- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

LONDON This spring, guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran made a rare public appearance and announced his commitment to a peace plan to end nearly 20 years of civil war between his Tamil secessionist group and the Sri Lankan government.
But an even older war continues unabated with no peace plan in sight the prevalence of violence against women in that South Asian island-state.
Violence against women is both a public and private matter in Sri Lanka, says the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, a body of global experts that monitors whether governments are honoring their commitments to the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW),
The committee highlighted its concern over years of rape and sexual assault by government soldiers at police checkpoints against minority Tamil women when it reviewed Sri Lanka's record on women's rights in January.
Lalitha Dissanayake, secretary of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, who presented the country report, didn't dodge the charge, noting that government commitment to gender issues "had been challenged to the utmost" in conflict areas.
She added: "The government did not condone violence against women or human rights violations committed by security and police personnel."
While the civil war has largely been confined to the Tamil-dominated north, "everyone becomes part of a larger system of brutality," said Sharmini Fernando of the Home for Human Rights, a national nongovernmental organization that provides legal services for communities affected by the conflict.
But violence against women is not confined to the war Sri Lanka, the committee said, needs specific legislation to address violence behind closed doors.
Although violence affects women of every class and ethnicity, it is seldom reported, and it is not listed as an offense in the criminal penal code. Police officers are reluctant to make arrests, and courts will only issue restraining orders against a brutal husband if the wife has filed for divorce.
"Reporting such incidences to the police is futile unless there is a ready remedy," the authors of Sri Lanka's January report to the committee concede.
Marital rape is not recognized as a crime, except when the couple is legally separated.
The committee noted that women have enjoyed significant gains in health and employment, and that the government has put women's further advancement "on the country's political agenda." Sri Lanka is often cited as a South Asian success story. Its women were the first in Asia to vote; female literacy is nearly universal; and a higher percentage of girls and young women are in school than boys.
The age of marriage has risen, two-thirds of married women use some form of contraceptive, and birthrates the average number of children born to a woman have declined sharply to 2.4.
"To some extent, women have a good quality of life in Sri Lanka," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Sri Lankan lawyer who is the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women.
But the good life comes with strings attached. Sri Lanka remains conservative and patriarchal. Marriage is considered a private matter; the common perception is that men are superior.
Many Sinhalese Buddhist and Tamil Hindu women rationalize their predicament in terms of destiny. Rani, a 38-year-old mother of three who separated from her husband after 17 years of abuse, said: "I think it is my fate. I am paying for a past sin, what else?"
No national studies of violence against women have been conducted. However, police records from one year, 1996, show nearly 50,000 incidents of domestic violence were reported.
In a 1998 study of 200 lower-income women in the capital, Colombo, the Women In Need shelter found that 60 percent were physically abused by their husbands. The study also concluded that alcoholism is one of the leading causes of violence.
Abused women have few options, as parents and other family members may not welcome women fleeing their spouses.
Forty-year-old Ramini is separated from her husband. She and her three children stay with her mother. She says her husband, a heavy drinker, became violent the day after their wedding. But her siblings accuse her of "breaking up" her marriage.
"They say it is shameful for them," Ramini said.
When women seek help in the country's few shelters, workers may lecture them about the duties of wives. When they seek police intervention, they often run into a wall of indifference. Police of both sexes usually try to persuade a battered wife to return to her husband.
According to Shalani Premachandra, chief inspector of police in the Crimes Division of the Children and Women Unit, an average of 4,000 cases of domestic violence are reported each month, and nearly 80 percent are "settled" when the wife is persuaded by the police to drop charges.
Distributed by Panos Features, London

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide