Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 16 February 2014





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Rescuing women living in a brutal society

Lankan women are currently facing an escalation in brutal violence committed within the four walls of their homes. Whether it is marital rape, or emotional violence the sheer brutality of such violence has been so horrific, that it has prompted calls from the media, women activists, and non government organisations working for victims of domestic violence, as well as political leaders to call a halt to this surging wave of violence.

The victims of domestic violence are not confined to a single community, society, or district. They are spread across the country, from North to South, East to West, rural to urban. The perpetrators are not strangers to them. The majority are husbands, partners, in-laws and other close relatives. The causes may range from trivial to something more serious. The result; violent savage assaults on hapless women who cannot fight back.

Domestic violence is not a new phenomenon in this country. What is new and more frightening today, is that it has taken a more brutal form. As it continues with impunity, and the number of victims have risen significantly, what is disturbing is that only a few support centres are available to respond to the cries for help by these hapless women in their hour of need.

One of them is Women-in Need (WIN). This pioneer organisation created for this purpose in the mid 1980s, has been in the forefront of providing shelter, a half way home among other requirements to help women who have suffered from domestic violence.

The call for help comes at any time, says WIN lawyer and activist Sumithra Fernando. “A knock at the door of one of our crisis centres at midnight immediately alerts our counselling team of the urgency of the caller’s need for help, since few women in our society would venture out alone at that hour of the night unescorted.

Many of thee midnight callers would have found our address and run away from home without their husband’s knowledge to seek our help. So no sooner we hear them knock at our door our trained counsellors would be ready to welcome them and give them temporary shelter if needed in one of our half way houses”.

Last year, WIN had approximately 60,000 women (accompanied by children in some cases) calling at the doors of their nine crisis centres islandwide at different times of the day and night. “They were mostly victims of violence perpetrated on them by their husbands or partners,” says Fernando.

What shocks and horrifies even long experienced counsellors/volunteers is the extent of the brutality inflicted on these unfortunate women.

“There are signs of the severity of their wounds all over their bodies when they arrive at one of our centres”, say WIN sources. “Some have deep slashes on their faces, necks, hands, and legs. Others arrive with faces burned by a flaming log or even an iron by their husbands. Still others have been almost blinded by chilli powder thrown on them, while some have had acid thrown at them. If the wounds are serious, we usually take them to a state hospital to be treated. Since we now have a Counselling Desk at some of the hospitals, the women are thereafter counselled at these desks by our officers, and even given legal advice if they need it.”


The causes for such violence are complex. “They could vary from the very trivial to the more serious.”, says Fernando. A woman could have her face burned simply because she asked her husband for more housekeeping money, or her neck injured over a difference of opinion with regard to their child’s school. A woman who delays in offering her husband a hot lunch or tea the moment he demands it, can end up with hot water thrown at her.

“The sad thing is that all that violence could have been prevented if the husband and wife had sat down and discussed their issues in an amicable manner”, Fernando laments. “Unfortunately we still live in a male dominated society with husbands holding the reins on the domestic front no matter how educated his wife is, or how successful a career she has.

This imbalance of power between the two genders could be a contributory factor, although other factors like alcoholism must also be taken into account”. No matter what the causes are, she insists that no one should condone violence as a means to resolve a family dispute.

Although WIN and the few other centres that help such women are currently doing their best to help these battered women, it is clearly just not enough.

“The state must take on that responsibility. It should provide these women with the kind of support they require and protect them from violence in the future”, she says.


Despite the fact that violence against women is escalating rapidly, and Sri Lanka now has a Domestic Violence Act in place from 2005, the irony is that no national level survey on domestic violence has still been conducted.

So from where do those who quote various statistics on domestic crime on public platforms get their facts and figures? we asked another women’s organisation involved in research on women. According to those sources, they were based on mostly micro studies done at community, district and provincial level. These studies however were limited and the statistics were too varied to be hundred percent accurate.

To cite some examples: In the most recent study (2010) by Jayatilleke et al it was found that 36 percent wives between 15 and 49 years had experienced at least one episode of personal or sexual abuse during their lifetime, and 19 percent during the past 12 months. A WHO multi country study found the prevalence rate of domestic violence in Sri Lanka to be between 15 percent to 70 percent.

We asked lawyer and women’s activist, Shyamala Gomez who has dealt extensive with this issue for her comments.

“As you see these figures vary. Besides, some of them are targeted to specific groups of women such as pregnant women or women in the estate sector etc. Likewise the causes too can vary,” she said.

So what has brought on this rise in male aggression against women in general? Did it have something to do with the macho culture of our society?

Ms Gomes’s reply was “To some extent violence against women could be due to the fact that we still live in a patriarchal society where the husband holds the reins firmly on the domestic front. The fact that women are prepared to accept that subservient role also shows their passive acceptance to their subservient roles,” she said.

However, the growing violence may also indicate something more beyond that much touted excuse for male aggression.

“It may be a fall out of violence from the 30 year war against terrorism. That war did not affect just one region or one community. It affected the whole nation. All of us suffered from violence and that violent culture is probably still affecting us as the war has only just ended.” Other factors such as alcoholism and drug usage could also be related causes, she says.

Another significant reason could be the unhealthy example set by some of our own political leaders who also beat up their wives and continue to do so with impunity because no one stops them. “Those who look upto them may want to emulate them. Or feel that they too can get away with anything because the politicians do so”, she says.


So what do women who have suffered from brutal attacks on them by their own husbands, really need to stop this aggression?

“They need sustainable support structures which we sadly lack at present. They need proper trained counsellors who are committed to helping them. They also need many more crisis centres and half way homes able to look after them and even provide daycare facilities for their children if needed. They require alternative choices if they wish to separate from their husbands such as life skills training. So they can become self employed and not need to depend on financial help from their husbands.”

The police too need to take the whole issue of domestic violence more seriously, she says. “At present it is trivialised by the Police and even the Courts of law. For example, all Magisterial Courts have the power to give protection orders to safeguard women abused by domestic conflicts from further harm. But not all of them do so. So we need (the media and everyone else) to make them aware of this fact. We also need a change of attitudes among our menfolk. Existing laws can also be given more teeth.”

All that can be achieved to some extent if the state were to extend its fullest co-operation to helping these women, she says. “The state can play a key role if not the main role in taking on the responsibility of providing these women with shelters, half way homes, training in skills, daycare centres, and a whole lot more to make their lives better”, she says, echoing some of the sentiments of her colleague Sumithra Fernando.

What if the state refuses to take on that responsibility?

“Then the laws enacted to stop domestic violence will not be implemented properly. Those victims will not be able to move forward. And violence in general against women will continue indefinitely.

I only hope there will be more political commitment for improving these women’s plight, and most importantly that men’s attitude towards women will also change”, she says. When Women’s International Day falls next month, hopefully the fate of domestic violence will not be sidelined so that those who have been battered by husbands can live in hope again.


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