Violence Behind Closed Doors
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Sri Lanka is a country that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage and values. Thousands of years of many wondrous feats of civilisation are venerated by the people and spoken proudly of in many a conversation.
However, amidst this vibrant, rich culture is an ugly truth lurking in the shadows, the fact that women in Sri Lanka are underprivileged, underrepresented, oppressed and harassed, even in the sanctity of their own homes.
Although this has been common knowledge for many who are awake to the truth, there has never been any substantive research conducted on how dire the situation truly is, that is until today.
Women’s Wellbeing Survey
In collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and with financial assistance from the Government of Canada, the Sri Lankan Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) recently announced the first dedicated national prevalence survey on violence against women.
The survey, which was conducted in 2019 covered all 25 districts in Sri Lanka, interviewing more than 2,200 women aged 15 and above, from all walks of life including urban, suburban, and estate workers, meaning that results of the survey were able to glean a clear picture on the truth of what is actually happening behind closed doors, away from the eyes of the public.
A current topic
The survey’s results were made public on 23 November in a special event heralding the start of 16 days of activism with a call to end intimate partner violence. Needless to say, this all occurred during a period of time when attention towards the injustice women face was hot on people’s minds, where the uncouth and harassing remarks of a Parliament minister towards a female minister of Parliament faced little to no repercussions after refusing to apologise for his conduct, and the news of the Kinniya bridge tragedy was fresh in people’s minds as well.
One only needs to look back to the various news reports of this year to recall a number of other heinous acts inflicted upon women in Sri Lanka; one such being the beheading and dismemberment of a young woman whose remains were discovered in a discarded suitcase, the culprit a Policeman nonetheless.
As such it is clear that Sri Lanka does indeed have a problem with how its people treat the women around them, with men usually being the guilty party.
Although such reports alluded to a major societal issue, there had never been concrete proof of how widespread the issue of how Sri Lankan women are treated is. However, where there is smoke, there is fire and in this case, a blazing inferno - putting into question how Sri Lankan women are truly treated, even in their own homes.
Homes becoming prisons
Although a home should evoke feelings of safety and security, of love and freedom, that is not the reality for one in five women in Sri Lanka, who have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and that women in Sri Lanka are more than twice as likely to have experienced physical violence at the hands of a partner than by another.
Additionally, two in five women in Sri Lanka have experienced physical, sexual, emotional and/or economic violence, and/or controlling behaviour by a partner in their lifetime, revealing the sad truth that for many women in our country, their homes are not in fact safe havens, or escapes from the evils of the world. For many, the danger lies within, at the hands of the person she shares her life with.
The danger has only increased with the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns, which locked their victims in (more often than not) with their aggressors, with no means of escape for months on end.
Needless to say, the violence, aggression, and controlling behaviour imposed upon women in Sri Lanka have far-reaching consequences, ones that could even be seen and identified from generation to generation.
In fact, the children of parents who are in an abusive relationship are found to be more likely to drop-out of school, and it was also discovered that such children are more likely to grow up and become aggressors or victims as adults, according to the findings of the survey.
A call for awareness
All this and more was discussed during the proceedings of the 16 days of activism event, with esteemed guests such as State Minister of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, State Minister of Estate Housing and Community Infrastructure Jeevan Thondaman, Member of Parliament Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, Mayor of Colombo Rosy Senanayake, Director General of DCS P.M.P. Anura Kumara, Counsellor and Head of Development Cooperation for the Canadian High Commission in Sri Lanka, Daniel Joly, UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, and Officer In Charge, UNFPA Sharika Cooray.
Although the 16 days of activism programme will mainly focus on intimate partner violence, it would suffice to say that now is the time to spread awareness of the plight of Sri Lankan women who are oppressed, more often not by those that share a home with them.
“It is a form of violence that women and girls experience from people they trust, people they love, and most often live in denial and acceptance throughout their lives. And the experience of even one incident, lasts an entire lifetime,” shared UNFPA Officer in Charge Cooray as she addressed the gathering.
“UNFPA globally supports the collection and measurement of violence against women and girls, and in Sri Lanka, advocacy for this survey began in 2016.”
Continuing she explained how unique the Women’s Wellbeing Survey actually is in comparison to previous work by the DCS, and how accurate the data is which depicts the plight of women and girls aged 15 and above, making shocking revelations on the true state of Sri Lanka’s society in the modern day. Needless to say, the data is shocking, and a wake-up call to many who have yet to see the plume of smoke caused by this fire.
A survey unlike any other
Speaking of the monumental task undertaken by the DCS in conducting this nationwide survey, it was revealed by the Director General of DCS Kumara that because of the sensitive nature of the data being collected, the enumerators had to undergo specialised training which was provided with support of the UNFPA. During the interviewer training and preparation period, important skills for this survey which included sensitisation to the topic, translation checks in the questionnaire, how to address the situation if the interview was disrupted by the partner were introduced to the team.
Not only that, special support systems were also introduced to help enumerators given the emotional nature of the information being collected.
According to Kumara, a wide berth of data was collected by the enumerators, and for many, the experience was eye-opening and something that they will cherish for their lives.
For those who are interested, the results of the entire survey are now available for your perusal at the DCS website.
“I’m convinced that the results of this survey will be instrumental for decision makers and service providers in dealing with this problem and open up new possibilities for rethinking policies, strategies and services aimed at preventing and responding towards sexual and gender based violence, providing women with even more action and support in the future,” he added.
Here to help
Of course, this groundbreaking survey wouldn’t have been possible without the financial assistance of the Canadian High Commission and their mission to support Sri Lanka and a number of other countries in ending all forms of violence.
“Unlike in other forms of crime, where it’s all about making streets safer, if the perpetrator and victim live under the same roof, or share an intimate relationship as the survey suggests, fighting these crimes calls for a whole set of new policies and strategies,” shared Joly of the Canadian High Commission.
“Surveys like this are important not only to create awareness about the issue, but to bring about change as well. They provide a true picture of the prevalence, frequency, age groups, and socioeconomic factors that are correlated with violence. This information can then be used to develop better policies and strategies which both respond to and prevent such violence in the future.”
Speaking on the topic, many of the speakers affirmed that the much like its effects, gender-based violence as a whole is not a societal issue that should be limited to a ‘women’s issue’ but one that affects the foundation of society, and that all have a part to play in bringing an end to gender-based violence. It is a dark shadow that casts its presence throughout society.
During the discussions and addresses, all agreed that Sri Lanka is in need of a change in mindset, giving more attention to the women who are victims of violent and controlling partners and creating better support and response systems when there is an incident.
In fact, the survey reveals that nearly half of the women who were harmed physically and/or sexually by their partner did not seek formal help anywhere, often due to not knowing the existence of available services that are ready to help them, and because of the lukewarm and insensitive responses they receive when seeking help from institutions that are established to protect and mete justice, such as the Police.
For those who are in need of help, a national women’s helpline has already been established and can be contacted through the hotline 1938. Mithuru Piyasa, another valuable service for women seeking help can be contacted via the number 070 26 11 111.
(Pix by Venura Chandramalitha)