Photo courtesy of MSF

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

A senior policeman’s daughter accidently drove into a car showroom, causing costly damage. Her father was so angry that he went to the police station she was taken to and assaulted her.

A woman wrote on social media that when she went to a police station to complain about domestic violence, the policeman dismissed her saying that he also slaps his wife.

On Facebook there is a video of a man outside a temple raising his sarong to expose himself to a young girl.

These are some of the much milder examples of the entrenched violence, patriarchy and misogyny that women and girls face every day in Sri Lankan society.

The statistics are truly terrifying. Every three out of five women are victims of domestic violence and only one per cent of victims use the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act to obtain redress. A woman is raped every 90 minutes and 97 per cent of rapists face no legal consequences. Three to five children are raped every day. Ninety five per cent of women are sexually harassed in public transportation. Forty four per cent of pregnant women are beaten at home. More than two out of three women believe that they cannot refuse sex with their husbands.

Even more terrifying is that, despite that fact that all girls go to school and a significant number carry on to attend university and enter the workforce, violence against women and girls has been steadily on the rise.

Violence against Women (VAW) is defined by the United Nations as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

“Violence has become a part of everyday culture in Sri Lankan homes, justifying men beating up their wives, justifying women being catcalled in the streets, justifying men raping women, justifying child abuse, and justifying gender inequality,” according to Women in Need (WIN), a leading women’s rights organisation.

In Sri Lanka, violence against women and girls has become more ferocious and sadistic. Thirty years ago, the complaints were about a slap on the cheek or a burst eardrum but a decades-long civil war has brutalised society to such an extent that women are now doused with acid, raped and maimed. It is a country where marital rape is still not a crime.

With the advancement of technology has come cyber bullying and harassment of young girls who were under pressure to send nude photographs of themselves to their boyfriends, only to become victims of blackmail. Adding to that has been the need to study online during COVID-19, leaving young people even more vulnerable to online grooming and harassment. There are no laws as yet to combat online sexual violence.

A recent report on Law Reform to Combat Sexual and Gender Based Violence: Online Sexual Violence by the Centre for Policy Alternatives pointed out that the Penal Code came into force at a time when the technology was quite different. The last significant amendments to sexual offences were made in 1998 and 1995 when the internet was very different and smartphones did not exist. “People face various types of sexual harassment online, and it is likely that as times and technology evolves, new and different methods of perpetrating this form of violence will emerge,” the report pointed out.

Domestic violence remains one of the most prevalent forms of violence endured by women. The Department of Census and Statistics, with assistance from UNFPA, carried out an extensive survey on violence against women and girls, the first of its kind. Called the Women’s Wellbeing Survey – 2019, it analysed in depth the causes and consequences of violence against women.

The survey revealed that women were more than twice as likely to have experienced physical violence by a partner than by a non-partner. Partner sexual violence was also more prevalent than non-partner sexual violence. Almost 25 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence.

It also found that, “Women living with violence by a partner find ways to cope, protect themselves and protect their children from harm, usually for many years before asking others for help. They explore ways of helping themselves or reaching out to family and friends before turning to formal services such as the police and specialist violence services.”

Driven to desperation, women sometimes fight back with terrible consequences. Human rights activist Ambika Satkunanathan posted on social media about the women she had met in prison who were there for killing abusive husbands. One 37 year-old woman on death row, married when she was 16, suffered severe daily domestic violence for years. Complaining to police who mediated only led to increased violence. One day when her mother intervened, her husband lunged at her mother with crowbar. The woman took a club that lay nearby and hit him on head, killing him.

For over 30 years, Women in Need (WIN) has been offering a holistic approach to assist women affected by violence. It provides shelters for those escaping from abuse, gives them legal advice and counselling and livelihood options. There is a hot line and there are crisis centres in police stations and hospitals. WIN does advocacy and training with the police, government officials and public health workers while also pushing for law and policy reform.

Asked why, despite a concerted effort by many organisations as well as government institutions to advance the wellbeing of women and girls, violence against them was on the rise, WIN’s Executive Director Savitri Wijesekera pointed to a general lack of respect for women. “It’s society’s attitude, an acceptance of male dominancy. Our society is very gender biased and discriminatory at every level. Violence against women is not seen as a serious offence. And the blame is put on the women for the way she talks or walks or dresses.”

The biggest drawback to fighting violence against women, said Ms. Wijesekera, was the lack of confidence in the system and the support services for those who wanted to leave an abusive relationship. In most cases, the woman was encouraged to put up with the violence by the police and other family members. If she took it further, she may not have the financial means to live apart, especially if there were young children involved. In the case of rape, there was a stigma attached and women often faced insensitive and embarrassing questions when reporting a rape. Actually taking a case to court was a gruelling experience for someone who was already traumatised.

In another report on Law Reform to Combat Sexual and Gender Based Violence: Reforming Existing Laws and Policies, the Centre for Policy Alternatives noted that few prosecutions took place even with the use of the limited available laws. In 2019 there were 1,779 rapes reported and only 235 plaints and/or indictments filed.

“The State is duty-bound to not merely improve the quality of legislation; but it must also take steps to ensure that the entire apparatus of the criminal justice system functions smoothly to ensure success,” the report said, pointing out that it was also the duty of the state to put in place systems and programmes for the prevention of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV).

“Women must have the freedom to enjoy their day to day lives without the fear of SGBV, and this can only be enabled by addressing the very causes of these offences. Only when this is accomplished can a just society in which the freedoms of all citizens are ensured, exist,” the report pointed out.

Ms. Wijesekera disclosed that while there was an increase in women coming forward to report violence against them, the support services did not touch the majority of women. There was a lack of knowledge about what a woman could do if she faced violence. For example, while WIN worked in Anuradhapura town, it was a huge district with remote areas where women remained vulnerable to violence, unable to reach out for help.

“At the end of the day, all women ask for is to be treated with respect and dignity,” she said.