Photo courtesy IPS

A few days ago, I listened to a speech made by the great artiste Mr Dharmasiri Bandaranayake. Although there were several connotations in his speech, and it contained much food for thought, one incident he related created a sense of deep disgust and sorrow in me. He described a scene in his play Dhawala Bheeshana, where a young female prisoner is taken away by the soldiers in charge. She subsequently drags her way back onto the stage, in unfathomable physical and emotional pain, after being gang raped by the officials. Although I have not watched Dhawala Bheeshana, I can picture the scene very clearly, and honestly, I do not believe my description does even a morsel of justice to the actual scene in the play. Mr Bandaranayake related that when this play was staged for school students in Panadura, at this very emotional point in the play, when the actress who plays the role of the female prisone came back to the stage, a young male student shouted “Ridunada?” (“Did it hurt?”). As Mr Bandaranayake emphasized, this little incident demonstrates the extent to which our society has degenerated.

Sri Lanka is regarded as the epicentre of Theravada Buddhism. The people of this country piously listen to Bana sermons, devoutly provide alms to the Sangha and regularly observe Sil and go to the temple on Poya days. The list of things that they do to display their loyalty towards their religion is never-ending. Yet, the paradox is that within this same country, inhabited by model citizens, killing people in broad daylight is commonplace; hundreds, if not thousands, of women are raped each year; child abuse is accelerating at an alarming rate; drug and alcohol usage is at a record high level and robbing has become a full time occupation for thousands.

As no reliable statistics are available on these social problems, it is hard to gauge their real depth. However, the frequency of such incidents is alarming. A few months ago, the people in my hometown were in for a rude shock when an elderly lady was raped and killed in broad daylight inside her own house. Adding to this, a few weeks ago, when I called my mother, she said that four men entered a house a few kilometres away from where she lives during the day, raped the middle-aged housewife who was cooking at the time and looted the house. After hearing of this incident, I did not sleep a wink that night due to the distressing fear I felt for my mother’s safety. Although robberies happen everywhere, even in the most developed countries of the world, it is hard to understand what drives these criminals to leave a lasting scar on an innocent woman by raping her in addition to stealing her hard-earned possessions.

This loss of respect towards women displayed by society as a whole is deplorable. Embracing of the free market in 1977 possibly marks the gestation of this attitude. Open economic policies and consumerism that resulted from the change in economic direction resulted in the woman becoming an item with a market value. However, over time it has exacerbated so much, and the woman in today’s society is literally referred to as a “baduwa,” a plaything, an item available for sale, a piece of trash that can be exploited by those with economic and political power.

The manner in which some politicians talk about women in public is utterly disgraceful. We have S.B. Dissanayake, who is waiting to disrobe Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge and watch her running nude on the street. Then, there is Kumara Welgama who openly brags about his womanizing skills, boasted in Parliament that he “drives” a certain “Kumari”, and also suggests that we should supply our women for the entertainment of tourists. We have hypocrites like Samanmalee Sakalasuriya who attempt to provide an “interpretation” to nudity. At this press conference, when Samanmalee Sakalasuriya was uttering nonsense, one should admire how Mrs Sudharshanie Fernandopulle intervened and condemned the statement made by the foul-mouthed S.B. Dissanayake.

This attitude towards women is the result of the persistent erosion of social and cultural values that has occurred over many years. All governments after 1977 should take the blame for this. However, the subjugation of law and order engineered by the present regime undoubtedly helped to accelerate the process. Today, all rapists, paedophiles and men engaging in domestic violence who are even remotely connected to the ruling party are immune to law and order. I believe that in recent times, this trend started when the slimy Duminda Silva was acquitted of the charge of raping an underage girl because he crossed over to the government. Then, there was S.K Sunil, a provincial councillor attached to the ruling party from Akuressa, who repeatedly raped a 14 year old girl, but walked away scot-free. To add to these alarming incidents, Sampath Widanapathirana, the goon from Tangalle and his henchmen killed Mr Quram Sheikh, a British national and brutally raped his girlfriend Ms. Victoria Alexandra.

In the past, there was decency, modesty and respect for humanity within Sri Lanka society. Sporadic incidents like the Adelene Vitharana murder of 1958 and the Mathew Peiris murder case of 1979 shocked our society. Nowadays, we simply discard a homicide or rape as “just another of those incidents.” Violence, especially against women, is so deeply rooted in today’s society, and has become an everyday phenomenon, just another fact of life.

The present regime removed the blindfold of the Goddess of Justice. Today, law, order and justice are just empty words, which like nudity, can be “interpreted” by politicians at will. These actions have serious trickle-down effects, because when these powerful criminals are protected by the law, the rest of society also loses all sense of fear to engage in deplorable acts against helpless women and children. We are seeing these consequences all the time in our society. As women, we cannot ignore this state of affairs any longer. We cannot consider a change as just desirable, it is essential if we are to re-establish morality in society.