Photo courtesy Beyond Borders blog

On 9th August in 2005, the Sri Lankan parliament unanimously passed the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA).

The Act does not create a new offence of ‘domestic violence’ but instead defines domestic violence, firstly, as acts of physical violence, which constitute only those offences already recognized under Chapter XVI of the Penal Code. Secondly it recognizes emotional abuse  – defined as a pattern of cruel, inhuman, degrading or humiliating conduct of a serious nature directed towards an aggrieved person. The PDVA allows ‘any person’ who suffers or is likely to suffer such violence to seek a protection from a Magistrate’s Court, which is empowered to summarily issue an Interim Protection Order valid for 14 days. A Protection Order, valid for 12 months, barring the aggressor from committing further acts of violence and entering the victim’s residence, among other things, can then be sought on the basis of evidence. In imposing such conditions, the court is required to balance the needs of the victim and children (including their accommodation needs) and any hardship that may be caused to the aggressor. The Act focuses on ensuring the safety of the victim by providing a civil remedy even while preserving her right to initiate separate civil or criminal action as permissible.

The unanimous vote on the PDVA masked deep hostility and anxieties expressed by a number of Members of Parliament during the parliamentary debate, about the need for such an act, its ‘western’, NGO origins antithetical to Sri Lankan culture and its negative impact on the family. In fact, seven years after its enactment, the PDVA is a remedy of last resort for women victim-survivors of domestic violence. Research by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) reveals that 11 organisations supported the filing of 304 domestic violence cases under the PDVA between 2005 and June 2011, i.e around 50 cases per year. The Children and Women Bureau Desks (CWBD) of the Police were involved in filing 55 cases and 247 cases in 2009 and January to September 2010, respectively.  All this constitutes less than 1% of the number of complaints of domestic violence recorded by these institutions. This only confirms other studies, that the law, if accessed at all, is a remedy of last resort in these cases mediated by dominant cultural and ideological norms.

Yet, any analysis of the impact of the PDVA that is restricted to the number of cases filed would be missing the larger point—that the PDVA has opened up an important and new discursive ‘space of struggle’ to talk about patriarchal privilege, the sanctity of the family, and the ‘meaning’ of domestic violence. This is a struggle between a dominant discourse that trivialises and condones domestic violence while constructing the PDVA as a threat to the social order, and an alternative discourse that highlights the pain and trauma of victim survivors.

The dominant discourse on domestic violence

Echoing the resistance to the PDVA in the 2005 Parliament, current day political leaders and representatives continue to question the need for the Act. Their discourse is marked not so much by a denial of the prevalence of domestic violence but by the tendency to normalize, trivialise and legitimise it by invoking patriarchal cultural narratives and local ‘wisdom’. One old proverb, particularly popular with politicians, is  ‘f.or rKavqj n; bfoklx ú;rhs’’, (Gedara Sandu Batha Idenka vitharai), which translates as ‘violence in the home is only until the rice is cooked’, and which constructs domestic violence as a momentary disruption in an otherwise calm and peaceful household.[1]  Take for instance, what the President had to say at a Women’s Day celebration held in his constituency, Hambantota, in 2010:

We have introduced laws to bring relief to women. Sometimes I wonder whether these laws are excessive. Some laws from the west have been introduced in Sri Lanka. At first glance they seem very attractive. But Sri Lankan women occupy a high status based on our culture which is 2500 years old. . . and under current legal regulations, our cultural values are being  weakened, while the legal bond has been strengthened.[2]

There is a saying that we have heard that domestic violence is only until the rice is cooked. When two people who are different to each other live together under one roof there will be problems. These problems most often will only be until the rice is cooked. Sometimes they may last longer and be reported to the police. According to the existing law, the police now have to file a case in court. Then the husband is not allowed to enter his own home. Then the rice may get cooked, but the parties have gone to court to file for divorce . . .. We end up unable to reconcile the husband and wife. We are now complicit in their separation. This is my own view.[3]

On another occasion, addressing a gathering at his official residence to mark ‘Prisoners Welfare Day’, the President suggests that certain new laws are preventing reconciliation among husband and wife and contributing to a sharp increase in the number of divorce cases, exceeding even the number of criminal cases filed in some areas.[4] (The fact, as noted earlier of course is that very few cases are filed under the PDVA).

It comes as no surprise then that women’s rights advocates and organisations supporting victim-survivors of domestic violence, including by filing cases under the PDVA, are seen as promoting divorce, undermining the family, etc. Furthermore, while it is impossible for the state to police and regulate women’s rights work across the island, it is nevertheless doing so where it can, notably in the North and to a lesser extent in the East of the country. There are numerous reports from the North that women’s organisations are not allowed to undertake ‘mobilising’ and ‘advocacy’ work on issues such as domestic violence and child abuse. On the other hand, micro-credit programmes and construction of toilets are considered acceptable. Such regulation and policing is made possible by the fact that development work is being closely monitored by the Presidential Task Force and the military on the ground. Elsewhere in the Island the focus is on generating and sustaining a public discourse that strongly reinforces respect for patriarchal family values and traditional gender roles.

The Alternative Discourse on Domestic Violence

To begin with, debates around violence against women within the home prior to the enactment of the PDVA, dragged it out of the confines of the home and into the public sphere. As a women’s rights activist recalled, “at the community level, and everywhere we went, women would stand up and just talk about the violence they were experiencing in their homes and the need to do something about it”.

Even though the cases actually being registered under the Act are low, women victim-survivors are seeking some sort of ‘public’ response to domestic violence. According to the ICES study, while at least 86 organisations around the country are providing domestic violence intervention services around the country, 35 of these organisations had received 12,000 domestic violence complaints in 2009 alone.  The CWBD/Police also recorded around 94,000 cases in 2009. Police records also indicate a steady increase in the number of complaints received by them, underlining the need to strengthen the gender sensitivity of these institutions.

Moreover, an alternative discourse, which has for the most part remained a private between victim-survivors and institutional workers about the pain, trauma, shame, loss of self esteem and humiliation suffered by victim-survivors and their struggles to free themselves of violence, is now seeping into the public domain contradicting and challenging the dominant discourse.

Take the case of Upeksha Swarnamali (Pabha), Member of Parliament, who spoke about her experience of domestic violence before Parliament in March 2011. In February 2011, the media reported that she was hospitalized after being assaulted by her husband. On her recovery and return to Parliament, she spoke about her experience of domestic violence appealing to all 225 Members of Parliament that they should unite to address the problem.

After my experience of violence, I reflected on it and I tried to find out more about this. I found that 60% of Sri Lankan women are beaten and 44% of pregnant women are also beaten. These women are traumatized and suffer because of men’s violence against them. I want to assist such women. I hope that all parliamentarians will join me to address this problem. Domestic violence should be eradicated from this country.

In November 2011, Roel Raymond, a blogger who describes herself as a mother, lover, rock and roller, journalist, writer, model, thinker, freedom fighter, and undertaker’s daughter posted an even more impassioned and powerful public account of a personal experience of domestic abuse on a blog curated by the Women and Media Collective, which was subsequently reproduced here on Groundviews. She begins by saying:

It has never been easy for me to speak of what took place during those 5 years I was married. [ . . .]. I mean to now because my story or some part of it may resonate with someone out there [. . . ]   

These two narratives offer a stark contrast to the dominant public discourse on domestic violence described above and maybe described as reverse discourses, wherein victim-survivors are speaking up publicly on their own behalf.

As Naila Kabeer points out the emergence of narratives, of opinions and arguments about what was previously unquestioned implies the co-existence of ‘competing possibles’. That domestic violence and the PDVA is ‘high politics’ enough for the President to express concern about it indicates the power of this alternative discourse. The inevitable contestation between these discourses will be central to new ways of thinking and acting not just in relation to domestic violence in Sri Lanka, but to advancing women’s rights and gender equality in general.

Note: This Article is based on a forthcoming ICES Working Paper: “Only Until the Rice is Cooked: The Domestic Violence Act, Cultural Narratives and Familial Ideology in Sri Lanka”.

[1] This is of course not the only cultural justification that exists in relation to domestic violence within both Sinhala and Tamil language. Others such as Gedera gini eliyata damanna hoda ne! constructs violence as a private matter and the home or the family as a private institution and what happens within should not be disclosed in public or Kanthavath, vahalath, berayath gahanna sudusui which is the Sinhala equivalent of the old English proverb, -‘A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree, the more you beat ’em, the better they be, where violence is constructed as patriarchal privilege of the husband and the wife as the ‘property’ of the man to be treated in any way he desires.

[2] Lankadeepa, 10th March 2010: 5. Translated from Sinhala by the author.

[3] Lankadeepa, 10th March 2010: 5. Translated from Sinhala by the author.

[4] Sandun Jayasekera, Prison Congestion a Grave Crisis Daily Mirror, 15th September 2010,