Gender-Based Violence Plaguing Sri Lanka
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.
THE WIDESPREAD PREVALENCE 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).
RECENT COVID-19 PANDEMIC EVENTS AGGRAVATING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE
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).
DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL LEGAL OBLIGATIONS
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.
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).
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.
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