issues noted in the article, or the incident of rape, many initial comments focussed on the use of the photo. Histrionics of the “I am right so you must be wrong camp” aside, over email and calls, more informed and reasoned requests were made and valid reasons given to not use the photo as it was originally published. ‘The War Photo No One Would Publish‘, referenced in the comments below, is an interesting take on the optics and politics of using photography to purposefully shock. On the other hand, there are valid reasons to celebrate the life of the victim and not the horrible circumstances of her death. In light of the debates, here and elsewhere, the original photo – though widely available online – is now blurred to a point of abstraction. It reminds us, hopefully and inter alia, of the many more like Vidya in Sri Lanka and that debates around the aesthetics and ethics of journalism aside, this horrible business of rape must end.

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The rape and murder of Vidya in Pungudutheevu in the North has been widely reported in the media. There have been protests in the North, and vigils and protests held in the South as well. People have expressed outrage, sympathy, horror and anger.

A number of Tamil websites and commentators, both in Sri Lanka and the diaspora, have pointed to this as yet another illustration of the subjugation of the Tamil people. A Tamil film director in India has said young Tamil men are committing such crimes as they are being forcibly plied with alcohol and drugs by the state with the aim of destroying the Tamil community.

Some have said such a crime would not have taken place in the LTTE controlled areas, while others have lamented the lack of Tamil political leadership at this time to ‘guide’ the protests and protestors. Many have lamented the erosion of Tamil culture, which they argue has led to such violence. Speculation and rumours abound about one of the accused- a foreign national- who reportedly is part of one of the Tamil politico-armed groups, although there is little agreement on the group to which he belongs. Similarly, there are many stories about the involvement of ‘someone’- a Tamil academic or a Tamil politician, depending on the narrative, who helped the foreign national escape.

There have been calls for justice and a deputy minister has said the accused should be sentenced to death, and the sentence be implemented in public. Even as some say the accused ‘should be killed’, and asked they be handed over to the public who want to mete out mob justice, on social media people have declared the accused should be castrated.

In the north what began as peaceful community protests very quickly turned violent. Some commentators said it was because the people had lived under repression for many years due to which their bottled up feelings were now being expressed as violence. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) warned of external elements that were attempting to turn peaceful protests violent, while the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) asked people to be mindful of attempts by enemies of the Tamil nation to misdirect the legitimate anger of the people towards violence. Others said people were using Vidya’s case to convey dissatisfaction about the lack of a political solution and failure by the state to address their grievances.

In the midst of this frenzied activity and plethora of voices speaking on behalf of, and about Vidya and all those who were subjected to sexual violence in the context of the armed conflict over the years, such as Krishanthy Kumaraswamy, women have been marginalised yet again. It feels they have faded into the background because the various public demands and discussions have largely focused on everything but the root causes of sexual violence- namely, patriarchy, gender inequality and misogyny.

The conversation generated by Vidya’s rape and murder, particularly within the Tamil community, has focused on protecting women from men who are almost always seen as outsiders or strangers, ignoring the fact most cases of sexual and gender based violence are perpetrated by those known to the victim. The placards held by protestors in the north which demand ‘severe action to punish lascivious brutes’, and call for justice for Vidya who was ‘prey to the appetites of sexual predators’ show little understanding of the causes of sexual violence, which are viewed as related to sexual desire and lust of men rather than women’s disempowerment due to discrimination and marginalisation.

In Sri Lanka, like in other post-war contexts, there is increased sexual and gender based violence in the conflict-affected areas that is exacerbated by the breakdown of legal systems, social relations and networks, the prevailing culture of impunity, and poverty and militarisation, that have not been addressed even 6 years following the end of the war. Granted, militarisation coupled with economic disempowerment creates a context in which women are vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation by ‘outsiders’, including the military. Yet, this doesn’t mean violence within the family and community committed by those closest to us does not exist – to the contrary, community organisations in the conflict-affected areas report an increase in such cases. Why then is the Tamil community hesitant to speak of violence within the community as much as it speaks of violence perpetrated by the armed forces?

Since the political rights of the Tamil community are perceived to be under threat, perhaps more so than before the end of the armed conflict, it is not surprising that women’s empowerment and rights have once again been relegated to the backburner, with the concerns of the Tamil nation taking precedence, and women’s concerns being used only as a tool to further the national struggle for political rights. While communities in the conflict-affected areas have felt insecure and under siege, they have sought refuge in old traditions and practices that are familiar and hence provide some form of comfort, and foster the belief the community, its culture and values, and by extension its identity can be protected. Women are therefore viewed (once again) as repositories of culture, community purity and pride, and as a result it appears the gains they made during the armed conflict are slowly eroding with the emergence of discriminatory and restrictive practices that do not recognise women’s agency, i.e. their capacity to make choices regarding their lives.

In this context, speaking of the root causes of violence within the family and community is avoided because of fears that speaking of such violence will bring shame upon the community or weaken it socially and politically. Yet, such silence and avoidance only further disempowers women and increases space for the perpetration of sexual and gender based violence, particularly in the post-war context when we are confronted with the general culture of impunity which has become entrenched due to the breakdown of legal systems and the inability or refusal to deal with it.