Photograph courtesy of Centre for Equality and Justice

Since 1971, Sri Lanka has been embroiled in two revolutions and a civil war that have seen families shatter, brutal death, homes lost, loved ones missing, economic ruin and psychological trauma. As in most conflicts, women and children pay a heavy price. In Sri Lanka’s case, the decades of violence have killed and maimed husbands, fathers, brothers and sons leaving women to fend for themselves, often vulnerable to sexual harassment, exploitation and bribery.

One particular repercussion for a woman trying to fight her way alone, looking after children and possibly even aged parents, is the ever present threat of sexual bribery. It is an open secret, widely practiced by some callous public officials who use the power they have to degrade and humiliate the defenseless instead of carrying out their official duties fairly and honestly.

For several years now, the Centre for Equality and Justice (CEJ) has been studying the problem of sexual bribery, about who is largely responsible and its socio-economic repercussions. Two major reports have been published on the plight of Muslim women, who are isolated and silenced, and on military widows, who are harassed and humiliated when trying to claim their rights.

“We cover all bases at different levels with a range of stakeholders. We focus on war affected women from different communities and we work with people living in border villages, internally displaced communities and Muslim women,” said Founder and Executive Director of CEJ, Shyamala Gomez.

The studies were confined to the public sector although sexual bribery may also be prevalent in the private sector, especially in industries employing large numbers of young women and those who may be less educated and skilled.  Research is yet to be carried out in the private sector to determine its pervasiveness.

Women are confronted with sexual bribery when they apply for government jobs, lodge complaints or procure records from the police station, visit the District Secretariat to apply for a grant, approach local government officials to get documents certified, interact with a Probation Officer and appeal to a member of the Provincial Council to upgrade a local school.

Women who have faced these situations feel disgust, shame, sadness, anger and disillusionment during and after the incident.

Sri Lanka is proud that most women are literate, educated and part of the work force but in such a patriarchal society, this does not translate into respect or validation. A miniscule number of women occupy positions of power and authority; the five percent representation in Parliament is a case in point as is the mere 36 percent of women making up the work force.

“The Female Labour Force Participation rate in Sri Lanka declined from 41 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2016. A human-capital mismatch exists, where women at all levels of educational attainment find it increasingly difficult to secure high-skill and higher-paying jobs,” said a report by the World Bank.

“Men perceiving widows and single women as particularly vulnerable, malleable and open to sexual predation is a common phenomenon among all strata of Sri Lankan society. It is further exacerbated in contexts of power inequality such as when economically deprived widows and single women seek services from state institutions,” said a CEJ report on sexual bribery of military widows, which found that military widows also faced sexual bribery at the hands of some public officials when it came to receiving benefits that were due to them.

One major problem is a lacuna in the law; sexual bribery is not specifically mentioned in the Bribery Act but can fall under the category of “gratification” as “including any favour or advantage of any description whatsoever”, which could be interpreted as encompassing sexual favours. While it is illegal under the Bribery Act for public officials to solicit bribes, private companies, institutions and individuals are not punishable under this law.

Sri Lanka’s Constitution cites any form of discrimination on the basis of sex as a violation of fundamental rights. However, it only applies to perpetrators belonging to the executive or administrative branch of the state.

The CEJ is working with the Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) to get  sexual forms of bribery specifically included in the Bribery Act. CIABOC is now examining the wording of the provision. But with the proposed 20th Amendment, CIABOC’s powers will be whittled away and diminished.

In the meantime, CEJ has launched an intensive campaign over social media to educate people on the causes and effects of sexual bribery. The campaign, named The Open Secret, tells the stories of women dealing with sexual bribery.

“Some elements of the campaign on Facebook reached over three million people in all three languages. The social media campaign uses videos, photos stories, animations to have the maximum effect,” Ms. Gomez said.

The organisation is working with women who have faced sexual bribery to show them how to cope and how they should deal with such incidents through dance, drama, puppetry and other creative and interactive methods to reduce any shame or embarrassment they may feel.

“We have made a difference. We see more and more women willing to come out with their stories and make complaints that could lead to the prosecution of perpetrators,” Ms. Gomez pointed out.

During its research into sexual bribery, CEJ found that most women are unaware of their legal rights and entitlements. The perpetrators take advantage of this gap to make delivery of a service look like a favour when in reality it is something the victim survivor is entitled to as a citizen.

There is a power imbalance in the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator. While the perpetrator has the power to grant or withhold the service, the victim survivor lacks resources and connections. In these circumstances, victim survivors feel that they have no choice but to submit because it is their fate and the only way if they want to get things done.

Women feel that talking about their experience of sexual bribery would make them the subject of gossip. They also feel that society will judge them as someone that can be very easily approached for a sexual favour. This would also be a source of shame for their family.

Victim survivors of sexual bribery depend on officials who asked for the bribe to get a public service. This makes the victim feel that it is unsafe to refuse a sexual bribe or to complain about it later. Additionally the fear of being denied an essential public service in the future as revenge, stops them from lodging a complaint.

Women feel their experience of sexual bribery will not be believed as there are no witnesses in many of these cases. Without proof, they feel that their story will not be taken seriously and be treated instead as a fabricated story to seek attention. Most incidents of sexual bribery are not reported because even friends and family of victim survivors do not believe them. In the event victim survivors somehow find the strength to speak up, they are made to feel that they have provoked the incident.

Two stories of sexual bribery based on real life from CEJ’s Facebook page, The Open Secret:

Rushda lives in Batticaloa. She is a mother of two girls and a boy. She recently got divorced and lives with her extended family that supports her and the children. Life after the divorce has been difficult, her husband left and chose not to have any contact with her and their children.

Facing her community as a divorced mother has been difficult for Rushda. However, she has managed to survive. Rushda finds it hard to make ends meet with her meagre income. Added to this financial burden, she is trying to solve a dispute over a land where she is the rightful owner of an inherited piece of land.

Rushda goes to the local police station to make an official complaint about her land issue. When she tries to speak to an officer on duty, he interrupts her and tells her she is too beautiful to be single. He leans close to Rushda making her feel uncomfortable.

The police officer continues to ask Rushda if she can send him nude images of herself. He says he will sort the land dispute if she sends him the images. Rushda refuses, feeling lost and powerless because she doesn’t know who she can go to for help.

The police officer doesn’t stop his demand for sexual images and keeps calling her even after the initial incident. He threatens that he would take her children away if she doesn’t accede to his demands.

Kamala is a single mother from Killinochchi. She has two young sons and they live on land bordering a forest reserve which is state land. As a result of this, she has an issue with proving her ownership to the land to the Authority Governing Natural Resources. A number of officers from the Authority Governing Natural Resources have made visits to inspect her land.

Kamala has always been obliging to the officers who have visited her home for inspections. Yet one officer, Saman, has made her feel uneasy. Saman has made repeated visits to Kamala’s house, claiming he was there for further inspection.

During one such visit, Saman, uninvited, sits in her verandah and asks Kamala unnecessary, personal questions. Saman discovers that Kamala lives on her own with her children. He then demands that Kamala sleeps with him if she wants his help to clear her land deed. Kamala is shocked and unable to hide her feelings of anger. She asks him to leave immediately.

Saman threatens Kamala claiming that he has the authority to take her land away from her, if she doesn’t spend a night with him. Kamala, who is disgusted, refuses to comply. Unaffected, Saman smiles confidently, knowing he wields more power than Kamala in this situation.

Saman continues to demand a sexual bribe from Kamala over the phone. If she didn’t comply, he threatened to take her land away. Saman visits Kamala’s house again, confident that he has the power to make Kamala do whatever he wants.