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Behind Closed Doors: The Scourge of Domestic Violence in Sri Lanka

Ever heard of that old Sinhalese saying that goes “gedara randu batha idenakan vitharai”?  Loosely translated as “quarrels at home last only until the rice is cooked”, this catchy little proverb paints a picture of generally peaceful home lives in Sri Lanka, of cushy family units interspersed with perhaps small and harmless amounts of bickering, but otherwise largely tranquil. No doubt this makes for a pretty endearing representation of domestic life, but unfortunately, this representation is a far cry from reality.

If you were to take a passing glance at this idyllic pearl of an island, you will get no hint of the scourge of patriarchy that eats away at the society from within. After all, who would ever attribute patriarchy to the country which elected the world’s first female Prime Minister? Who would ever believe that female President Chandrika Bandaranaike was elected by a nation that favoured male supremacy? Who would ever guess that Asia’s first female ruler, Queen Anula, was produced by a nation which suffers from chauvinism and even misogyny? And let’s not forget the other great queens who once ruled over ancient Ceylon like Lilavathi, Sivali, and Kalyanavathi.

Sri Lanka made global headlines by electing Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the world’s first woman Prime Minister, yet we live in a society in which male supremacy flourishes and it is acceptable – normal, even – for a man to beat his wife. Image courtesy: thefamouspeople.com

This impressive list of female leaders tends to project a rather inaccurate image of a gender neutral, unbiased society in Sri Lanka. Strip away the layers of external impressions, however, and you will see a country where a vast number of women face regimes of terror in their own homes, suffering abuse at the hands of men they should be able to trust. People might argue that the situation here is not quite as dire as it is in neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan where it isn’t unusual to hear of women being murdered over trifles by their own male relatives, but that does not make the issue here any less grim. Violence against women in Sri Lanka is too common an occurrence, gender equality is only a distant dream, and behind the closed doors of their homes, women across the island silently suffer the horrors of domestic violence.

What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence (also called Intimate Partner Violence or IPV, battering, or family violence) is a pattern of abusive and threatening behaviour used to establish and exert power and control over another person in a domestic setting. Domestic violence can occur between parents and children, husband and wife, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or anyone at all in the domestic sphere, and can be physical, mental, emotional, sexual, or economic in nature. Though men can also fall victim to domestic violence, it is a well-established fact that the majority of domestic violence victims are predominantly women, with men often being the perpetrators of the abuse.

In our society, the news of a man beating up his wife will probably just elicit a shrug. “He’s a man,” they might say (as if a man was some superior species entitled to abuse and violence), or “It’s really none of our business,” or perhaps even something along the lines of “She was probably asking for it.” According to Savithri Wijesekera, Executive Director of Women in Need Sri Lanka, domestic violence is normalised and trivialised, and even deemed acceptable by people in our society. “Sadly, even the women believe that this is normal,” she said, speaking to Roar about the cultural attitudes towards this menace. “When they are first beaten, they tend to think that it is their fate or karma, or that they deserve it. They make excuses for their spouse, justify [the abuse] in their minds, and remain silent about it even when the beatings continue. Finally, it takes years and years of beatings and abuse before they come out ‒ if they come out all.”

All too often, the average Sri Lankan mindset is wired to see wife battery as neither aberrant nor despicable, but one of your typical shrug-inducing, everyday happenings that people hardly even notice. In our society, the common perception is that a man is entitled to chastise his wife in whatever way he sees fit. A woman who leaves her husband, or seeks legal redress against him on the basis of abuse is sometimes ‒ against all logic ‒ stigmatised by society and shamed. Families of victims cannot always be counted on for help due to that inexplicable “shame” factor, where it is somehow considered degrading for a woman to stand up for herself or walk away from an abusive partner. Divorced women and single mothers are often sidelined or labeled by the community. It is also widely considered to be the woman’s “duty” to keep the family together, regardless of how barbaric her spouse is or what kind of hellish environment she is living in.

The popular Sinhala saying “Gedara gini eliyata danna epa” – roughly translated as “The home fires should not be put outside” – basically implies that whatever happens in the house should stay in the house. It is this kind of attitude that makes many abused women remain silent about their plight. Image courtesy: thehuffingtonpost.com

These are the cultural ideologies inculcated in our men and women, beliefs so deeply ingrained in their minds that the prospect of changing these attitudes seems pretty bleak. The actual statistics available for women who have undergone domestic violence in Sri Lanka remain controversial, but Savithri Wijesekera believes that around 60% of Sri Lanka’s women have been subjected to domestic violence in their lives. The fact that 3 out of every 5 women have suffered abuse in their homes should by rights have the country’s leaders frenziedly searching for a solution, but we don’t really see anyone making any moves to curb this menace. “The policy makers and politicians in the country don’t really do much about the issue,” explains Wijesekera. “A few incidents are sensationalised every now and then, but everything dies down after a while and nobody talks about it anymore.”

Has Anything Been Done To Curb Domestic Violence?

Until the year 2005, perpetrators of domestic violence were completely immune to legal sanction. Incidents of abuse on the domestic front were considered “private matters” which should remain in the home, and did not warrant outside interference ‒ rather in alignment with that old Sinhalese proverb “Gedara gini eliyata danna epa” (which roughly translates to “the home fires should not be put outside”). In spite of the Women and Children’s desks established in police stations across the island, reports of wife battery were rarely, if ever, taken seriously. As for emotional abuse, such a concept was probably never even heard of, leave alone taken action against.

Sri Lankan women in a protest against domestic violence and rape. In Sri Lanka, even perpetrators of rape are rarely punished, with rape cases often pending for years before any action is taken – if any is taken at all. Image credit: Reuters/Landove/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The year 2005, however, saw Sri Lanka’s women’s rights movement achieve a major milestone. After much lobbying by women’s rights advocates and NGOs, the Government finally took a significant step forward towards securing women’s rights by establishing the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA). The PDVA focuses on the provision of security to the aggrieved party (or the victim) by way of an Interim Protection Order against the perpetrator. What’s more, the PDVA also recognises emotional abuse as an act of domestic violence, a giant leap for a country which, prior to this, barely even acknowledged the existence of physical battering.

However, the actual impact brought about by the PDVA has been rather disappointing.

It seems that the cultural ideologies that colour the people’s thinking have gone far too deep for mere legalities to bring about any key changes in the society. In spite of having been in existence for more than ten years now, the Act has proved to be weak and ineffective. According to academics, one of its biggest drawbacks is its gender neutrality. That sounds rather odd ‒ gender equality is what we are fighting for, after all ‒ but if you think about it, you will see that a gender-neutral law in a patriarchal society is irrational, futile, and highly unlikely to do much good, especially since the authorities themselves (police, courts etc.) are likely to hold patriarchal values or be biased against women. In fact, women are known to have an inferior legal status in Sri Lanka, and research shows that less than 1% of domestic violence victims actually seek protection under the PDVA.

Many victims of domestic violence prefer to keep silent about their abuse, fearing ostracism and social stigma. Image credit: 123rf.com

Another drawback is the fact that even though the penal code classifies violence as a criminal act, the PDVA does not criminalise the beating of one’s spouse; it only protects the victim by way of a Protection Order. No punishment is given to the perpetrator unless he violates the order, in which case he can be subjected to a one-year jail term or a small fine which isn’t really much of a deterrent. The fact that the Protection Order is valid for only a year is yet another weakness of the Act.

All that aside, it is imperative that the misconceptions and myths surrounding domestic violence are debunked for any significant progress to be made.

Busting The Domestic Violence Myths

Myth # 1: Domestic violence is only physical

One of the commonest misconceptions, but one which couldn’t be further from the truth. Contrary to popular belief, violence is not always flaunted in blood and bruises and broken bones. Few can even begin to imagine the emotional and psychological trauma a woman can suffer at the hands of an abuser, or the toll continuous degradation, subservience, or mental attacks can take on the well-being of any person. Policy makers are often known to neglect this facet of domestic violence, not realising that psychological abuse can be just as damaging as physical abuse ‒ and sometimes even more so.

Domestic violence can also be economical or ‒ more significantly ‒ sexual in nature. One of the most significant loopholes of Sri Lanka’s PDVA is its failure to include marital rape as a form of abuse, reflecting on the tendency of men to think that they are entitled to force themselves on their spouses whenever they want to. In fact, a CARE International survey conducted in Sri Lanka revealed that 67% of the women and 58% of the men who were questioned believed that a woman cannot refuse to have sex with her husband.

Myth # 2: Domestic violence has a higher prevalence among the low-income and less educated

Although it may seem as if the poorer and less educated people suffer domestic violence more than their high-income, better-educated counterparts, in reality, battering crosses all races, educational levels, economic classes and social positions. Domestic violence is just as likely to occur in a Colombo 7 mansion as it is in a daub-and-wattle village hut.

Myth # 3: Substance abuse is the root cause of domestic violence

Drinking alcohol and taking drugs does lower inhibitions and increase violence, but the root cause of domestic violence cannot be pinned on substance abuse alone. Many perpetrators simply use alcohol and drugs to excuse their abuse, and know exactly what they are doing when they hurt and abuse.

Myth # 4: Everything can be solved if battered women can just fight back or walk away

“Will my children suffer consequences if I leave?” Many women choose to stay with abusive spouses out of fear of losing their children, or doubts about their children’s future. Image courtesy: Wikipedia.org

What will people think? Where will I live? Will my children have a secure future? Will I shame my family? Is it my duty to keep my family together? How will I support myself and my children? Will I lose custody of my children?

These are some of the many questions that ricochet around the minds of women contemplating to leave abusive partners.

Walking away is never easy, especially in a country like Sri Lanka. Not many people understand the myriad interconnecting factors that might keep a woman tied down to an abusive relationship. These can include financial dependence, a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, fear of more violence, religious reasons, moral values, concern for one’s children, and a lack of alternative accommodation. In patriarchal societies like ours, cultural values dictate all actions, and issues like family pressure, lack of community support, and fear of social ostracism also come into play. “There is always a lot of social stigma attached to these things,” says Wijesekera. “Women often stay silent about abuse for years because of this.”

Do Sri Lankan Women Really Endorse Patriarchy?

It’s pretty hard to believe that women themselves would endorse male supremacy and allocate themselves the role of the docile, submissive, weaker sex, but like Wijesekera pointed out, this seems to be the alarming case in Sri Lanka. In fact, the aforementioned survey conducted by CARE International Sri Lanka in 2013 revealed this disturbing truth; in many aspects, Sri Lankan women are even bigger propagators of patriarchy than men.

According to the survey, in contrast to the 26% of men, 38% of women respondents agreed that ‘there are times or apt circumstances under which it is alright to beat a woman.’ While 59 % of the men refuted the view that ‘a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together,’ 58% of the women agreed to it, whereas 78% of men and 87% of women declared that ‘women should obey their husbands.’ 67.4% of the women agreed that a woman cannot refuse to have sex with her husband in comparison with the 58.2% of men who agreed. Perhaps most disturbing of all was the women’s attitudes towards rape: 75% of the women in the CARE sample were actually of the opinion that some women ask to be raped by the way they dress and behave, while 32% of them believed that a woman who is raped is usually to be blamed.

“There are three things that can be beaten: a drum, a dog, and a woman,” is an old proverb suggestive of centuries old sexist attitudes in Sri Lanka. That people can actually class a woman with a drum and a dog is both outrageous and despicable- and speaks volumes about our cultural attitudes. Image courtesy: ips.lk

And if that wasn’t bad enough, many of the country’s leaders seem to share the same sexist and misogynistic ideals which are so detrimental to society. For instance, Chulani Kodikara’s ICES research paper on domestic violence reveals that quite a number of MPs expressed reservations over the enactment of the PDVA back in 2005, holding the sanctity of family and culture above the well-being of women, and even referring to gender equality as a Western concept which is detrimental to cultural values. Another significant example of sexist thinking among Sri Lanka’s leaders was made at a Women’s Day celebration held in Hambantota in 2010, when the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is reported to have said: “We have introduced laws to bring relief to women. Sometimes I wonder whether these laws are excessive. Some laws from the west have been introduced in Sri Lanka. At first glance they seem very attractive. But Sri Lankan women occupy a high status based on our culture which is 2,500 years old and under current legal regulations, our cultural values are being weakened, while the legal bond has been strengthened.”

It is clear that some of the very highest powers of the country are stuck in a cultural bog, turning their backs on progress and improvement in the name of traditional values. It is also very clear that come hell or high water, the people are determined to stick to the old cultural ideologies ‒ no matter how detrimental or damaging to the country it is.

Wijesekera agrees that women’s rights organisations are sometimes seen as groups hell-bent on destabilising family life and promoting the “Western concept” of divorce. “This happens a bit less now,” she says. “People are getting a little more open-minded and talk more openly about these issues, but that stigma still exists.” What people don’t appear to realise is that a family plagued by violence is already a broken one, and that continuing to exist in such a vein can only serve to engender more violence. It’s a sort of vicious cycle ‒ each generation grows up imbibing the same misogynistic values of their parents, and then often proceeds to emulate the same type of behaviour as adults. And so it goes on and on, a never-ending circle of violence that can only end if the younger generations are brought up to love and respect each other, to live with the knowledge  that all people are equal, and that every man, woman, and child has the right to live in a world free of violence and abuse.

Featured image courtesy: quotesgram.com

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