Photo courtesy of Educaloi

Today is International Women’s Day

For her documentary film Teardrop On Fire, Jessica Palden interviewed many people who have directly experienced domestic abuse and intimate partner violence in Sri Lanka. The footage for the film was generated during the past three years and it is a testimony to the dedication and commitment of Ms. Palden and her local team and crew that they were able to bring this film to completion amid global pandemic disruptions and the fuel shortages during the recent economic crisis.

The documentary is in two parts. The first aspect that I noted was that there was no voice over commentary from the director. The survivors of Gender Based Violence (GBV) and abuse who are interviewed tell their own stories in their own words. Ms. Palden has enabled this personal unfolding of narrative via translators and the inclusion of captions in English. The viewer is thus invited to frame what they see and hear on screen in their own way and through the filter of their personal experience.

The first part of the film focuses on the impact of the damage caused to people’s hearts and minds and bodies, to their dignity, and hopes and dreams through the sustained experience of violence and abuse. The second part of the film showcases some of the work undertaken by several community-based organizations and NGOs to assist in the process of support and the journey of healing for the survivors of such trauma.

The resilience of the survivors and the compassion and realism of their allies shines against the background of scenes from the everyday lives of the people.

Ms. Palden made the point at the launch that the problem of intimate partner violence was not exclusive to Sri Lanka but a global crisis affecting vulnerable groups in every country in the world. In traditional South Asian patriarchal culture, national pride is centred on the idea of the strong, proud male whose physical strength makes him a warrior hero.

It is difficult for a country seeking to take its rightful place in the modern world to admit that there are areas of personal conduct where improvement in men’s behaviour is urgently necessary. This re-evaluation is seen as shameful but if it is to be effective it must take place at the most personal and familial level as well as in the public sphere where conduct unbecoming by politicians and corporate entities can be publicly critiqued.

Organisations created to highlight and address the plight of victims and survivors of domestic, familial and intimate partner violence include the Sambol Foundation, Women In Need, Emerge and Sisters At Law. Social media based groups like BENDR and the ESVN (End Sexual Violence Now) Campaign raise awareness through showcasing and prompting discussion on issues of gender inequity and systemic bias. Counsellors, representation and diversity experts, anti-discrimination experts and panellists and speakers at events centred on remedying the injustices in the current systems on days of significance such as International Women’s Day have often – until now – worked alone. We hope that they will collaborate and intersect in the shared cultural space increasingly to positively transform the nation.

This country is one of the most beautiful in the world. Tourism, suspended during the pandemic, is now gearing up to make up for the losses incurred. It is the perfect time for the country as a whole start anew, to listen to and address the damaging testimonials of women who are harassed and made to feel unsafe in a country to which they have come for a holiday or with the hope of starting a business to contribute to the country’s growth.

When people begin relationships, partnerships and associations, both personal and professional, they do so with hopes and dreams, with optimism and willingness and trust. That openness to life, that radiance and joy, is what is dimmed and broken in situations of violation and abuse.

Sri Lanka is shaped like a teardrop and also a pearl. At this point in our history, particularly in the area of familial relationships, ethics, morality and as part of good governance, we have the opportunity to build a future in which women and girls and children are safe and empowered to grow and develop their lives.

To enable that to happen, as a nation we need to look in the mirror and change what it offends us to see instead of glossing it over or concealing it and taking cumulative positive remedial action instead of blaming those who speak up and shaming the victims whose plight “embarrasses” those who want to sustain the appealing idea of the paradise isle peopled with smiling, happy, carefree citizens.

Paradise is not just the experience of a landscape; it is the impact of the way the people in that country treat each other and what kind of behaviour is deemed acceptable or unacceptable by the customs of the country. When there are external pressures such as the global pandemic and economic downturns, any flaws and weaknesses in societal cohesion are more clearly highlighted.

During the pandemic lockdowns, many unfortunate victims were locked in with their abusers with no possibility of escape or chance of gaining independence. Due to the fear of retribution, many did not feel able to speak out. In this, as in many areas of our lives, the external crisis of the pandemic highlighted the weaknesses in our societal systems and processes. If we ignore these, deny them or try to cover them up we will retard our growth and development as a nation.

The underlying issues of the need for education on sexual matters, on consent, on financial literacy, on rights and responsibilities for all citizens, particularly young people, are pointed to in the documentary. In order to take this action, certain truths must be faced. If this action can be taken in public policy as well as in the personal determination of individuals on a community level, remarkable change is possible.

Enabling the telling of people’s lived stories is a powerful act. At the community and familial level, awareness and healing are already taking place. And witnessing the historical shifts in other countries who have faced these issues encourages us to believe that the social changes, isolated and incremental initially, build momentum cumulatively and transform the culture of the country over time, enabling greater happiness and stability as well as economic prosperity.

This documentary with its poetic cinematography, its compassionate invocation of people’s suffering and desire for happiness and its generous and inclusive vision of the many components of Sri Lanka’s citizenry adds significantly to this trajectory of positive change, and celebrates the possibility of a brighter future.