Eliminating Gender Based Violence in Sri Lanka is Key to Sustainable Development
Contributors: M. Karunakaran, V. Magendran, P. Phillip, J. Sathyandran
Editors’ note: This article discusses how gender based violence and discrimination faced by women in the North and East of Sri Lanka is a barrier to empowerment and poverty relief. For additional resources/readings, please refer to the end of the document.
As writers and contributors to this article, we are very much aware of the privilege we carry as women who have been raised in the West, and as such, we do not speak “for” the women and girls of Sri Lanka. As women and diaspora Tamils, we are concerned about the future of communities in Sri Lanka living in poverty and/or facing discrimination and violence and aim to raise more awareness.
According to the Women’s UN Network, roughly 30 to 40 per cent of women in Sri Lanka today are estimated to have experienced gender based violence (GBV)1. Between 2004 and 2014, a total of 3279 cases of GBV were reported to a women’s development organization in Batticaloa2. However the impacts of GBV on Tamil-speaking women in conflict-affected regions of Sri Lanka, such as the North and East is particularly noteworthy. Female heads of households, with estimates of over 90,000 in the North and East2, single women, internally displaced women, war widows and former female combatants continue to face discrimination, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), harassment and abuse from their own community and from the military3.
In Sri Lanka, we see manifestations of GBV in many forms: domestic, physical, sexual, psychological, economic and political. Some of the violence is systemic and has been entrenched in discriminatory laws and cultural practices for many years. Some of the violence is also a direct impact of the ethnic violence, the armed conflict, continued militarization and poverty. GBV transcends borders, caste, race, religion and class and is deeply rooted in structures of patriarchy, power and privilege. It is defined as violence that occurs as a result of normative gender role expectations and the resulting unequal power relationships4. While men, boys, and members of the LGTBQ community are also known to have experienced various forms of violence in Sri Lanka, it has been women and girls who make up the majority of GBV-affected individuals4.
Domestic/Intimate Partner Violence
Domestic and intimate partner violence experienced by women in conflict-affected areas can worsen due to factors associated with situations of conflict, post-conflict and displacement, such as post-traumatic stress, depression, alcohol use among men, increased culture of impunity and loss of support networks5. This also has lasting negative impacts on the physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health of women6. In conjunction with factors such as stigma, cultural expectations and normative gender roles, the compounding fear of facing socio-economic repercussions and economic insecurity also makes it difficult for women to leave abusive relationships.
For Tamil-speaking communities in the North and East of Sri Lanka, economic insecurity is of significant concern. Poverty indicators in 2016 from the Department of Census and Statistics show the poorest districts to be Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu, Trincomalee and Batticaloa7. War and displacement have led to the loss of traditional sources of livelihood for women and their families, like loss of land, livestock and harvest. This has led to women pursuing other means of income such as sex work and preparation or sale of illicit alcohol, both of which put women at risk for violence8. Moreso, when local economic opportunities are scarce and when women migrate overseas for work, the violence continues to the next generation as the children who remain in Sri Lanka fall at risk for physical and sexual abuse9 . Women also face economic insecurity when they lose rights to family lands, caused by either military occupation or the theft or loss of land deeds during times of displacement10. Those who have been able to return to their land lack adequate funds required to rebuild or repair their homes after years of damage from the conflict. Existing post-war housing programs require owners to contribute up to a third of the cost, consequently pushing many women into debt and/or preventing families from meeting their basic needs10. Military involvement in commercial activities, such as farming, tourism, coffee shops and hotels also limits economic and livelihood opportunities11.
In the North and East, continued militarization furthers the risk of violence against Tamil-speaking women and girls. Women making inquiries or vocalizing their concerns about the continued occupation have faced threats. A joint study completed by the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research (ACPR) and the People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) in October 2017, indicates that military presence in Mullaitivu is overwhelming compared to other regions in the country12. Mullaitivu, one of the economically poorest districts in the country13 comprises 0.6% of the national population12. Yet, the district is estimated to house at least 60,000 Sri Lankan Army troops, nearly 25% of the national active military personnel12. This calculates to at least 1 soldier for every 2 civilians in the district12.
The influence of continued and disproportionate militarization in these areas is also problematic for the social, physical and mental wellbeing of Tamil-speaking women, particularly women-headed households who face increased vulnerability to exploitation, sexual harassment, and violence11. Sexual violence is more frequent when societal risk factors such as gender-based inequality, male honour, sexual entitlement and weak sanctions against cases of sexual violence are present14. Many incidents of sexual violence remain unreported due to stigma, the lack of a legal framework that provides support and security to women2, shortage of Tamil-speaking women police officers3 and the long-standing culture of impunity of law enforcement or military personnel. In comparison to the number of reported incidents, there are far fewer legal prosecutions, as in many cases the perpetrators themselves are law enforcers or decision makers3. Thus the combination of both social and political structures perpetuates gender inequality and subsequently forms a foundation for gender-based violence15.
Political and Civic Engagement
In recent years, Sri Lanka has made efforts to address gender-based violence through acts and plans such as: The Victim and Witness Protection Act, the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, and The National Action Plan to address Sexual and Gender Based Violence. Yet implementation of these acts is slow and continuous work is needed to consult and coordinate with civil society and women’s groups3 to ensure that women's voices are heard, that their rights are upheld and that their needs are appropriately addressed through legislation.
Sri Lanka also recently passed the women’s quota for local elections (Local Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act) requiring that 25% of candidates in local government elections be women, as only 2% of local government posts are currently held by women16. Despite this new legislation, women in the 2018 elections faced multiple barriers to participation and were subjected to various types of violence. Women candidates across the country, in areas such as Selvanagar, Arayampathy in the Eastern Province and Puthukudiyiruppu in the Mullaitivu District faced physical, verbal and psychological attacks to deter their participation, a means to instil fear and intimidation by male religious leaders and candidates17.
Yet despite such efforts to disempower and discourage women, conflict-affected Tamil speaking women in the North and East have been at the forefront in commanding for justice and truth on a number of wartime violations, particularly calling on the government to provide information on their disappeared loved ones10. These protests, led by women on roadsides across the North and East have been ongoing for over one year in Killinochchi18, Mullaitivu19, Trincomalee20 and Marunthankerny21. Despite the lack of government action or response, these women continue to persist with strength and resilience.
Women and Success in Development
Given Sri Lanka’s commitment to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, Goal 5 being “Gender Equality”22, eliminating GBV is a critical step towards progress in the poorest districts of the country, in the North and East. International agencies report development success and alleviation of poverty in countries where women and men have equal chances to be engaged in all levels of political, social and civic issues, and when GBV and other barriers to women’s empowerment are removed.23
Yet Sri Lanka is lagging behind other countries who have committed to the same goals, and have implemented and enforced recommendations outlined in the CEDAW such as: (a) effective complaints procedures, penal sanctions and remedies, including compensation (b) gender sensitive training for public officials including judges and law enforcement officers (c) accessible services for rural women (d) public information and education programmes to overcome attitudes, cultural norms and practices that perpetuate GBV.24
In order for us to better understand the current issues and promote actionable solutions, International Medical Health Organization (IMHO) Canada has invited a Tamil activist from a women’s development organization in the Eastern Province as a keynote speaker for the organization’s upcoming fundraising gala event: Advancing Gender Equality in Sri Lanka on Sunday April 29. Her talk will speak to solutions and initiatives on gender-based violence and the overarching need for gender equality in Sri Lanka. More information about the gala event is available at: www.imhocanadanews.org
To learn more about IMHO Canada’s past development projects that have empowered and supported women and other communities in conflict-affected areas, please visit www.imhocanada.org
When there is no justice: the case of post-conflict Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East
Stories of Resilience
New Police Database Documents Violence Against Women and Children in Sri Lanka
United Nations Sustainable Development Framework 2018-2022 Sri Lanka
All Five Fingers Are Not the Same
What’s Up with the Muslim Marriage And Divorce Act?