SRI LANKA: The Domestic Violence Act and the actual situation

When we consider the daily reports in the electronic media, television, radio and the printed media as well as the many incidents that are brought to our attention it is blatantly clear to see that wives and children are being subjected to many difficulties and remain vulnerable. I have personally handled many cases of victims who have been injured due to domestic violence.

We can define domestic violence as such: physical, mental, sexual and economic abuse caused by hurtful or unwanted behavior, perpetrated by one member of a household against another.

The Domestic Violence Act provides special protection to the wives and the children in vulnerable situations, especially against the cruelties that happen domestically and even against continuing harassments. There are also special provisions that enable parties to take even legal action. When I deal with the victims, the wives who were subjected to domestic violence, I recognized that this is one of the major problems that exist in our country. Almost all cases of abuse require hospitalization and sadly there are but a few of the actual number as the vast majority of the victims hide their abuse under the carpet and, as a result, suffer alone.

Moreover, many people consider domestic violence a personal grievance and they say it is a dispute between husband and wife within the family. Then they do not consider it as a crime. And many of those who have experienced domestic violence do not want to expose their experience in public.

The reasons for not taking action against an abusive spouse are many: economic, cultural and most importantly, insufficient protection for victims.

Cultural Problems 

According to Sri Lankan culture when disputes happen inside the house, for example, between parents and their children or a husband and wife, they usually try to solve the problems themselves and do not want to talk about it in the open. Finally, it is the wife that will bear the problems because if she takes legal action against her husband she will be beaten on her return home.

Culturally Sri Lanka is a male oriented society. Traditionally family matters would never be dealt with in public and women are expected to protect the family reputation under any circumstances and it is considered a great failure and humiliation if they do not manage to do so.

Even as lawyers when we intervene on behalf of women the objection that has been brought is: “Are you not hurting the institution of the family through this law? It is not better to settle these things privately and amicably?” So if even the lawyers take this view how can we can expect a change to our cultural values?

In many cases, through women know about the law against domestic violence and they have been encouraged by NGO, or other legal aid institutions to bring their cases before a court they consciously decide not to file a complaint or case against their husbands because of the above reason.

Economic problems 

In many cases, women continue to tolerate harassment and abuse from their husbands because they are the main breadwinner of the family and protecting the stability of the family is seen as more important than anything else.

For instance, a father sexually abused and raped his 11-year-old daughter while the child’s mother had gone to a well to get water, when she returned the child was screaming and bleeding. She brought the child to the hospital. When questioned by the doctors and nurses they were able to collect enough evidence to believe that the father had abused and raped the child, but the mother begged them not to tell the police because, firstly, she would be, killed by her husband, secondly, her family would fall apart and thirdly, she would lose all her earnings.

On many occasions, people believe that the damage that is caused by seeking justice from the system is much more than the damage that the crime has done.

Police neglect their duties

The reality is that most of domestic violence victims would never seek assistance from the police as they are well aware of how the police proceed and how they are treated. I have also seen many people who ended up getting divorced after seeking the intervention of the police in their dispute because of the manner in which police officers handle their complaints. Not only that but also they do not give priority for this type of problem. For instance, one woman had gone to the police station repeatedly to complain about her husband and the overwhelming abuse that she has suffered over many years. After more than 10 visits to the police, the officers tried to negotiate between the two parties. But unfortunately that night, the wife was murdered by her husband because in revenge for going to the police against his wishes.

Obviously in this case they made an incorrect assessment of the situation, so those officers should be held responsible for her death. I honestly believe police officers have made many errors in the procedures of handling these cases.

As a solution of above problems the Sri Lanka police department has established a special branch called the Women and Childcare Bureau which has branches in almost all police stations all over the country. Women police officers are normally attached to these bureaus. But most of those cases are sexual related crimes so victims tolerate these incidents and hide them from the legal system out of embarrassment and fear of future consequences.

Moreover, According to this Act Article 2(C) clearly indicate and give power to the police to prosecute domestic violence cases.
Article 2, An aggrieved person to make an application,
Article 2(2), an application under subsection,
May be made,
(a) By an aggrieved person or,
(c) By a police officer on behalf of an aggrieved person. 

But they very often neglect or abuse this power. For example, In one case there was a woman, married to a three-wheeler driver,. The husband hurt the woman using swords and knives. Finally she has lost her right hand two fingers and totally lost the sight in her left eye. However, the police took the side of the husband. There were many cases that the police could have done these things. This victim experiences a lot of difficulties from the police, which even refuse to give copies of the complaints made by her. This is because the alleged perpetrators influence the police and build up relationships with them so that the police harass the victims.

There are a lot of good points in the laws on domestic violence. One of the positive features of the law is that anyone facing domestic violence being able to apply for a protection orders which against the perpetrators. It permits speedy action for prevention of domestic violence. Protection orders are issued for a period of 12 months by a magistrate which bars the aggressor from committing acts of domestic violence and entering the victim’s residence, among other prohibitions. But in order to obtain the relief available there are a lot of obstacles because it has to be done under the existing circumstances of the policing service.

Victim protection 
Another big challenge is the lack of victim protection. As I mentioned earlier, the one of the main reason is husband is often the main breadwinner in the family. So most women depend on their partner economically as almost all women have no their own house or land. As a result of this they do not take any legal action against this violence. For instance, if a woman goes to a police station and tries to take legal action against her husband when she goes back home she will be beaten by husband.

I think this should be the most important thing to include this Act. As no shelter or housing facilities is offered by this Act the aggrieved person cannot request shelter. The only thing they can hope for is temporary accommodation. However, only a few NGOs, such as women’s development center in Kandy, has shelter facilities for abused women and children.

Furthermore, violence is a major and growing public health problem. In Sri Lanka 30-40 percent of women suffer from some kind of violence. However more than 60 percent of women across Sri Lanka are victims of domestic violence while 44 percent of pregnant women are also subjected to harassment, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the ministry of child development and women’s empowerment.

The common belief is that violence is more prevalent in the lower income groups but violence is prevalent in the socially privileged groups as well. The truth is that women throughout their lives have been suffering in silence.

Why we should try to eradicate this domestic violence? 

It is responsible for so many problems in our society such as serious health issues, chronic illness like constant abdominal pain and headache and menstrual disturbances. Violence during pregnancy which could lead to abortion and premature birth and bleeding during pregnancy causing risk to the mother could be long term and detrimental. That is why this message should be inculcated in the minds of all.

What are the causes of acts of violence? 

Inebriation is one cause of acts of violence. However, while alcohol is not the sole contributory factor of domestic violence it is predominant in the society. Also relationships among family members, family attitudes, cultural beliefs and the traditional role of husband and wife play a role. But whatever the reason be, there is no justification for violence in the family.

According to my professional experience I realized that the task of eliminating domestic violence from a society is not that simple and cannot overcome in a day. But I do strongly believe that it is a contemporary necessity that we have a law that can control domestic violence in some way. But as I mentioned above there are a few areas which need strengthening, especially the deficiencies in the Act such as implement to shelter facilities, monitoring police etc. Also government and organizations like the health sector, women’s organizations, the police and the judiciary should do their duties and provide services to the people to make a change of their lives for better future.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-041-2012
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Violence against women,