Photo courtesy of This Week in Worcester

In his presidential election manifesto, Gotabaya Rajapaksa noted that “Sexual and Gender Based violence has increased in our country”. However, during his first year in office, little has been done to introduce law reforms to combat this problem and even the 2021 budget put forward in October 2020 doesn’t address it. Following the 2020 General Election, the Ministries of the government were restructured. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which was first established as a separate Ministry in 1997 and which has subsequently been the Ministry for Women’s and Children’s Affairs several times, did not find a place in the newly restructured list of Ministries. The only Ministry tasked explicitly with advancing the interests of women is the Ministry of Education, under which a State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-Schools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure and Education Services has been set up. It thus appears that the Executive arm of government hasn’t made combating Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) a priority.

This isn’t unique to the present government but is a trend that has been persistent in Sri Lanka across successive governments. In 2014, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as Leader of the Opposition, convened a commission compromised of several leading women’s rights academics and activists to prepare a report on the prevention of violence against women and girls. This commission presented a comprehensive report with clear recommendations for reform. However, during his tenure as Prime Minister between 2015 and 2019, none of the reforms that he himself had commissioned were enacted into law.

The last substantive amendments to sexual offences in the Penal Code were introduced in 1998 and 1995 (with further minor amendments in 2006).  It has been 15 years since the passage of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 of 2005 and, despite calls for reform, none have yet been enacted. There have been constant promises that laws relating to marital rape, statutory rape and abortion will be amended but none of these amendments have yet been passed into law. Legal and policy reform to combat SGBV is long overdue and needs to be made a priority of the government.

The reforms needed are threefold. The first is ensuring that a robust set of laws are in place, which can be used to deal with any instance of SGBV. Sri Lanka still has many archaic, colonial era criminal laws in its statue books which are not relevant to, or representative of, present day society. Strict laws on abortion, laws criminalizing consensual same-sex relations and laws exempting marital rape from the definition of rape are some examples of laws which need to be abolished or reformed. There are also several areas in which new laws need to be introduced in Sri Lanka. The evolution of the internet, and the increase in its use, has resulted in the occurrence of various forms of SGBV perpetrated online, requiring new laws to deal with these situations.

Legislators need to be responsive to the evolving needs of the time, constantly updating laws relating the SGBV based on trends of violence taking place. Little is known about the rates at which certain sexual and gender based offences take place and studies should be conducted to understand the depth of the problem in order to design laws that properly address them. Examining regional and global trends can allow lawmakers to pre-emptively enforce laws for Sri Lanka so that if and when the same trends pick up, there aren’t lacunas in the law which let perpetrators off scot free, or with disproportionately minor punishment.

The second type of reform that is needed are legal and policy reforms to make the criminal justice system in the country more victim centric. Victims of SGBV suffer not only physically but can carry the mental trauma with them for long periods of time. When the criminal justice system is not designed in a victim centric manner, i.e., with the focus being on the needs and concerns of the victim, the system can exacerbate their trauma, making them suffer several times over. Problems such as long delays before trials are concluded, the lack of privacy for victims, lack of phycological support and the shortcomings in the victim and witness protection mechanism in the country are some of these factors which can prolong trauma.

The third type of reform needed is that which deals with the problem at its roots, i.e., policy reform aimed at reducing the rates of incidence of SGBV altogether. The factors that lead to the high rates of SGBV in the country need to be examined, from misogynist and patriarchal mindsets prevalent in society, to the lack of understanding and respect for bodily autonomy, and abuse that abusers themselves face in their childhood. With a proper understanding of these factors and how they impact the occurrence of SGBV, the State must put policies in place to effectively reduce the rates of these offences taking place in the country.

Creating an environment in which women feel safe and respected is an important task that the State must embark on. This however must not just be seen from the lens of how much women can “contribute” to society, as much of the discourse on improving the conditions women face is focused. The safety of and respect towards women should be afforded to them regardless of the choices they make, by virtue of the fact that they must be afforded equal rights and freedoms. It is important that they promises made to better the lives of women time and time again by successive governments finally become a reality.