15th February 1998


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Oh! to walk freely and talk freely

By Sirohmi Gunesekera

"About 74% of the 109 Indian judges we interviewed said they would keep quiet if their daughters were violated," revealed Ms. Naina Kapur, a young lawyer from the Punjab who is the driving force behind "Sakshi" (Witness), a Violence Intervention Centre based in New Delhi, India.

What is "Sakshi"? "Sakshi emerged from a process of questioning which started several years ago, when two women began to confront the silence that shrouds sexual violence. All women have faced some form of sexual violence or the other, yet it continues to be the more silent and ignored form of assault. Children are the most tragic victims, but in a society which places greater value on female chastity than her security and freedom, even children are forbidden to speak. Sakshi started as a small effort to make a difference, to open a few doors for speech, expression, protest and outrage."

The Asia Pacific Advisory Forum on Judicial Education on Gender Equality Issues has spearheaded the call for change and Ms. Kapur was in Sri Lanka recently to address the Consultative Meeting on Gender and Judges Project sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute on January 25 the meeting was an interaction between lawyers in Sri Lanka and representatives of non-governmental organisations.

Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Rapporteur of Violence Against Women said, "We need data on cases of rape and domestic violence in order to analyse and we need legal research apart from changing attitudes. Judges blame the criminal justice system and police investigations but we must look at it in a holistic way".

A representative from CIDA said that violence against women was a world problem; "There was a judge in Vancouver who said that a three-year-old child had behaved in a provocative way."

Mr. Asoka Mahadiulwewa, an experienced lawyer from Anuradhapura, observed, "Girls often complain of being let down by men. I see a total breakdown of the family system. Young people do not realise the responsibility of marriage, especially young men. They no longer treat the woman with respect. Wife battering is not a crime in Sri Lanka." Said Ms. Manouri Muttetuwegama, a leading lawyer, "As a woman when you try to do something, it sets up a whole lot of complicated things going on inside a man. We have to be aware that he thinks, 'woman' first and then listens to what you have to say."

Ms. Srijata Sanyal, a sociologist attached to "Sakshi" said, "I have always felt powerless. I am afraid to take a cab at night. If I go to the police station regarding a protest against violence, I'll be laughed at or judged. Maybe I should grey my hair and then I would be listened to."

Naina Kapur said there was much violence that was not recognised as violence such as being slighted or belittled. She said that in their survey of Indian judges, she found that 49% felt that one slap to the wife was alright. "The man does not feel it is violence because he is used to thinking that it is okay to hit". The Sri Lankan law books endorse this view allowing for "moderate chastisement".

Ms. Sanyal said frankly, "I have short hair. I move about alone and I smoke so I am not viewed as a good woman. It is very easy to place a woman as either a goddess or a dirty vamp with nothing in-between. Besides, I don't fit the traditional idea of good looks so I grew up feeling not good enough. "

Ms. Kapur opened out the discussion about inequality by saying that it was important to recognise differences; "As a woman, if I become pregnant, I have the right to expect childcare facilities in my workplace." She also pointed to the importance of freedom of expression which included the freedom to dress in any way one chose.

The consensus was that there should be right to informed choice, to pursue happiness, to freedom from discrimination, to be an individual and to be worthy of respect. It was felt that restrictions, attitudes, stereotypes and conditioning prevented women from enjoying their full rights.

The Supreme Court of India on August 13th 1997 gave a verdict endorsing the guidelines prescribing sexual harassment at the workplace and other institutions. This covered physical contact and advances, demand or request for sexual favours, sexually coloured remarks, display of pornography and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.

So perhaps it is time, employers and others in Sri Lanka took up the challenge so that a woman may walk and talk freely by day and night. Is it too much to ask?

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