Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Photo courtesy of Ada Derana

There has been a positive change in Sri Lanka in the past 5 to 10 years in the recognition of the rights of women and children. This is the result of the decade long efforts of grassroots activist groups who have founded and sustained organisations that provide assistance and support to the most vulnerable groups in our society.

An overview of the current situation suggests that a great deal of great work is being done by dedicated individuals and groups but that until now each has often worked separately. This year, there is an initiative to recognise and showcase co-existence, collaboration and co-operation, to co-ordinate a collective approach to raising awareness of the work that needs to be done to uplift the status of women and girls.

When we enter the terms Sri Lanka and Women in conjunction into an internet search engine, we are informed that in the Gender Inequality Index, Sri Lanka ranks 74th among 187 countries.

“While there is hope for a future of gender equality, women in Sri Lanka still lack representation in government and access to employment opportunities while suffering from cultural preconceptions of female roles,” according to writer Tatiana Nelson.

The current inequities in the status and dignity of women are retarding the progress of the country, not only in economic terms, but in terms of justice, consensus on ethics, morality and all the measures by which we call a country unified, prosperous and effective.

In this context the 16 Days Of Activism, which begins today in Colombo, is a project that highlights the stepping up and stepping forward of Sri Lanka to join a global initiative to raise awareness of the rights of women to live in a more equitable and safer world. The focus is on challenging the normalisation of violence against women – known as Gender Based Violence or GBV.

The community is being asked to see beyond the surface of our myths, assumptions and preferred beliefs. Violence is now not only seen as physical acts of assault and harm which damage a person but also verbal insults, inappropriate conduct in the workplace, online targeting, contempt, mockery and harassment. The psychological aspect of being subjected to continually degrading treatment is debilitating. Apprehension of harm and violence makes people fearful and passive in situations which impede their growth and this cumulatively affects society as a whole.

The cultural preconceptions that underly this inequitable treatment must be directly addressed and challenged, on a community level. Laws enacted at government level for the protection of vulnerable citizens fail if they are not enforced by individuals faced with situations in which women are being impacted by violence.

A central difficulty is the negative public perception of those impacted by gender based violence as victims. Technically many are victims of crimes. But a more positive framing of them is as survivors of those crimes. Those who have not suffered such assaults on their dignity and safety often struggle to empathize, and often judge the stories of such survivors, comparing their decisions unfavorably with what we would do in their position, and blaming them for “playing the victim” or “making bad choices”.

Intensifying this deficit in empathy is the social barriers of race, ethnicity and socio-economic class difference, which militate against the recognition of the validity of the suffering experienced by our fellow citizens. In a patriarchal society, the structures of governance are enacted and upheld largely by men who, through the filters of their gender privilege, fail to effectively see the need for change or treat it as a priority for the country.

This is true in many countries in the world, and it is notable that the countries we see as economically prosperous and politically powerful today, have far greater representation of women in decision making positions of political authority in both public and private sectors and in the corporate sphere.

Women have had a slow and difficult journey to be seen as capable and to be valued for their skills and efforts in South Asia. Their second class status as citizens is a projection of misogynistic cultural values embedded in outdated beliefs, fuelled by patriarchal myths and set into tradition and internalised by generations of both men and women into a distorted and damaging status quo.

Education of individuals is needed to heighten awareness of the context in which acts of injustice and violence occur; that although each sexual assault is one incident, it is not a one off but part of a pattern both in that relationship and in the society as a whole. Awareness is also being gained of the long term impact of violence on those who endure it. Those subjected to damage and disrespect are often permanently affected by their experience while the perpetrators continue to offend, often not being brought to justice.

Through the rise of the internet, collective awareness is being raised of the different reality in which women live. It is eye opening to see the way the younger generation of Sri Lankan people are using their platforms to speak out with articulacy and courage against the tirade of obscenity and objectification directed at women on FB and Twitter.

A young female lawyer recently said on her public social media platform: “I generally avoid FB like the plague but when I do venture there I find new ways that men in this country disappoint me. To be robbed of dignity as a woman, whether alive or dead, is the terrible reality we have to live with…Ironic that the running theme in this country has been system change, but the depravity of men still reigns supreme. Like there’s any room for system change without change from within.”

As we as individuals gain awareness of the existing injustices in our society and recognise with gratitude our own relative protections in relation to them, we can now work together more effectively to remedy these problems. Part of the recognition involves an active journey on our own parts, to see that we are all affected by the issues which exist in our society. No amount of privilege can protect us or immunise or indemnify us as the issues have a bearing on everyone. We may not be experiencing direct violence ourselves on an ongoing basis but the statistics are such that we are interacting with those who have been affected by it.

Just as we choose what we eat, and wear, we also choose what to believe and how we behave. What we say yes to and what we say no to.

For 10 days from December 1, a series of events and stalls in a collective showcasing of these issues, entitled Say No Together, will be held at Independence Arcade and open to the public. Advocacy and Communications Consultant Shanuki De Alwis is co-ordinating the 16 Days Of Activism this year to raise community awareness of women’s rights to safety against violence. There will be static exhibits, screenings, a market place, interactive forums, open mic nights, theatrical performances, workshops and panel discussions presented by 35 NGOs and organisations across 16 days from morning until night. The program has been made possible by GIZ and Strengthening Social Cohesion and Peace in Sri Lanka (SCOPE).

It seems from an overview of the content of the papers and television broadcasts that in Sri Lanka serious issues are often side lined by a focus on sensationalism or a selectively superficial approach. The recent furore about female teachers and controlling what they wear in the classroom is a perfect example of this. Public opinion often emotive, biased and provocative, floods any community discussion and in this context need for societal change is drowned out by noise and drama.

The violence of the recent war, terrorist attacks, the disruptions of the pandemic and the economic crises have resulted in economic damage to the most vulnerable in our society. Many people have become noticeably dissociated from and desensitised to others’ pain as a result of prolonged exposure to concurrent trauma. People expressing requests for financial help – in the context of what is described as a humanitarian crisis this country is currently experiencing – are now being mocked: “Oh God, not again, Single Mother with a Daughter, Husband a drug addict. Oh puuulllleeezzzzzzz can y’all at least change the template”.

The template definitely needs to change. And hopefully we can work towards a world where people are not in such distress, compounded of economic and social breakdown and such lack of empathy in our citizenry is not normalised.

Read about the events at