Global Human Rights Defence

Gender-Based Violence Plaguing Sri Lanka
Pixabay. Violence inflicted against a woman.

Author: Sarah Thanawala


Gender-based violence is recognised worldwide as one of the most prevalent human rights violations (The Island, 2021). The Committee on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women declared gender-based violence as “a form of discrimination against women that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men” (UN, n.d.). Whereas the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defined violence against women 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 … whether occurring in public or private life” (UN, n.d.). The term ‘gender-based violence’, in accordance with international legal standards, thus, encompasses both forms of violence – domestic violence and sexual violence. 

In Sri Lanka, sexual and gender-based violence is experienced by a large percentage of the female population, making it an important human rights issue for women in the country. According to a 2019 Women’s Wellbeing survey by the Department of Census and Statistics, 20.4% of the 51.6% of females in Sri Lanka were reportedly subjected to domestic (physical)/ sexual violence by their intimate partner (UNFPA, 2021a).  Furthermore, 24.9% of the female population in Sri Lanka has faced domestic (physical)/sexual violence since the age of 15 (UNFPA, 2021a). Gruesome consequences of gender-based violence include severe effects on the physical and mental health of the victims (Economy Next, 2020).

Besides the gender-based violence previously pervasive in Sri Lankan society, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown measures has aggravated the number of domestic and sexual violence cases against women (Gamage and Tummodara, 2021). Moreover, many of such cases go un(der)reported on account of a multitude of factors (Gamage and Tummodara, 2021). While Sri Lanka has ratified international treaties to protect the rights of women and has passed laws to curb gender-based violence, a prominent absence of constructive and immediate actions to ensure such protection remains. This article attempts to contextualise an immediate need to address the crisis of gender-based violence in Sri Lanka. 


Gender-based violence is seen to be the result of various pervasive factors in Sri Lankan society, including deep prevailing inequality between genders due to firm social norms, women being in economically disadvantageous positions, and the prevalence of poverty (Gamage and Tummodara, 2021). Thus, even today, Sri Lankan women face challenges in standing against discrimination that pertain to deep-rooted patriarchal norms (Balachandran, 2022). Moreover, while facing unemployment, women are financially dependent on their spouses or partners, whereby such dependency causes Sri Lankan women serious hardships in reporting cases of violence perpetrated by their partners (Gamage and Tummodara, 2021). 

Statistically, only 1% of victims of domestic violence use the legal mechanism to report cases (Women in Need, 2019). Thus, evidentially the number of reported cases fail to adequately reflect the actual cases of violence against women. Some of the factors that prevent Sri Lankan women from making formal complaints against instances of sexual and gender-based violence include fear of the perpetrator, lack of Tamil police officers to ensure the safety of the victims, the long-drawn and pending cases in courts, and the low conviction rate (Civil Society Collective in Sri Lanka, 2017). Sri Lanka’s disturbing record of ensuring justice for victims of sexual violence in 2015 shows that out of the 379 rape cases recorded by the police, 365 of such were pending with no convictions (Economy Next, 2020). Furthermore, the impending immunity of the perpetrators, where the accused is “rarely charged, convicted, or dismissed from their posts”, denies justice and thereby contributes to the disturbing percentage of Sri Lanka’s unreported cases of gender-based violence (OHCHR, 2017). 


One of the most impactful consequences of the pandemic has been an escalation in the cases of gender-based violence (Balachandran, 2022). Due to the measures adopted by the Sri Lankan government to implement severe lockdown restrictions to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of cases of domestic and gender-based violence saw a sharp surge (UNFPA, 2021a). According to the National Committee for Women of the State Ministry of Children and Women Affairs, 2164 complaints of domestic violence against women were filed during the span from January to September 2021 (Weerasinghe, 2021). The National Forum Against Gender-Based Violence in Sri Lanka insisted on urgent attention and immediate steps to meet the hardships faced by victims of gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic (The Island, 2021). Moreover, in April 2020, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted the “horrifying global surge in domestic violence” against women and girls due to the lockdown measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (UN News, 2020)

As a consequence of the lockdown measures, women were forced to remain trapped and isolated with the perpetrators or their “violent partners”, making it difficult to report crimes of domestic violence (Gamage and Tummodara, 2021; UN News, 2020). Due to the travel restrictions, the already prevalent discriminatory practices against women and girls were exacerbated, thus, causing the victims of sexual and domestic violence to depend on shelters that provide the “necessary physical, psychological and legal services” (UNFPA 2021b). Reportedly, such help centres and shelter homes for women reached their maximum capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving women victims of gender-based violence without a safe space (Gamage and Tummodara, 2021).


Sri Lanka’s legal obligation to protect women in its territory against sexual and domestic violence is reflected in its domestic laws. In addition, Sri Lanka is under obligation to implement its commitments laid down in international legal frameworks, in its domestic laws and policies. This section of the article illustrates the various domestic and international legal obligations of Sri Lanka to protect the rights of Sri Lankan women against violence.

Domestic Laws

The Sri Lankan Constitution, adopted in 1978, provides for the “right to equality” as one of the fundamental rights. Article 12(1) provides that “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law”, and Article 12(2) guarantees non-discrimination on any ground including sex (The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 1978, Article 12).  

The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (2005) provides for a legal framework to prevent domestic violence and abuse (Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005). The Act recognises domestic violence as a human rights violation. However, the Act suffers from certain discriminatory provisions such as Article 12(1), whereby women are mandated under a court order to undergo marriage counselling in cases of domestic violence; as well as the inability of the courts to ensure “physical protection” of the victims through interim orders (Civil Society Collective in Sri Lanka, 2017; Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, 2005). 

Further, the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act (2015) aims to “strengthen the course of administration of justice”, and thereby “protect the victims of crime and witnesses” (Ministry of Justice, 2022; The Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, 2015). However, the Act has not been fully implemented, and as a result, no administrative system for the implementation of protections guaranteed therein exist (Civil Society Collective in Sri Lanka, 2017).

 Sri Lanka’s Penal Code criminalises sexual violence against women (Penal Code, 1883). Particularly, following the National Plan of Action for Women (NPA), amendments were introduced in the Penal Code to provide for stricter punishments, including for offences of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment (Civil Society Collective in Sri Lanka, 2017). However, the Penal Code is not free from gaps in the law that hinder the eradication of sexual and gender-based violence. The Penal Code fails to penalise marital rape (Penal Code, 1883). Further, under Section 363, statutory rape of married Muslim girls of age twelve and above is exempted. (Penal Code, 1883). 

International Laws

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 confirms gender equality as a fundamental human right (UDHR, 1948). In 1981, Sri Lanka ratified the international treaty of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979, often known as the International Bill of Rights for Women, and is under an obligation to adopt its legal standards of protection for women (CEDAW, 1979). The Articles in the Convention make provisions to protect women from discrimination and provide for steps to be taken by the State Parties to eradicate such discrimination (CEDAW, 1979). 

“Gender-based violence, which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms under general international law or under human rights conventions, is discrimination under article 1 of the Convention”

General Recommendation No. 19, CEDAW Committee, 1992

In December 1993, the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women called on all States to take steps towards the eradication of all forms of violence against women by recognising that such violence stood in contravention of the fundamental rights and freedoms of women (Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 1993). 

In conclusion, as per the international legal framework on human rights mentioned above, Sri Lanka is under a clear obligation to protect women from gender-based violence. Further, Sri Lanka’s obligations are derived from its domestic laws that aim to prevent any act of violence against women. 


As can be clearly illustrated from the statistics and the lapse in the legal mechanisms, the Sri Lankan government has been ignoring the epidemic of violence against its women. Particularly, this is evidenced by the large percentage of un(der)reported cases of gender-based violence. The COVID-19 pandemic has further brought this issue to the forefront. Because of its deep-rooted patriarchy and sexism prevalent and widespread in the cultural practices of its society, Sri Lanka has a long path to ensure gender equality. However, as an immediate step towards preventing and thereby eliminating sexual and domestic violence directed towards women, legal guarantees and the gaps in implementation mechanisms that fail to abide by international legal standards need urgent attention. Apart from the demands and protests of the civil society and activists, due pressure from the international community is indispensable in realising the goal of preventing violence against women from further plaguing Sri Lankan society. 


Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993, December 20). , accessed 22 February 2022. 

Balachandran, P.K. (2022, January 3). Covid affected women most. Ceylon Today., accessed 18 February 2022.  

Civil Society Collective in Sri Lanka (2017). Factsheet – UPR 2017 – Sri Lanka: 3rd Cycle Universal Periodic Review. CSCS., accessed 20 February 2022.  

Economy Next (2020, December 3). Sri Lanka’s violence against women is a shadow pandemic. Economy Next., accessed 8 February 2022.  

Gamage M. and Tummodara R (2021). A Study On The Rise Of Domestic Violence Against Women In Sri Lanka During the Lockdown. Colombo Telegraph. , accessed 15 February 2022

Ministry of Justice (2022, February 21). National Authority for The Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses., accessed 20 February 2022

International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1979, December18). , accessed 20 February 2022.  

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2017, March 30). Sri Lanka: Continuing Violations Against the Rights of Women, and Sri Lanka’s Failures to Implement the Right to Remedy and Effective Transitional Justice Mechanisms. OHCHR. , accessed 12 March 2022. 

Penal Code (Ordinance No.2 of 1883)., accessed on 22 February 2022. 

Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, No.34 of 2005., accessed on 18 February 2022. 

The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 1978. (as amended on 29th October 2020, Revised Edn 2021), accessed 20 February 2022. 

The Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act No. 04 of 2015., accessed on 18 February 2022.  


The Island (2021, June 14). Lockdown has resulted in an increase in domestic violence in Sri Lanka. The Island., accessed 8 February 2022.  


Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948, December 10). accessed 21 November 2021, accessed 20 February 2022. 


UNFPA (2021a). Gender-Based Violence.  UNFPA Sri Lanka.,age%20of%2015%20(2019), accessed 8 February 2022


UNFPA (2021b). UNFPA Sri Lanka launches Online Training Courses for Survivors of SGBV amidst COVID -19. UNFPA Sri Lanka., accessed 8 February 2022. 


UN (n.d.). The United Nations Work on Violence against Women. UN.,inhibits%20women’s%20ability%20to%20enjoy, accessed 13 March, 2022


UN News (2020, April 9). UN chief calls for domestic violence ‘ceasefire’ amid ‘horrifying global surge’. United Nations., accessed 20 February 2022. 


Weerasinghe, T.D. (2021, December 18). Red Signal of Increased Domestic Violence in Sri Lanka. Ceylon Today., accessed 20 February 2022.  


Women in Need (2019). Why Women and Girls. Women in Need Sri Lanka., accessed 16 February 2022.  



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Coordinator - Tibet Team

Mandakini graduated with honours from the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. Her team analyses the human rights violations faced by Tibetans through a legal lens.

Kenza Mena
Team Coordinator -China

Kenza Mena has expertise in international criminal law since she is currently pursuing a last-year Master’s degree in International Criminal Justice at Paris II Panthéon-Assas and obtained with honors cum laude an LLM in International and Transnational Criminal Law from the University of Amsterdam. She also holds a Bachelor’s degree in French and Anglo-American law. 

Since September 2021, she has been the coordinator of Team China at GHRD, a country where violations of human rights, even international crimes, are frequently perpetrated by representatives of the State. Within Team China, awareness is also raised on discrimination that Chinese women and minorities in the country and, more generally, Chinese people around the world are facing.

Kenza believes that the primary key step to tackle atrocities perpetrated around the world is advocacy and promotion of human rights.

Aimilina Sarafi
Pakistan Coordinator

Aimilina Sarafi holds a Bachelor’s degree cum laude in International Relations and Organisations from Leiden University and is currently pursuing a Double Legal Master’s degree (LLM) in Public International Law and International Criminal Law at the University of Amsterdam.
She is an active advocate for the human rights of all peoples in her community and is passionate about creating a better world for future generations. Aimilina is the coordinator for the GHRD team of Pakistan, in which human rights violations of minority communities in Pakistan are investigated and legally evaluated based on international human rights legal standards.
Her team is working on raising awareness on the plight of minority communities such as women, children, religious and ethnic minorities within Pakistan.

Lukas Mitidieri
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Lucas Mitidieri is currently pursuing his bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). As the GHRD Bangladesh Team Coordinator, he advocates for human rights and monitors violations across all minorities and marginalized groups in Bangladesh. Lucas believes that the fight for International Human Rights is the key to a world with better social justice and greater equality.

Nicole Hutchinson
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Nicole has an MSc in International Development Studies with a focus on migration. She is passionate about promoting human rights and fighting poverty through advocacy and empowering human choice. Nicole believes that even the simplest social justice efforts, when properly nurtured, can bring about radical and positive change worldwide.

Gabriela Johannen
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Gabriela Johannen is a lawyer admitted to the German bar and holds extensive knowledge in the fields of human rights, refugee law, and international law. After working for various courts and law firms in her home country, she decided to obtain an LL.M. degree from Utrecht University where she studied Public International Law with a special focus on Human Rights. Additionally, while working as a pro-bono legal advisor for refugees, she expanded her knowledge in the fields of refugee law and migration.

Gabriela is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD India, a country, she has had a personal connection with since childhood. Her primary focus is to raise awareness for the severe human rights violations against minorities and marginalized groups that continue to occur on a daily basis in India. By emphasizing the happenings and educating the general public, she hopes to create a better world for future generations.

João Victor
Coordinator & Head Researcher – International Justice

João Victor is a young Brazilian lawyer who leads our team of International Justice and Human Rights. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and possesses over 5 years of experience in dealing with Human Rights and International Law issues both in Brazil and internationally, including the protection of refugees’ rights and the strengthening of accountability measures against torture crimes.

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Célinne Bodinger
Environment and Human Rights Coordinator

As the Environment and Human Rights Coordinator, Célinne is passionate about the health of our planet and every life on it.

Angela Roncetti
Team Coordinator and Head Researcher- South America

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Lina Borchardt
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Pedro Ivo Oliveira
Team Coordinator and Researcher

Pedro holds an extensive background in Human Rights, especially in Global Health, LGBTQ+ issues, and HIV and AIDS. He is currently finishing his Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations and Affairs at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Moreover, he successfully attended the Bilingual Summer School in Human Rights Education promoted by the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Association of Universities of the Montevideo Group. Besides, Pedro Ivo has a diversified professional background, collecting experiences in many NGOs and projects.

With outstanding leadership abilities, in 2021, Pedro Ivo was the Secretary-General of the 22nd edition of the biggest UN Model in Latin America: the MINIONU. Fluent in Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Pedro Ivo is the Team Coordinator and Head Researcher of the Team Africa at Global Human Rights Defence. Hence, his focus is to empower his team from many parts of the world about the Human Rights Situation in the African continent, meanwhile having a humanized approach.

Alessandro Cosmo
GHRD Youth Ambassador
(European Union)

Alessandro Cosmo obtained his B.A. with Honors from Leiden University College where he studied International Law with a minor in Social and Business Entrepreneurship. He is currently pursuing an LL.M. in Public International Law at Utrecht University with a specialization in Conflict and Security. 
As GHRD’s E.U. Youth Ambassador, Alessandro’s two main focuses are to broaden the Defence’s reach within E.U. institutions and political parties, as well as mediate relations between human rights organizations abroad seeking European funding. 
Alessandro believes that human rights advocacy requires grass-roots initiatives where victims’ voices are amplified and not paraphrased or spoken for. He will therefore act on this agenda when representing Global Human Rights Defence domestically and abroad

Veronica Delgado
Team Coordinator and Researcher- Japan, Sri Lanka & Tibet

Veronica is a Colombian lawyer who leads our team of Japan, Sri Lanka and Tibet. She holds a master’s degree in Public International Law from Utrecht University. She has experience in Colombian law firms. Here she represented clients before constitutional courts. She also outlined legal concepts to state entities such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ombudsman’s Office on international law issues.

Veronica has an extensive research background with subjects related to public international law. She worked as an assistant researcher for more than two years for the Externado University of Colombia. Here she undertook in-depth research on constitutional, business, and human rights law issues. She was involved with consultancy services with the Colombian Army regarding transitional justice. 

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Fairuz is the coordinator and head researcher for GHRD Africa. Her primary focus is to establish and coordinate long-term research projects regarding the differentiating human rights dealings of vulnerable and marginalized groups in continental Africa, as well as conducting individual research projects.

Priya Lachmansingh
Coordinator and Head Researcher, Political Advisor
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Priya Lachmansingh is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in International & European
Law at the Hague University of Applied Science.
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parties and as well seek domestic funding.

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Team Coordinator & Head Coordinator: North America

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