9th January 1999

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Not just numbers on a chart

By Feizal Samath

More than 400 chil-ren were raped in Sri Lanka during the period January to September last year up from 271 cases in the same period in 1998.

Two hundred more cases of grave sexual abuse, sexual harassment and unnatural offences were directed against children during this period last year. The incidents of violence against children in the January-September period last year totalled 4,100 while gender-related violence totalled 39,498 incidents.

According to figures from the Police Bureau for the Protection of Women and Children, 307 women were raped in the January-September period last year, up from 221 in 1998.

These figures should make Sri Lankan society squirm but they remain more or less numbers on a chart ...with little being done to protect women and children other than changing or amending laws which sometimes don't work.

The Rita Jones rape case shocked and stunned the Sri Lankan public and prompted women rights activists to take to the streets in protest, resulting in quick prosecution of the culprits. But for years, women have been subject to violence - particularly women in villages - and have hidden their 'shame' rather that be exposed to a public hearing or bureaucratic trial.

In a recent study on the law's response to gender violence in Sri Lanka, two law teachers - Shyamala and Mario Gomez - say that violence against women has raised complex issues, many of which the law has not responded to, or responded only inadequately.

At a formal level, the law has recognized women's rights to a limited extent, stigmatized many forms of violence against women, and prescribed sanctions where those standards are breached. At a practical level, legal remedies have been difficult to obtain for women victims of violence and law reform has taken time to take effect. In recent years, the government has introduced sweeping new law reforms to tackle increasing crimes in society, particularly against women and children. But the fact is that police are too busy dealing with other issues like security and protection of politicians and the courts system is outdated or bureaucratic. Hence protection of the law is not denied, but delayed.

The Gomezs, in a well-documented report, illustrate these issues in detail. Fourteen victims of violence and women's activists, interviewed during this study, were unanimous in their view that the legal system in Sri Lanka was patriarchal and biased against women.

This report and other issues relating to violence against women and children will come into sharp focus this week when judges, lawyers and rights activists from Asia and the Pacific region meet in Colombo for a conference on human rights and equality (See accompanying box). The Gomez report says that it is in the criminal justice system that the biases of the law are most evident. Judicial attitudes to women victims of violence have been an obstacle to gender justice in this country. The biases of a largely male judiciary are evident in at least three areas of the law - the practice relating to the corroboration of the testimony of a victim of sexual abuse, sentencing a guilty person and judicial attitudes to the mitigatory defence of grave and sudden provocation, the report says.

It listed cases where rape victims found justice when their stories were corroborated and when their perpetrators went free when their story could not be confirmed.

It said there was no quibbling with the principle that corroboration of a witness's evidence may be required in certain situations. "But to start with the presumption that in all cases involving sexual abuse, the evidence of the woman victim is infirm and unreliable, is clearly discriminatory," the report noted.

The Gomez report deals in detail with the issues of consent in rape, saying the older approach of the law was that intercourse was rape if the act was committed "against the woman's will". It said the courts were now moving away from this position and focusing on whether there was genuine or real consent and was the woman a freely consenting party in the act of intercourse.

Referring to rape trials, the report noted that though Sri Lankan laws provided for a trial "in camera", this procedure was hardly used. The mother of a child rape victim, whose trial was in camera, was quoted as saying that "when the children were relating the incident, they (judge) would ask everybody else in the courtroom to leave."

"However, this served little purpose because the defence counsel would ask the questions so loud that anyone standing outside the courts could hear him. Even though we were standing quite far from the courtroom we could still hear our children crying and the questions put to them by the defence lawyer," the woman said.

Conference on gender equality in Colombo

An international conference on human rights and equality will be held in Colombo from January 11 to 14 to sensitise judges in the Asia and Pacific region towards the importance of gender equality, a conference statement said.

The meeting, in which issues like violence against women and children and the law would come under scrutiny, will bring together 50 judges, lawyers, women's activists and human rights experts.

Speakers will include Justice Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, Attorney General Sarath Silva, Appeal Court judge Shiranee Tilakawardene, Colombo University Vice-Chancellor Prof. Savithri Goonesekere and other local judges and activists.

The international panel of speakers includes Justice Albie Sachs of South Africa, Justice Claire L'Heureux-Dube and Justice Doug Campbell of Canada and Naina Kapur, director of a top women's rights group in India called Sakshi, one of the organizers of this meeting.

The conference, jointly organized by the New Delhi-based Sakshi and Colombo's Law and Society Trust and sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), is being held for the third time in the region.

Previous meetings were held in India in 1997 and Pakistan in early 1999.

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