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Policy makers need awareness. concern and direction in solving violence against women, says Radhika Coomaraswamy
In her unpretentious office off Kynsey Terrace, Radhika Coomaraswamy sets about her tasks, with a calm practicality.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women has a quick charm of manner that is at once appealing. Two years have passed since her appointment to the post by the UN Human Rights Commission.
"The news came as a tremendous shock at that time" Coomaraswamy confesses.
"I think it was primarily the NGO Women's lobbies who were responsible for this," she says.
The post is prestigious. It is also volunteer, a fact that is not as well known. The Rapporteur functions with assistance from the UN Center for Human Rights but financial constraints are just one of the many difficulties that Coomaraswamy has to cope with in her work.
The other is the intense politicization of the issues that she has to deal with. This is inevitable given the nature of her task. As special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Coomaraswamy has a three- fold mandate. She is required to work:
(a) On annual reports on general issues relating to gender violence to be submitted to the commission, (b)To make field visits to various countries to investigate specific issues of violence and (c) Receive allegations of gender violence from particular individuals and to communicate with the government on these allegations.
Much depends on her powers of persuasion and individual rapport with states. She smiles wryly when asked about how the response has been so far. "That is a story in itself," she says. Only one quarter of the total number of member nations of the UN have replied to her requests for information. One of the most populous countries in the world had responded with a three-page hand-written letter while another government seemed to feel that they had no incidents of domestic violence in their country at all. Some responses however ran to ten volumes, containing detailed reporting on specific issues. In the absence of government information, she has to rely on other sources such as non-governmental bodies and the media.
In her report submitted to the Commission this February, Coomaraswamy outlines some of these problems that she has to contend with. She also deals with various manifestations of domestic violence in different countries. This includes women battering, marital rape, incest, forced prostitution, violence against the girl child and violence against domestic workers. Sri Lanka comes for special mention with regard to female migrant workers.
Coomaraswamy points out that increasing unemployment and poverty in countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia lead women to seek employment abroad. At least 50 percent of the over 10 million Asian migrant workers are females. The hardships they undergo are legion. In Kuwait for example, a reported 2,000 women domestic workers sought refuge in their embassies alleging abuse and torture between the period March 1991 - August 1992.
Sinhala Bolaes's story is a case in point. Here, a twenty-year-old Sri Lankan woman was admitted to the Al-Razi Hospital on April 1992. Her story was that her employer had detained her in one of the rooms in the house and raped her. She had then been thrown off the balcony and had landed on the ground - several storeys below. Medical injuries corroborated her story. Despite an initial investigatory report by the hospital based police and requests by non-governmental organizations to investigate the matter, Kuwaiti authorities appear to have taken no action against the victim's former employer.
Coomarawamy points out that in some countries, the laws are defined explicitly to deny domestic migrant workers any relief. Kuwait is one example only. What normally happens is that recruiters or the employers confiscate the passports of domestic workers, thus preventing them from leaving the country. This is completely contrary to international norms, states Coomaraswamy. She calls on all states to ratify and comply with the ILO Convention on the rights of migrant workers. This gives workers the right of preview of contract of minimum wages, payment of cash at regular intervals, maximum hours of work and social security and welfare benefits at least equal to those of the nationals of that country.
"The silence that surrounds violence against female domestic workers arises partially out of the unwillingness of both the sending state and the receiving state to accept responsibility owing to economic benefits that come from migrant workers. It is also due to the lack of documentation regarding these instances," she says.
Apart from focusing on general issues of violence against women, Coomaraswamy had certain priorities in mind when she assumed duties in July 1994. These included - investigating gender based violence in times of armed conflict, trafficking and prostitution in women and traditional practices harmful to women such as female gender mutilation.
For her first report on a specific issue, she decided to focus on the controversy surrounding women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during World War II. Girls as young as fourteen years old were abducted and kept in military brothels specially established for this purpose. Rather ironically termed "Comfort Women" they were raped by twenty to thirty soldiers a day and were beaten and tortured. Many died in these torture camps. Coomaraswamy points out that she decided to report on these women for several reasons. First, she felt that the choice was appropriate, given the fact that she had been appointed to her post on the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Moreover, many felt that the Government of Japan was ready to make amends for the outrages committed as part of a deliberate government policy at that time. Importantly, the case of the Japanese comfort women served as a likely precedent for more recent cases of war time rape in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Haiti.
Accordingly, Coomaraswamy travelled to South Korea to hear testimony from about 20 former comfort women, now in their seventies. Two hundred women have now come forward. The actual members are in the tens of thousands. Their stories were heart-rending. The military brothels in which they were kept were well guarded and patrolled. Their movements were closely monitored and escape was almost impossible. Any attempt at escape or even resistance was met with the most brutal savagery and death was a common-place occurrence. The end of the war brought no relief to a large proportion of these women since many were killed by the Japanese troops who feared that they would be an embarrassment to the advancing American army. In one case, seventy such women were killed in one night.
What distinguishes the story of the comfort women is that, their fate was a result of a deliberate official policy by the Japanese Government. This has been proved beyond doubt by official records come to light after the war. Soldiers were in fact encouraged by their commanding officers to use 'comfort women' facilities rather than civilian brothels. This was reportedly meant to stabilize the psychological well being of soldiers, so as to prevent looting and rape during conquest as well as to protect them from venereal disease.
In her report submitted to the Commission in early 1996, Coomaraswamy restated the international principle that rape is a war crime under international law. She called upon the Japanese Government to take moral and legal responsibility for the plight of these women and stated that compensation should be paid to them. Her recommendations were not received with much favour by Japan.
"I was wrong in my assessment that the Japanese government would be ready to make full amends," says Coomaraswamy, "They have strong domestic compulsions that limit them."
She points out that precedents do exist for instances like this. Germany, for example, paid compensation to American prisoners of war while the United States apologized and paid compensation to the Japanese interned during the war.
Japan has however accepted moral responsibility and has set up a private fund to compensate former comfort women. In mid August this year, the first payments were made to four such women in the Philippines. Many, however, have refused payment. They argue that using private money rather than government funds, allows Japan to evade responsibility. Some of these women are now financially supported by their governments. They have formed themselves into powerful lobbies, particularly in the Philippines and Korea. 'Comfort women brothels' existed in Taiwan, Borneo, Singapore, Malaya, Burma, Indonesia and China as well. There are signs that now the Chinese are bestirring themselves in protest.
Subsequent to her report on comfort women, Coomaraswamy has also reported on trafficking and prostitution in Poland and domestic violence in Brazil. Both reports will be released shortly.
She comments that the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women by the UN is timely since it indicates the importance given to the topic.
"But this is only an ad hoc mechanism. It involves a little troubleshooting here and intervention there. It is not a systematic effort to deal with the problem," she explains. She suggests the setting up of an independent fact finding tribunal that has justifiable powers and is manned by internationally reputed and competent persons.
"When individuals are appointed, there is always the possibility of them being used and manipulated by states playing international power politics. This possibility is less in the case of a tribunal," she says.
She identifies the other grave defect as being the fact that there is no international Covenant on the elimination of violence against women. At present, there are calls for the amendment of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to include provisions that deal with gender-based violence. Extensive lobbying is now underway to push through these changes.
Coomaraswamy supports the formulation of a universal standards of norms that determine in a most basic manner how women should be treated. Once this is accepted, diversity could be allowed for cultural or religious reasons, she says. For example some argue that female genital mutilation should be allowed for cultural and traditional reasons. But this is a practice that, quite apart from being extremely painful, debilitates the victim. It is not a surgical procedure like male circumcision.
The practice should be minimized both by criminalizing it and by putting into effect, effective health and educatory measures. Coomaraswamy, however, allows for a rational balance, in that she says that while a basic set of universal values should be adopted by all states, world institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations should also be more sensitive to the concerns of developing countries.
Coming down to a mere domestic level how does she feel about the manner in which Sri Lanka has handled her gender concerns? What about this complacency that we are much better off than our counterparts in the region? Coomaraswamy pauses for a while before responding.
"Well, it has to be acknowledged that regionally, we are somewhat higher than the other countries," she says thoughtfully. As the UNDP Human Development Index for 1996 which was released recently shows, Sri Lanka leads the South Asian region in gender-related issues. In all women's issues from education to income and health, Sri Lanka is sixty second in line while India ranks hundred and third. Pakistan has been marked hundred and seventy while Bangladesh is hundred and sixteen. Then again, the index showing women in management and politics also indicates Sri Lanka coming out top in the region tho' a disappointing seventy fifth internationally. Interestingly Bangladesh is right behind, being seventy seventh in line with India and Pakistan tagging far down the index.
Regional comparisons however, accomplish only little. Internationally, Sri Lanka still has a long way to go. And the extent of our gender-related problems are becoming more and more apparent. Quite apart from the now explosive topic of female migrant workers, other issues of gender based violence need investigation. Women In Need (WIN) studies record an appallingly high rate of domestic violence while surveys have shown that incidents of incest too are high. In this sense, complacency is quite inappropriate, notes Coomaraswamy. What is needed is awareness, concern and direction on the part of our policy makers. One cannot agree with her more.
Who is Siripala?
After Ian Healy's glowing praise of Siripala, at the awards ceremony of the Singer World Series Cup final last Saturday, all of Sri Lanka was eager to know more about this mysterious man. The Aussie skipper in his speech paid this glowing tribute, Ò I would like to make mention of one person," Healy said. "That one person is Siripala, our room man. That fellow, he's the best worker we've ever seen. He's the Sri Lankan volunteer who worked for us. So we'd like to thank Siri once again."
The statement was telecast live all over the country. And the question- Who is Siripala, or Siri as Healy fondly referred to him ?
He is an odd job man at the Cricket Board, who was in charge of seeing to the needs of the team from Down Under during the recent tournament. As much as the Australians thanked the man for his services, Siripala has a lot to thank the Aussies for. Before they left, the entire team put together a collection and gave him money - 1,300 dollars - to build a house. But more importantly, the Aussies made little Siripala a big man. They left him enough mementos to remember them by and a sense of pride of being rewarded for a job well done. They even asked him to write often on the progress he's making on the house.
Siripala lives with his wife and nine year old little daughter in a one room shack built on a 13 perch property they bought two years ago. In the little hamlet of Welmilla in Bandaragama, their house borders the Kalu ganga and spreading rubber estates. It is from here that Siripala travels to work almost daily.
"When he has to look after teams in the dressing rooms during a match, he stays in Colombo," his wife, Indrani Chandralatha infomed us. Unfortunately it was one of those days that we chose to visit their homestead . Siripala had stayed that night in Colombo because of the ongoing test series between Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, and we could not meet him at home. On the wood-plank walls of their little home, there were posters of the Aussie cricketers, table stands, wall plaques, calendars all depicting the players of the Australian team. The "house" had only one room, which was a bedroom cum sitting room and a small makeshift kitchen outside.
But there was promise. In the garden area outside, a newly laid foundation for a larger house was evident as were stacks of cement bricks ready to be built into walls.
Siripala's friendship with the Aussie team was not a recent affair. During the 1994 Singer tourney, the Australian team became firm friends with the man and then too taking pity on his living conditions, donated some Rs. 17,000 to him. "This money we used to lay the foundation," Chandralatha said. When they came down this year, both the Australians and Siripala would have been very pleased to have been put together again. On a rest day between matches, the Aussies visited the house with Siripala.
"When they came here I was making bricks to build the house," said Chandralatha herself makes the cement bricks for the house. "They spent about two hours here, enjoying themselves thoroughly," she said. The team, had managed to fit in the visit to their tightly packed schedule, arrived in two hotel cars to Siripala's abode. They had then walked to the Kalu ganga and enjoyed a refreshing king coconut drink, straight from the tree. Five team members had come, but Chandralatha clearly remembers only Steve Waugh, for whom she was all praise.
At the end of the tournament, the team had given the money to Siripala and asked him to start building his house. They had also left their yellow and green cricket jerseys with Siripala, which the wife had washed and hung out to dry, when we visited the house.
"They are very nice people," Chandralatha said. "Whatever other people may say about the Australians, I can say that they have very good, noble qualities."
Why, we asked, were the Australians so taken up by this one man ? "He is so honest," the wife said. "He will not even bring home a pin from the Cricket Board." She explained that the Australians trusted him so much that they left him in charge of their valuables and he carried their heavy luggage everywhere. "He is too honest," she smiled.
It was probably the reason why Siripala had to go through so much hardship in his life. According to his wife, Siripala was a sweep ticket seller on the pavement, when a kindly soul gave him the job at the Cricket Board. There he has been for the last 14 years.
"We had no place to live- we were like gypsies moving around all the time," Chandralatha remembers. Ò Then I went to the Middle East for two years, leaving my daughter with a relative, and saved up enough to buy this plot of land."
But in the end, Siripala's honesty and diligence in his job paid off well. Because of it he formed a bond so strong with a cricket team, whom most Sri Lankans would prefer to boo at. When The Sunday Times, finally caught up with the man, he was indeed though rather reluctant to reveal much about his association with the Aussies. He has helped with many foreign teams, he says, but adds that the Aussies were special. "They played with little boys from the neighbourhood when they came to my home," he said. And now at long last he will be able to begin building his own house- and more importantly, he can be proud of acting so well as an ambassador of good will between the Sri Lankan public and the Australian cricket team.
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