Escalating violence against women in Sri Lanka – A governance issue?March 7, 2012, 12:00 pm
Convenor – Justice for Victims
Written on the occasion of the International Women’s Day, which falls on 8th March
Governance is a word understood by many Sri Lankans as a western concept. A majority of Sri Lankans also believe that this word is bandied about by Western or so called "imperialist" powers, to point a finger at a country coming to terms with an outstanding war victory, which trounced terrorism. However good governance is the way a government should conduct itself when dealing with its constituents who elected them into power.
This article wishes to bring to the notice of the reader, the wider ranging issues of a lack of governance, which in simple terms means no one to take responsibility for actions, no freedom to act in a democratic manner, lack of transparency in processes of government, no participation between the citizens and those who govern to resolve issues. The lack of these elements of governing has impacted even on the safety and freedom of women. The irony is that members of 51% of the population who bring in a large slice of revenue to the country are trampled to unbelievable lows. This is a country that boasts of a history of cultural tradition, spirituality and refinement together with 5 decades or more of high investment in health and education for its citizens regardless of gender.
Some illustrations are taken to discuss the interlinked phenomena of governance, government and violence against women.
"Ms. Madurasinghe Arachchilage Chandrani Madurasinghe (42) of Bibilideniya, Udubaddawa in Puttalam District, Samurdhi Development Officer, was assaulted by the Chairman of the Udubaddawa Pradesheeya Saba after the man instructed her to hand over a road construction project to one of his cronies. The assistant of the Chairman had neither the experience nor the resources to complete the project. The handover was clearly to ensure that the assistant was able to receive kickbacks from the other contractors."
The famous Christmas Day 2011 Tangalle Murder and alleged gang rape case where the perpetrators once again were the Chairman of the Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha and his team who colluded in a despicable double crime. Not much light has been shed on this case and the facts are yet unclear.
The Grease phenomenon which plagues all parts of the country yet, starting with the murder of several women in the Kahawatte area, terrorized women especially in the North and East with minor injuries and abject psychological trauma. It also sporadically affected women in other parts of the country. This has returned full circle back to Kahawatte which again saw a spate of murders in the past month with no apparent perpetrators found or measures for future mitigation of such a turn of events.
The case of a 14-year old girl abducted from a tuition class conducted in a Pirivena in Avissawella by a Dehiowita Pradeshiya Sabha MP’s henchman and the girl not returned for 2 months or more. The JMO’s report in this case has still not been submitted to court (at the time of writing this article). Police were inactive for a long time in this case despite the parents approaching the Police Department at different levels.
The state is the custodian of all of its people, safeguarding their fundamental and human rights. In Illustrations 1, 2 and 4 the perpetrators have been political representatives albeit at a lower level. Therefore, while the state has a right to protect its citizens, the perpetrators, who are part of the state machinery, have been representatives of the government in power.
According to the pillars of good governance which are mentioned above in simple terms how has accountability been or being met in these cases? Has the government made a statement to say that these crimes are unacceptable especially as the persons involved are part of local government? It is doubtful how the legal procedures are to mete out justice in the case of the 14 year old and the Tangalle crimes, as in both these cases the evidence of sexual violence is suppressed. Another element of governance is justice and fair play. It is yet doubtful if basic justice will be granted in these cases and restorative justice seems even a further cry. There is no transparency of what took place in the Tangalle case and it is actually opaque. The victim has left the country and to the general public and civil society activists it seems that the body of evidence is non existent. Underlying all this is the weakness of the judiciary and its susceptibility to intimidation as well as patron client relationships between members of the judiciary and the state.
Illustration 1 describes briefly the case of an outstanding woman, Samurdhi Development officer, Chandrani Madurasinghe, who was assaulted while trying to carry out her duties correctly by giving the road contract to the right party. This clearly demonstrates that honest officials, especially women, are liable to violence as a hazard of their duties. Whither is the state through the Samurdhi mechanism for which she worked, to bring about justice to Chandrani? Where is state participation to bring about redress. Participation by all stakeholders in resolving issues, as mentioned, is an element of governance.
Thus an environment of intimidation and harassment that has been created to an extent which is "the quagmire" or sticky situation the country and its women face is proportional to the lack of governance.
It is not an exaggeration, that daily one or two incidents of violence against women and particularly girl children are reported. The trebling of such incidents in the last three years when compared with the late 90s are observed from Police records. Could the increase of such incidents be attributed to perpetrators knowing that reprisal is scant in an environment of chaos as far as law and order is concerned?
The International Crisis Group Report of 20 December 2011 has very interesting observations especially about the increasing vulnerability to violence of women in the North, where under recommendations to donors it says:
Evaluate all aid, investment and engagement in light of the risks of a return to conflict and of increasing women’s insecurity in the former war zone, and insist on meeting international standards and ensuring the highest levels of transparency, external monitoring and non-discriminatory community participation in setting priorities.
The above-mentioned report also says:
Highlight consistently in public and private communications the issues that affect all of Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities, including growing authoritarianism, militarisation, weak rule of law, impunity, corruption and repression of dissent, as well as gender-based violence and economic inequities for women.
In a nutshell these are the issues that are abject offenders of governance.
The judicial process is the driver of good governance. Considering that Sri Lanka is a signatory to all global conventions such as Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and has seen landmark changes in the amendment to the Penal Code as well as the passing of the Prevention of the Domestic Violence Act of 2005, corresponding improvement in the situation of women with regard to experiencing violence is not seen. Rather violence is seen increasing despite all this. Trends highlighted by Lawyers for Human Rights in the granting of suspended jail sentences for cases of rape, even gang rape, cited as a result of studies carried out in a number of courts in Sri Lanka, are indeed alarming. This is a clear case of the state abdicating both its responsibility of safeguarding women as well as a clear lacuna in accountability.
However the State has a responsibility regarding violence against women (VAW) and girl children and this requires to be demonstrated by strengthening the following:
• Multisectoral and multidimensional responses to prevent and respond to VAW
• Strengthening enforcement of legal and policy framework
• Criminal justice system: investigation, prosecution and punishment of perpetrators.
• Remedies for victims: access to justice, reparation, restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, prevention
• Support services: shelters, legal/medical/other support
• Advocacy for modifying attitudes and behaviour
• Capacity-building and training of all staff
• Data and statistics collection
International Women’s Day has come once again. Though concern about the welfare and well being of women should not be confined to this day in the form of tamashas and flowery statements, it certainly is a time to reflect on the true status of women with regard to this most important aspect of their safety and security.
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