Image courtesy Beyond Borders

Water runs through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence. The same could be said about changing a nation’s mind-set.  “A culture that propagates violence against women and children is not a culture, it is a nightmare we still need to wake up from,” said Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, Executive Director at the LGBT-NGO Equal Ground, when I met her in her office.

According to Rose Wijeyesekera, a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, this “nightmare” became part of the Sinhalese culture during the colonial period: “The Sinhalese culture was very favourable to women, there is no such thing as discrimination against women”, she tells me over lunch during the first annual World Conference for Women’s studies held in Colombo. It was the Dutch and British colonial powers that implemented the male-dominated society into the Sinhala culture, the major ethnic group in Sri Lanka. She explains that the Christian colonial powers brought the notion of the marriage as a holy sacrament, which before had just been a flexible partnership. Later the British introduced laws that favoured the male sex and a narrative about the man as the superior gender evolved, influencing all areas from land rights, to governance, family decisions and intimate relations.

The report “Broadening gender – Why masculinities matter” published by CARE in 2013 shows how deep rooted the patriarchal culture is and how fatal consequences it can have. CARE interviewed 1658 men and 653 women from four districts in Sri Lanka: Colombo, Hambantota, Batticoloa and Nuwara Eliya. Some of the report’s main findings was that 33% of the men had at least once committed physical and/or sexual violent acts against their intimate partner and 17% of the men had at least once perpetrated sexual violence including rape against any women. The numbers talk for itself, and according to Rose Wijeyesekera the reason is to be found in the Sri Lankan culture and hereby in the mindset of the Sri Lankan people – both men and women.

The problem lies in the execution of the laws

Rose Wijeyesekera explains that most of the Sri Lankan laws are gender neutral but they are not being enacted like that, she is stating that there is a problem in the administration grounded in the patriarchal culture: “If you take the domestic violence act it is very much gender neutral, but there is no point in having a gender neutral domestic violence law in a patriarchal culture, because the police and the court are culturally biased against women, so there is a high tendency that they will interpret and apply the law in a way that will bring out discriminatory effects on women.” Findings in the CARE report corroborate this theory: Only 18% of the men who had perpetrated forced sexual relations said that they were afraid of being caught. And only 7% of the perpetrators had experienced legal consequences of their attack. “The impunity that goes with these attacks is unbelievable  – one in a hundred rapists are caught and put to jail, and under the previous government nobody did anything about it, men were just allowed to go mad and rape women and children,” says Rosanna Flamer-Caldera.

The missing consequences of attacks has a direct effect on women’s handling after a molestation: only 32% of the women who had experienced violent attacks by their partners had reported it, and only 10% of women victims of violence or sexual violence from their partners or non-partners had told their families. Rosanna Flamer-Caldera explains that everything is kept secret  because of the “shame-factor”. The women do not dare to leave their husbands, because “what will they do then?” she asks, and continue: “and in fact some women who have left their families is asked by their parents: “what are you doing? Go back, you are his wife, he can do whatever he wants with you, don’t put shame on our family by leaving him.” And that happens all the time – even in Colombo 7”, she ends.

The CARE report also shows that the main reason the men conducted sexual violence was because of their “sexual entitlement”, which underpins that the problem lies within the mindset and perception of Sri Lankan men. According to Rosanna Flamer-Caldera this thinking is also present in the current generation of young men: “They are brought up in houses where their fathers are doing these things to their mothers, abuse have to stop, and until one person in that generation decides to stop it, it will go on from generation to generation.”

According to the CARE report many children and especially boys have experienced some form of violence or neglect during childhood, which shows that some of the molestations are catalysed by twisted standards and maintained from childhood to adulthood: 28% of the male sample had experienced sexual abuse when they  were children and 46.6% of the men who had committed violent and/or sexual assults had been sexually abused as children, the report concludes: “The findings reveal the vulnerabilities that men face throughout their life cycles, portraying them as victims of abuse, which can ultimately contribute toward their perpetration of violence.” Equal Ground recently did a report about transgender and found that out of 22 male to female transgender, 19 had been abused as kids: “We need a lot of therapy in this country and we don’t have enough psychiatrists to handle the load” Rosanna Flamer-Caldera notes.

The women’s contribution to maintaining the patriarchal culture

It is not just men but also women who actively contribute to maintain the patriarchal culture, the report shows: 75% of the women (and 79% of the men) reported that ‘some women ask to be raped by the way they dress and behave’.  And 43% of the women (and 25% of men) declared that ‘A real man produces a male child”. When it comes to household work the report shows that women actually take more responsibility than the men endow upon them: 83% of the women believed that it was their responsibility to feed, bath and change nappies of children, which ‘only’ 64% of the men agreed on.

According to Rose Wijeyesekera all Sri Lankans have been culturally trained to think in stereotype gender roles and she underpins that the majority of both men and women still finds comfort in thinking that men are superior to women: “Women find comfort in that it is the husbands role to secure the economical situation and that the women take care of the cooking and the children.” It is also still present in the young and educated generation; although she emphasized that the young generation has a more equal view on gender rights, they are still subjected to the cultural norms. She tells an anecdote from one of her law classes with undergraduate students, where more than 75% of the students are girls: “We asked the question: who will go out and work? And around 30% wanted to practice law, the rest, the majority, preferred to work in comfortable zones where they didn’t had to compete with their male counterparts and several of the students thought that after marriage the women should stay at home. So this is the situation with undergraduates, then imagine young people who are not educated.”

Rosanna Flamer-Caldera also thinks that women have propagated the patriarchal culture and that they are continuing to do so: “They hide behind the explanation that: “this is a cultural thing, thats really hard to break.” She also criticizes the women’s movement for being fragmented and explains why Equal Ground stopped participating in the gender based violence forum in Sri Lanka: “People were not willing to address the root courses of violence, they felt that if they did campaigns telling women that they should dress probably and know their place at home, it would stop the violence. It doesn’t stop the violence; the violence will just go on,” she says and explains that women in Sri Lanka need to understand that it is legitimate to fight back and make people responsible for what they do.

The media opportunities

Professor Jasbir Singh from the University of Jammu in India states that the media has a crucial impact on economic, political, social and cultural spheres at the local, national and global level:  “Images might lead to the imitation of depicted behaviour of females and males and to the creation of norms of acceptable behaviour. Some studies mention that changing portrayal of women in advertisements have been the result of increased number of educated women working outside the home,” he explains at the World Conference for Women’s Studies. Hence, the way the two genders are portrayed in the media has a direct effect on how people perceive them in real life.

Kiruththiga Tharumarajah, Media lecturer at the University of Jaffna, thinks that the young generation have a different view towards gender, mainly because of the access to social media: “They have a bigger exposure than there parents, they have access to all media and good connections with their friends on Facebook.” However they are still dominated by the patriarchal narrative. The male dominating culture has always been in Hinduism, the majority religion of the Tamils in the North, and compared to Sinhalese culture the Tamil society is according to Tarumarajah even worse when it comes to the suppression of women.

She thinks that it is a problem that the TV in Jaffna has a lot of Indian Channels that portray the stereotypical gender roles. Also, Tharumarajah recently did a research of three Tamil newspapers in Jaffna and found that there was an under-representation of women’s issues, especially in the political context. Furthermore she found that there were almost no female journalists and it doesn’t seem like that will change with the next generation: “Most of my female students are afraid to work in the media because of the situation,” she says. Dr. Nalin Abeysekera from the Open University of Sri Lanka did the same research on Sinhalese newspapers and found that they also were very male dominated, had a low female involvement, and that the female journalists only covered areas such as women affairs, entertainment and not “hard” news.

Having a more balanced coverage of both men and women in every sphere of the society would apply nuances to the stereotypical gender roles, for example more females who speak about  politics and more men who speak about parenting. That would be one way to change the mindset and to break down the very static roles in society.

Changing the cultural norms

The 31st of March Media lecturer Kiruththiga Tharumarajah and her students published a gender magazine called Visaisirakukal (Wings with force)  in Jaffna where they write about gender issues from the perspective of men, women and transgender: “We give space for both men and women, so we hope that it will be read by both genders and have an impact”, Tharumarajah says. They hope that projects like this mixing fashion with more deep subjects and addresses both men and women will have a positive impact towards changing the gender stereotypes.

Rose Wijeyesekera explains that the universities are very attentive towards the way they portray the genders in textbooks and have human rights programmes on the schedule where the students are taught women’s rights.  Rosanna Flamer-Caldera underpins the importance of educating the Sri Lankan population and states that it needs to come from above, “from politicians, doctors and lawyers.”

More female journalists would most likely ensure a more equal and nuanced portrayal of both genders in the media, and more women in the parliament would be a way to ensure that there is a legislation passed to secure women, children and minorities, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera explains and notes: “I am happy that the president said in his presidential campaign that he will work on the violence against women and children, so let’s see if this will happen.”