By Gitanjali Marcelline
Colombo, November 28 (newsin.asia): “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” is an international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls. The campaign runs every year from 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to 10 December, Human Rights Day. It was initiated in 1991 by the first Women’s Global Leadership Institute, at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) in Rutgers University. Since 1991, more than 6,000 organizations from approximately 187 countries have participated in the campaign.
How did this come about? In 1981, activists at the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentros marked November 25 as a day to combat and raise awareness of violence against women. On December 17, 1999, there was a United Nations (UN) resolution, with a theme for activism set for each year. The theme for this year, 2020, is “Orange the world: Fund, Prevent, Respond, Collect.”
Violence against women and girls (VAWG), one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in the world today, remains largely unreported due to impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding it. It manifests itself in physical, sexual and psychological forms, encompassing intimate partner violence, sexual violence and harassment, human trafficking, and child marriage.
According to the United Nations, the adverse psychological, sexual and reproductive health consequences of VAWG affect women at all stages of their life. While gender-based violence can happen to anyone, anywhere, some women and girls are particularly vulnerable – for instance, young girls and older women, women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex, migrants and refugees, indigenous women and ethnic minorities, or women and girls living with HIV and disabilities, and those living through humanitarian crises. Violence against women continues to be an obstacle to achieving equality, development and peace.
According to the UN, this year is like no other. Even before COVID-19 hit, violence against women and girls had reached pandemic levels. Globally, 243 million women and girls (Sri Lanka included), were abused by an intimate partner in the past year. Meanwhile, less than 40 per cent of women who experienced violence reported it or sought help.
As countries implemented lockdown measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, violence against women, especially domestic violence, intensified. In some countries, calls to helplines have increased five-fold. In others, formal reports of domestic violence have decreased, like in Sri Lanka, as survivors find it harder to seek help and access support through the regular channels. School closures and economic strains left women and girls poorer, out of school and out of jobs, and more vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, forced marriage, and harassment.
In April 2020, as the pandemic spread across the world, the UN Secretary-General called for “peace at home”, and 146 Member States responded with their strong statement of commitment. In recent months 135 countries have strengthened actions and resources to address violence against women as part of the response to COVID-19. Yet, much more is needed.
As the UN Head said, although the voices of activists and survivors have reached a crescendo that cannot be silenced or ignored, ending violence against women will require more investment, leadership and action.
Gender-based violence does not address only one issue but many. Therefore, the fundamental principles of human rights, such as equality and non-discrimination have to be followed and adhered to. Chapter 1, Article 1 of the UN Charter, UDHR (1948) Articles 2 and 7, ICCPR (1966), etc., all stress on these two fundamental principles and Sri Lanka is signatory to these Charters, Declarations and Conventions.
Domestic Violence In Sri Lanka
What is most prevalent in Sri Lanka is domestic violence. Domestic violence has many forms, including physical violence,sexual and emotional abuse, intimidation, economic eprivation, and threats of violence. Violence can be criminal and includes physical assault (hitting, pushing, shoving), sexual abuse (unwanted or forced sexual activity), and stalking.
Recent attention to domestic violence began in the women’s movement, particularly feminism and women’s rights, in the 1970s, as concern about wives being beaten by their husbands gained attention. However, awareness and documentation of domestic violence differ from country to country.
The response to domestic violence involves the courts, law enforcement agencies, social service agencies and correction/probation agencies. The role of each has evolved as domestic violence has been brought more into public view. Historically it has been viewed as a private family matter that need not involve government or criminal justice intervention. Police officers were often reluctant to intervene by making an arest and often chose instead to simply counsel the couple.
The courts were reluctant to impose any significant sanctions on those convicted of domestic violence, largely because it was viewed as a misdemeanour. Activism, initiated by victim advocacy groups and feminist groups, has led to a better understanding of the scope and effect of domestic violence on victims and families and has brought about changes in the criminal justice system’s response.
Lankan Justice System
Seeing a rapid rise in domestic violence, Sri Lanka passed the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 in 2005. The Act is designed to prevent domestic violence and is said to be gender-neutral. Here, the legal implication is that it is unbiased in the deliverance of justice. But, in reality, has this been the case? This question needs examining.
Another initiative taken by the Sri Lankan Criminal Justice System to prevent domestic violence was to make two amendments to the Penal Code. First was the Penal Code (Amendment) Act No. 22 of 1995 and the second was the Penal Code (Amendment) Act. No. 29 of 1998. Yet, despite the passing of these Acts, there has been a rise in domestic violence and by the year 2008, 64% of women were reported affected, which is cause for concern.
Judges have an equal responsibility to address the domestic violence issue. This point is made in the basic principles on the Independence of the Judiciary adopted by the Seventh United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held at Milan from 26 August to 6 September 1985. These were endorsed by UN General Assembly resolutions 40/32 of 29 November 1985 and 40/146 of 13 December 1985. Article 26 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also stresses the equality of persons, which statement is also made in the Constitution of Sri Lanka, in Chapter III, which address Fundamental Rights, under the component Right to Equality 12.
Yet, in the case of domestic violence, one wonders whether human rights and the equality component have been properly applied by the Sri Lankan Criminal Justice System, particularly in respect of the marginalized and vulnerable groups, specifically women.
Local And International Law
At this point, it would do well to see the relationship between international law and the Sri Lankan legal system. Generally in the world there are two legal systems – Monist and Dualist. Whilst Monist is more aligned towards international law, Dualist is not.
Sri Lanka follows the Dualist legal system. Yet, the enormous potential in international law cannot be denied. Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Domestic Violence Act is in line with Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is a relieving feature.
Medico-legal aspects – DNA and medical evidence in relation to victims of violence, play an equal role in delivering justice. Medical professionals, who have contact with abuse victims through medical visits, have a role to play in helping domestic violence victims. Many cases of spousal abuse are handled solely by medical professionals and do not involve the police. Sometimes cases of spousal abuse are brought into the Out-Patients Department (OPD), while many other cases are handled by family physician or other primary care provider. Doctors and other medical professionals are in position to empower victims, give advice, and refer them to appropriate services.
Role of Police
The law enforcement agency of Sri Lanka, which is the police, has its own Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) when it comes to responding and handling domestic calls. Generally, it has been accepted that if the alleged victim has visible (and recent) marks of abuse, the suspect is arrested and charged with the appropriate crime. However, that is a guideline and not a rule.
Domestic abuse lies in a grey area. Law enforcement officers have several points to consider, such as victim sensitivity, signs of physical abuse, Crime Scene Investigation (CSI), and so on. But in reality, are these points being considered, particularly victim sensitivity and carrying out CSI properly? These are questions worth examining.
What steps has the State Minister of Women and Child Development, Piyal Nishantha de Silva, taken to commemorate 16 days of activism to eliminate violence against women and girls this year? A basic question that is asked in this context is: What does a man know about women’s reproductive issues, enough to address and solve them? Talking of periods, there were downright vulgar exchanges taking place in parliament on the tax slapped on period pads.
The Ministry launched a new campaign, #enoughwiththeviolence on 25th November. The 16 days’ programme will be observed under the theme: “Orange the world: Fund, Prevent, Respond, Collect.” But ironically, when a male Road Development Authority (RDA) engineer perpetrated violence on a female subordinate the previous day, there was not even a whimper by the Ministry, leave lone a roar. Adding insult to injury the perpetrator was let off on bail! So much for justice for women. While the opposition took up the issue strongly, there was stony silence on the government side.
One would like to know, how much from the 2021 budget has been allocated to addressing the root causes of violence against women and developing strong safety nets to support women in violent circumstances? Is there is campaign to reduce violence against women and give hope to children that their mothers will be protected and kept alive to love and care for them? Will the citizenry be informed and educated about the zero-tolerance mechanism to prevent violence against women?
The Ministry press release states that the 914 emergency hotline will be launched in December 2020 and will link survivors to agencies, advocacy programs, referral pathways, microenterprise industries, Public-Private skills employment database matching and offer immediate help to extricate them from violent situations. Towards this end, the 24 Hour Hotline Operators will offer support, referral to victims and survivors, family, friends and professionals via an integration of the services available at both the Domestic Violence Unit and the Childcare and Protection Agency. Accordingly, nine Social Workers were trained through the Survivors Advocacy Program to offer emotional support and crisis counselling to victims of domestic and sexual violence and act on the victim’s behalf when necessary.
The release goes on to say that, there will be a collection of information and data. A multi-sectoral approach and critical partnerships with civil society organizations and other stakeholders will create the momentum to stop escalation of violence. A centralized database system will be developed in the first quarter of 2021 to facilitate information sharing and capture reports in a systematic manner to guide intervention and program and policy development.
Walk The Talk
Whilst all of the above measures/steps are heartening to note, what is more important is that all stakeholders must be involved in chalking out plans and the focus should invariably be on the victims themselves. Stakeholders who must walk the talk are: the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security, Law Enforcement, Judiciary, Medico-legal, Domestic Violence Unit and the Childcare and Protection Agency, Social Workers, those involved in Survivors Advocacy Program including Counselors, Civil Society Organizations and other stakeholders.
The government should make adequate budgetary allocations and bridge funding gaps, ensure essential services for survivors of violence during the COVID-19 crisis, focus on prevention, and collection of data that can improve life-saving services for women and girls.
The stony silence of the Ministry in the RDA official’s case and the fact that the alleged offender was let off on bail, do not offer much hope about the government’s doing the needful to end violence against women. In Sri Lanka, what is required more than anything else is a political will to implement its stated policies.
(The illustration at the top is courtesy Women and Media Collective)