In Sri Lanka as globally, the most prevalent form of violence against women is domestic violence. According to a survey from 2006 by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment more than 60 percent of women across Sri Lanka are victims of domestic violence while 44 per cent of pregnant women are also subjected to harassment. Commonly perpetrated forms of domestic violence include physical and sexual violence, threats and intimidation, emotional and social abuse and economic deprivation.
In Sri Lanka a new law on domestic violence, The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act came into operation on 3 October 2005. The Act is the outcome of years of struggle by different women’s group throughout the country.
The Act provides for the issue of Protection Orders by the Magistrate’s Court to prevent an aggressor from inflicting harm to persons within defined relationships inside the household as well as outside. Any person, irrespective of gender, who is subjected to or likely to be subjected to domestic violence, may seek a Protection Order (PO). On behalf of a child, a parent, a guardian or a person with whom the child resides or a person authorized by the National Child Protection Authority can also seek a PO. In addition a police officer has the authority to intervene on behalf of an aggrieved person.
While the legislation is there, the effectuation is not. The gap between the rights set out on paper and the daily life in the household is tremendous.
The problem is not a lack of legal instruments to protect women and girls from violence including the domestic sphere. Gender equality and non-discrimination of women are key principles of the Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution from 1978. In 1981, Sri Lanka ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Sri Lanka is also signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Vienna Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993). Further, Sri Lanka has subscribed to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995).
Neither is it a problem of lack of institutions to ensure the enforcement of the declarations. Many state institutions and private organizations have been established to work on the matter, including The Women’s Bureau of Sri Lanka (1978); The Sri Lankan Women’s Charter (1993); the National Committee on Women (1994), the provision of Ministry Status to Women’s Affairs in 1997 (from 2005 a part of the Ministry for Child Development and Women’s Empowerment), the Centre for Gender Complaints at the National Committee on Women (1999) and Women and Children’s Bureaus in Police Stations.
A family matter
However, the framework does not correspond with society. Culturally Sri Lanka is a male-centred society and although women in the larger cities have become more educated and independent, especially families in rural areas, from cultural minorities or lower castes are still very male dominated with domestic violence being more prevalent. The courts are by no means minority, gender or child sensitive and discrimination and harassment are daily fares in the legal system. Even though Tamil is recognized as an official language, there is still a lack of Tamil speakers in official institutions and translators are rarely provided in police stations.
Sandamani Munasinghe is a Sri Lankan Attorney-at-Law, who has worked as an advisor to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), several human rights organisations and has assisted many human rights cases with senior lawyers. She has also worked in the Women in Need organisation, which particularly deals with the problems of women and children.
According to Munasinghe there is a great need for awareness about the Act, not only its existence, but also a proper understanding of its functions. Traditionally, family matters would never be dealt with publicly, women are expected to protect the family under any circumstances and it is considered a great failure and humiliation if they do not manage to do so. “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? Is it not better to settle these things privately and amicably? It is necessary to bring the matter to court? So if even the lawyers take this kind of view, then we can see that within society there cannot be that much appreciation of this law”, Munasinghe emphasized.
Not a police priority
This perception of women and their family roles penetrates most of the Sri Lankan society including police stations, which are often very male-dominated. Generally there is a little trust in the police system and many people fear to go to the stations to make any kind of complaints. It has long been a requirement that police stations contain a separate union for women and children with female officers attached, but while most stations are undermanned there are no resources to maintain the units.
The police do not consider domestic violence a serious matter and especially in undermanned stations they are likely to neglect cases of domestic violence or put them low on the priority list. The husband might have connections in the station or be an influential person in the area. As a result, the enforcement of a PO is a major challenge. Even though a police officer has the authority to issue a PO on an aggrieved person it is very unlikely he will do so.
As Munasinghe points out, “This law gives power to the police to intervene in women’s complaints. However, problems arise because of the nature of the policing system in Sri Lanka. The organizations that try to help women experience a lot of difficulties from the police who sometimes even refuse to give copies of the complaints made by the victims. This is because the alleged perpetrators influence the police and build relationships with them so that the police harass the victim.”
Tamara, a mother, is one of these victims. She went to the police station to report a case of domestic violence. She was told that the officer who was dealing with cases on the matter was not there. The police made some inquiries, but afterwards nothing happened. While she was at the station she saw another woman who was talking about an incident where her husband got drunk and beat her. The police went to arrest the man but returned, saying that they could not find him. Later the woman returned to the police station to complain that her husband was threatening to hurt her. According to Tamara the police officer said, “So you haven’t actually been beaten up yet, you are only afraid that you will be beaten up? So come back after he beats you up”.
The example clearly states how the prevention element of the Act finds no sympathy within the police. Tamara concludes, “This is obviously not the right attitude. If the woman gets beaten up, or perhaps even killed, then what is the use of the police taking action then? A woman does not go to a police station just for fun. She goes because things are very bad and even desperate.”
An efficient system will in itself generate prevention, but major steps also have to be taken to push forward for campaigns on prevention
Another big challenge of the effectiveness of the Act is the lack of victim protection. Most women depend almost solely on their partner economically. They have no means to provide housing for themselves and their children or to sustain their livelihood, which means the alternative to a violent husband is homelessness.
No shelter or housing is offered by law enforcers or by the legal system itself. The law stipulates that the court may order, if the aggrieved person requests, that she can be placed in a shelter or provided with temporary accommodation. However, only private organizations such as Welcome House, Women’s Development centre in Kandy, Women In Need and the Salvation Army run shelters for abused women and children.
The NGO sector cannot be expected to take sole responsibility for the provision of such services. Magistrates are reluctant to refer abused women and their children to privately run shelters, who they do not always find accountable. The judiciary would be more likely to refer women to state run shelters. Besides, the rights of a woman for adequate housing should not only focus on shelter options for her, but also the possibility of removing the violent partner.
It is nevertheless an extremely hard choice for a woman to choose to live her life in shelter, even for those who can afford it, due to fear of harassment, loss of status, social stigma or concerns of the children’s future. In many cases the need is for family counselling and advising and if the woman decides to stay with her husband, the police and the courts should refer her to these avenues.
The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act is a great step forward for the recognition of the rights of women and the problems within the perception of the social hierarchy of families in Sri Lanka. However, cultural patterns that have existed for centuries cannot be transformed overnight.
For a woman to have the courage to go to the police station and file a complaint, she needs assurance that she will be met with respect and a patient hearing. She needs assurance that her case is taken seriously and inquiries will be taken. Furthermore she needs a guarantee of protection through shelter or housing to her and her children as well as proper counselling and support during the court case.
As with so many other pieces of legislations in Sri Lanka like the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment ratified in 1980, the Act itself does not change a society’s perception. The changes come with the implementation of the Act in actual practice. It is an obligation of the Sri Lankan state to support and protect the rights of women, establish and upgrade facilities and secure proper remedies for the victims of domestic violence in Sri Lanka.