After decades of civil conflict, Sri Lanka has made enormous advances for women in terms of health and education, but a rising rate of violence against women has demanded extra efforts from activists in the south Asian country.
Multiple rights organizations have noted that violence against women worsened as a result of the civil war, which ended in May 2009.
In fact, Sri Lankan representative for the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) Lene K. Christiansen noted the trend back in 2008, before the end of the war: “The prevalence of gender-based violence is reported to be high and widespread, cutting across class, race, ethnicity and religion. While some positive measures to address gender-based violence through enactment of laws are in place, it remains hidden in the private domain, shrouded by a veil of silence and denial.”
Seven years later, Christiansen’s statement is still right on the mark. The Women’s U.N. Report Network says 30 percent to 40 percent of women in Sri Lanka today suffer from some kind of violence, while more than 60 percent of women across Sri Lanka are victims of domestic violence. Women are routinely harassed both verbally and physically when traveling by bus, train or even walking on the street.
According to a report by UNFPA last year, gender-based violence is especially prevalent in areas most affected by the conflict, but violence and harassment is pervasive across socioeconomic groups.
Women’s rights activists have repeatedly expressed concern that gender-based violence, which includes sexual violence and torture, is drastically underreported in Sri Lanka. Even where incidences are reported, activists say they are poorly investigated and not taken seriously by authorities. Many of these advocates have stepped up in recent years to push Sri Lankans to challenge these deeply rooted aspects of their society.
“People sometimes try to put the blame on culture … or use culture as an excuse,” said Chamathya Fernando, a 23-year-old activist against gender-based violence, in an interview with Humanosphere. “But I don’t think any culture would say they harass women or abuse children, so I think it’s the culture of silence, the culture of ignorance and impunity.”
Fernando is Sri Lanka’s coordinator for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts’ (WAGGGS) Stop the Violence campaign, which strives for a world where all girls are safe, valued and empowered. Fernando is one of 65 trainers rolling out an informal educational curriculum in Sri Lanka to help young girls and women start the conversation about gender-based violence and build the confidence and skills to take action.
By teaching young women and girls to recognize harassment as wrong, Fernando hopes to help foster a generation of women in Sri Lanka who can speak out for their own rights. But one of the biggest challenges for activists against gender-based violence in Sri Lanka is the strong social stigma that deters males from holding one another accountable for their actions and discourages females from seeking help.
A 2013 U.N. Survey highlighted this culture of silence throughout the Asia and Pacific region. Out of the 10,000 men surveyed from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, 50 percent reported using physical and/or sexual violence against a female partner. Nearly 15 percent had committed rape, 65 percent of which committed the crime on multiple occasions. But of all the men surveyed, only 5 percent said they had been convicted and jailed for their crimes, in part because Sri Lankan law only recognizes marital rape as a crime if the husband and wife are legally divorced.
Although Sri Lanka is not unique in its experience of gender-based violence, which plagues women around the world, a lack of data makes it difficult for activists to determine where the rates of violence are most prevalent and what resources are needed to foster change. Over the three years Fernando has worked with the WAGGGS campaign, however, the hopeful activist said she has already noticed more willingness from civilians in even the most conservative rural regions of the country to simply engage in conversations about gender-based violence.
“When I initially started, the response wasn’t very good. People were actually a bit reluctant to be open about it, or to speak about it freely,” she said. “But with time … I feel we see a little bit of change in attitudes of people, and also behavior.”