By R. Jayaratne Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, a network of 26 organisations and a member of the Gender Based Violence (GBV) Forum held a joint event to mark International Women’s Day on 08 March 2013. It was based on the UN theme for 2013: “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end [...]


Time for action to end violence against women


By R. Jayaratne

Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, a network of 26 organisations and a member of the Gender Based Violence (GBV) Forum held a joint event to mark International Women’s Day on 08 March 2013.

It was based on the UN theme for 2013: “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women” and was aimed at eliminating violence against females by building awareness on the need to ensure the basic human right of females so that they could enjoy the same level of safety, dignity and empowerment that males enjoy in society.


Rape, the most serious act of violence committed against females, has sharply increased in our country over the past two decades despite the enactment of relevant laws. According to police judicial statistics, there were 665 rape incidents reported in 1990, 542 in 1995, 1397 in 2007, 1592 in 2008, 1624 in 2009, 1854 in 2010 and 1636 until November 30, 2011.

According to the American Medical Association (1995), sexual violence, rape in particular, is considered the most underreported violent crime. This is true anywhere in the world as a consequence of the social stigma attached to it and obstacles faced in proving the crime. Hence, the actual incidence of rape in Sri Lanka can be deemed to be much higher than the official statistics.

One of the most high profile rape cases pending for the past two years is the alleged gang rape of a Russian tourist in Tangalle and the concurrent murder of her companion, a British national, on Christmas Eve of 2011, allegedly by a prominent politician of the area and his gang. The case has not been resolved to date despite appeals by the British government over the past two years to expedite the case. It is evident that due to their political connections, the suspects were able to get bail despite the seriousness of the crime. Also, the suspension of the suspect from holding public office was withdrawn by the state after a brief cooling off period. The downplaying of such a serious crime carries adverse international repercussions concerning the rule of law in Sri Lanka and negative impact as a safe tourist destination.

In contrast to the above case, a doctor of Sri Lankan origin, practising in Australia, was sentenced in that country to three and half years in prison in 2007 and his medical license suspended for committing marital rape. Last week, he appealed to an Australian medical tribunal against the revoking of his license on the grounds that he did not rape his wife in the belief that a traditional Sri Lankan arranged marriage meant neither partner could refuse sexual relations. This case not only highlights negative cultural beliefs and excuses prevalent among Sri Lankan males but also serves to show the stringent level of punitive justice accorded to marital rape in Australia which our legal system needs to emulate.

Women's organisations held a march in Colombo to commemorate International Women's Day. Pic by M.D. Nissanka

Rape is defined in criminal law as a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse, which is initiated by one or more persons against another person without that person’s consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority or with a person who is incapable of valid consent, such as one who is unconscious, incapacitated, or below the legal age of consent.

When part of a widespread and systematic practice, rape and sexual slavery are recognised as crimes against humanity and war crimes. Rape is also recognised as an element of the crime of genocide when committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a targeted ethnic group.

Victims of rape can be severely traumatised; in addition to psychological harm resulting from the act, rape may cause physical injury, or have additional effects on the victim, such as acquiring of a sexually transmitted infection or becoming pregnant. Furthermore, following a rape, a victim may face violence or threats of thereof from the rapist, and, in some cultures, from the victim’s own family and relatives.

The World Health Organisation states that the principal factors that lead to the perpetration of sexual violence are:

  • beliefs in family honour and sexual purity;
  • ideologies of male sexual entitlement;
  • weak legal sanctions for sexual violence.

Rationalisation of rape

“Victim blaming” is a common accusation made by society which holds the victim of rape to be in whole or in part responsible for the crime on account of certain victim behaviours such as flirting, or wearing sexually provocative clothing. In most Western countries, the defence of provocation is not accepted as mitigation for rape. This attitude is prevalent in countries where there is a significant social divide between the freedoms and status afforded to men and women. Studies indicate that rape victims are blamed more when they are raped by an acquaintance rather than by a stranger. This seems to evoke the stereotype that victims really want to have sex because they know their perpetrator and socialised with him. The underlying message of this research seems to be that when certain stereotypical elements of rape are in place, rape victims are prone to being blamed or even blame themselves.

In our culture, many victims of rape are at a very high risk of suffering additional violence or threats of violence after the rape. These acts may be perpetrated by the rapist or by friends and relatives of the rapist, as a way of preventing the victims from reporting the rape, of punishing them for reporting it, or of forcing them to withdraw the complaint; or they may be perpetrated by the relatives of the victim as a punishment for “bringing shame” to the family.

A number of gender role stereotypes can also play a role in rationalisation of rape. These include the idea that power is reserved to men whereas women are meant for sex and objectified, that some women perversely desire violent sex and that male sexual impulses and behaviours are uncontrollable and must be satisfied. Since the vast majority of rapes are committed by persons known to the victim, the initiation and process of a rape investigation depend much on the victim’s willingness and ability to report and describe a rape.

In most cultures including ours, females are generally ashamed to report the crime as it carries a social stigma. As a consequence of the social stigma and ‘victim blaming’ attached to rape, false accusations by females are rare. Statistics show that, worldwide, only around 2% of reported rape cases are false accusations.

Attitude change

We live in a patriarchal society. The three arms of governance — the executive, the judiciary and the legislature — as well as the public administration, the services sector and the private sector are dominated by males whose attitudes and cultural beliefs colour their thinking concerning gender issues. Consequently, they play a significant role in taking responsibility, providing accountability and opinion making concerning gender related violence at all levels of society.

Consequently, males need to be gender sensitive and be conscious of their responsibility towards ensuring the rights, safety, dignity and empowerment of all females in society. They need to recognise that ‘gender equality’ through women’s empowerment has enormous socio-economic and cultural benefits which fuels economies to thrive by spurring productivity and growth. Any type of discrimination or violence against females violates the trust placed in them by society to foster gender equality.


Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), a landmark UN agreement. The Convention represents an especially significant document as it bans discrimination against women in all spheres of life and imposes on states the obligation to ensure de jure and de facto equality. It states that the principle of equal rights applies to all women, irrespective of their marital status.

The last UN Periodic Review of Sri Lanka’s implementation of CEDAW was conducted in February 2011.The recommendations of the review committee indicated a lack of political will on the part of the state in fulfilling its obligations under the Convention.

The committee on the CEDAW recommended, among others, that the state, within two years, should expedite the adoption of appropriate domestic legislation, ensure state responsibility for acts of discrimination by public and private actors, ensure that women are fully and equally involved in the law reform process and establish the National Commission on Women.

Specifically with regard to the elimination of violence against women, the Government was recommended to:

a) Give priority attention to combating violence against women and girls and to adopt comprehensive legislation to criminalise all forms of violence against women;
b) Carry out additional educational and awareness-raising trainings for the judiciary and public officials, in particular law enforcement officers, health service providers and social workers, community leaders and the general public so as to raise awareness and sensitisation that all forms of violence against women constitute criminal offense;
c) Take the necessary measures to provide support to victims of violence, including by improving women’s access to justice, and implement its decision to establish State sponsored shelters for victims of violence;
d) Extend criminalisation of marital rape regardless of judicial acknowledgement of separation; and
e) Take measures to prevent violence against women, investigate occurrences, prosecute and punish perpetrators;
f) Provide protection, relief and remedies, including appropriate compensation, to victims and their families; and
g) Decriminalise sexual relationship between consenting adults of same sex, and abide by the obligation of non-discrimination under the Convention.

A review of progress by civil society organisations in the implementation of the above recommendations is timely to ensure due discharge of state accountability.

Awareness building

The average Sri Lankan woman is not sufficiently aware of her gender rights and this lack of knowledge results in subservience to a patriarchal system of governance. Women need to know the critical importance of gender equality in their role as partners in development. This can be achieved through awareness building programmes at home, workplace and in schools. Women must also be enlightened not to allow themselves, under any circumstances, to be treated as sex objects or as the inferior gender which fosters a negative gender bias.

Men need to be sensitised not to take advantage of their dominance in a patriarchal society through discrimination, intimidation and violence against women. By nature, most females are physically, emotionally and culturally vulnerable to violence. Domestic violence perpetrated by males, as head of households, against spouses, children and domestic help usually leads to gender-related violence outside the home.

Hence, there is an urgent need to establish a positive attitudinal change among males and awareness building among females concerning gender equality as a basic human right and as a value adding feature to society. In the long term, it will eventually lead to a positive change in cultural norms and values resulting in the reduction of all forms of discrimination and violence against females.

The media and civil society organizations can and must play a leading role in building positive attitudes and creating awareness on the subject.

Accountability and social responsibility

As sexual violence is a crime which has far reaching consequences on all segments of society, the response to it must comprehensively include the Government, the public sector, the private sector, the media, religious institutions, medical services, educational institutions and civil society. Gender equality with requisite protection from violence can be facilitated through targeted action by state and private actors.

Responsibility and accountability can be expressed through public and private initiatives, individual approaches, health care responses, community-based efforts and actions such as:

a) Government: Display political will by expediting introduction of domestic laws in keeping with UN CEDAW and other conventions relating to gender based crimes.
b) Public and private sector:
i. Adopt international best practices for the promotion of gender equality and elimination of gender based violence.
ii. Introduce gender sensitivity check list to support policy formulation, decision making, governance, administration and regulatory functions.
c) Law enforcement: Sensitise personnel and systems to gender related crimes.
d) Medical services: Sensitise personnel and systems to gender related issues
e) Educationists: Awareness building and education of both sexes through formal and informal education
f) Sociologists and religious institutions: Introduce societal norms and values with the objective of countering gender based cultural prejudices.
g) Media: Formulate a code of ethics for all gender-related communications, particularly, in the field of advertising through the use of female stereotypes which can carry negative connotations.

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