Photo courtesy of BBC

On the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women I want to take a look at what progress has been made in raising our awareness as a community about the Gender Based Violence (GBV) that women, girls and children experience in this country.

For a year, the End Sexual Violence Now (ESVN) campaign has been raising awareness of the different aspects of violence via Facebook and Instagram. We have sought to expand our understanding of the term beyond physical assault and battery – which are visible and can be documented with photographs – to verbal abuse, intrusive questioning, objectification, disrespect of personal boundaries, workplace harassment, body shaming, erosion of consent, offensive categorizations and stereotyping. Words lead to actions and both words and actions are caused by, and affirm, beliefs. If these words and actions and their damaging impact are to change, the underlying beliefs must first be challenged and transformed.

The ESVN campaign has showcased instances of harassment of all kinds with videos, interviews, documentaries, advertisements and news items, including the internalized misogyny of women that results in them tearing down and disrespecting other women via interviews and social media commentary. The belittling of women in this way normalizes disrespect and devaluation and causes the creation of a culture that underestimates, degrades and dismisses women. This normalization is itself an act of violence and it underlies and perpetuates violence.

The term being given to the rise in domestic violence and abuse during the enforced lockdowns and closures necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic is the Shadow Pandemic. This term refers to the often hidden and far greater impact that domestic violence has had on women. Societal structures and cultural norms mean that women are relegated to the domestic sphere and have to stay domiciled with men who perpetrate violence on them and their children.

Jessica Palden is making a documentary called Teardrop On Fire, which explores GBV and its impact on Sri Lanka. It is based on interviews with people who have directly experienced GBV and activists and journalists seeking to highlight the problem.

In an interview, Jessica speaks about GBV and its impact in Sri Lanka.

What progress has been made in raising public awareness of GBV?

Since the start of the #metoo movement, women all over the world have been coming out publicly and sharing their stories of abuse. As with all social justice movements, the use of social media platforms has been integral in the virality and momentum of these movements. In the past five years that I’ve lived in Sri Lanka, I’ve witnessed first hand the solidarity and uprising happening amongst women, girls and male allies who have started many initiatives to push back and break the silence. It’s uplifting and inspiring.

Are people realizing that verbal, psychological and emotional abuse also constitute violence?

Yes, absolutely. There has been a concerted effort to engage therapists, counselors and psychologists in these discussions, and so much education around the complex cycle of abuse and trauma is being actively disseminated. Sometimes, though, this information is being consumed by those people who are in it, not necessarily by the people who need to hear it. The ignorant turn a blind eye to topics of abuse because it would go against their self interest to engage or learn about these topics because in doing so they would lose their power. The patriarchy doesn’t have empathy.

Do you include in the term the patriarchy women who have internalized misogyny and withhold empathy and support from women who are subject to GBV?

Women have internalized misogyny as a survival tactic. It’s how they’ve been able to climb up the ladder of success into the good old boys’ club.

What inspired you to make Teardrop On Fire?

I have my own personal backstory of abuse. I’m a survivor of domestic intimate partner violence. My abuse happened in Sri Lanka with a Sri Lankan man. So it’s in the Sri Lankan cultural context that I understand abuse. Of course abuse is a universal problem but how it manifests in every culture is slightly different. When I started my path to healing, once I had gone ‘no contact’ with my abuser and started therapy, I found that reaching out to other victims and survivors to share my story was incredibly empowering. I felt heard. I felt I mattered and that my story mattered. After being gaslighted for four years, and told I was crazy and ignored by everyone in his family and community anytime I spoke about my abuse, it really wore me down into a shell of my former self. There is so much shame around the topic of abuse. So much silence. No one wants to address it. No one wants to hear about it. I was told countless times by his family members to just smile and be happy. After a beating! With a black eye! To just smile and put on a happy face. The abuse is so normalized. It’s really frightening. I don’t blame his family. They don’t know better. It’s just their reality, their culture. And even my abuser I can’t blame because he too is a victim of the cycle of abuse. Hurt people hurt people. I don’t condone his behavior but I can somehow feel empathy and understand where it stems from. I think there is a huge issue of underlying and untreated mental illness as well that compounds and complicated the issue. So I decided to champion the cause and use the medium of documentary film to help educate and empower women and girls in Sri Lanka to overcome their experiences of trauma and abuse. I thought if I could give a platform for victims and survivors to break their silence, they could feel heard and take that brave first step by sharing their stories. The film is a kind of therapy for me and the subjects. We bonded. We came together in solidarity. It was really moving to witness their courage, and I’m humbled that they trusted me with their experiences.

Men to you are not the enemy. What beliefs form your perspective?

There is a misinformed concept that feminism is inherently anti-male. This is not the case. Feminism is a movement that is fighting for equal rights and justice for all humans, regardless of sex, gender, age, race, religion or class. It’s a belief and cause that every being deserves respect, safety, resources, joy, and freedom. It’s an equity-based ideology that isn’t hierarchal but communal. It’s trying to guide societies and civilization to a more enlightened state, where we aren’t competing against each other but uplifting each other. This battle of the sexes is so outdated. We are so much better than that. We have so much potential as human beings.

Is speaking up about systemic violence against women seen as undermining?

Of course there will be those who use this argument to silence the cause. Profit trumps social justice. That’s the crux of the battle. The end goal is to stem the tide against this undermining belief that immediate profits are more important than human rights and safety. I wish that the government of every country could understand that publicly endorsing and ensuring the safety of its citizens and tourists would lead to much bigger long term returns. How is tourism going to flourish if female tourists and investors are being raped, harassed, beaten and abused? By confronting the issue it can be solved. Burying one’s head in the sand and ignoring it will only compound and perpetuate the problem.

GBV has increased during the pandemic. Do you see this picture changing as lockdown restrictions lift?

I hope that women who have been trapped with their abusers are able to leave their violent situations and seek refuge in shelters or safe homes. I hope they are able to find training, education and meaningful work to gain financial independence.

What is the role of women’s and children’s shelters and safe houses?

The shelters and safe houses are essential spaces for women and children to escape their abusive environments. Unfortunately, the village/tribal mentality is very strong and the abusers usually have the family and village wrapped around their fingers, so it’s extremely difficult for an abused woman to stay in her home or village and get free of the cycle of violence. The prevailing culture is very traditional and seeks to keep the family unit or marriage together at all costs. There is so much shame around divorce. A woman is expected to tolerate so much, even abuse, to keep up appearances and keep the marriage intact. Shelters provide a safe haven where she can go ‘no contact’ and start to rebuild herself and have hope for a future without violence.

What sort of education is required to build a more equal status for women?

It’s an achievable dream. We have to keep the faith and envision it. We must believe in evolution. Change is inevitable. Nothing stays the same forever. If we can imagine it, see it, believe it and speak truth to power then a better future is on its way for sure. I’ve witnessed so much positive change in my short time in Sri Lanka. It’s happening. The younger generation is online and educating themselves, having difficult conversations, pushing the envelope and shifting the culture. The change is here. And I’m excited to be documenting it. This is the perfect time to be making this film.