17 September, 2021

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A Study On The Rise Of Domestic Violence Against Women In Sri Lanka During The Lockdown

By Minoan Gamage and Rochelle Tummodara –

The past year has been regarded as ‘a shared human experience’ that perturbed the daily lifestyles of every person alike, as countries around the world staggered to strive at the wake of the novel Coronavirus. A major outcome of it being the normalization of lockdowns and quarantine which limited the lives of people to their homes. This, has eventually led to many communities to become vulnerable, causing another crisis which is, the rapid increase in the rate of domestic violence against women. The Sri Lankan take on tackling this crisis apart from the employment of the traditional 24-hour helplines shows lesser steps being taken to aid women subject to domestic violence in comparison with other countries of the Asia-Pacific. Although this crisis has been a major topic of concern in the recent past there seems to be a gap in the implementation of protective measures to tackle this situation and help women. Thus, this research aims at shedding light on the increase in domestic violence against women during the lockdown, the causes for this rise and the possible actions that could be taken to mitigate this situation. The research has been conducted in the context of Qualitative, Analytical and Emperical research formats in order to provide a broad view on the matter at hand.

Introduction

“…COVID-19 would unleash not just one pandemic, but two – the first an infectious disease and the second skyrocketing violence against women and girls as lockdowns confined people at home”[1] 

Out of a population of 51.6% Sri Lankan females at least, 20.4% of them were reported to be subject to domestic violence according to the Women’s Wellbeing survey conducted by the department of Census and Statistics in 2019.[2] Unfortunately these numbers has only been increasing during the lockdown due to a variety of reasons ranging from, women being confined at home with their perpetrators, stress due to loss of jobs, addiction to alcohol, stress due to financial difficulties. The gravity of this situation has only been further aggravated due to help centres reaching capacity leaving women and girls no help and nowhere to go at the face of this harsh ill treatment. Such violence stemming at the wake of the pandemic lockdowns has made fear reign the lives of countless women around the island. It is therefore of evident that it is of utmost importance for Sri Lanka to make changes to create a safer environment for women. Thus, this research primarily aims at, analysing the severity of the situation of domestic violence in Sri Lanka during the era of the lockdown along with the most imminent reasons for this rise and the possible steps that could be taken to manage this situation especially during the lockdown.

Discussion

According to the United Nations Organization, “violence against women includes“any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”[3] The most common type of such violence is ‘domestic violence’. The root causes for such violence stems from a variety of factors such as, inequality between men and women in relationships, community factors such as strict social norms on patriarchy which gives women less freedom, high levels of poverty, interpersonal factors such as the addiction to drugs on the side of male parties, childhood experiences of witnessing violence in families, mental disorders, and many other reasons.

In Sri Lanka, domestic violence is primarily governed by Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 2005. As stipulated in section 23, domestic violence, includes the physical or emotional harm done by the spouse, ex-spouse or cohabiting partner to the other. Section 2 states that the aggrieved party could file for a Protection Order from a Magistrates court at the face of such ill treatment. However, a retrospective view of 2020 reflects the near impossibility for women to report such violence, as a result of being confined to their homes during the lockdown.

When a 26-year-old woman covered in bruises and heavily bleeding out of an assault of domestic violence, enters the General Hospital of Sri Lanka, the nurse who tended her and listened to her story, narrates it as such. She had known her husband for many years before their marriage but, the violence started afterwards behind closed doors. Her parents were willing to help her get a divorce but that, was when the lockdown was imposed, and she was beaten up every single day by her husband. Unable to bear the pain, she devised an escape plan with a friend but, was caught. Infuriated, he cut her with a kitchen knife after which, the neighbours rushed her to the hospital, and he was taken by the police. After confiding her tragic story in this nurse, she says, “miss, I finally have the courage to report this, that’s when I ended up in hospital. How will I ever get over this fear of being alive?” [4].

On an ordinary day the accident service of the General hospital has at least 300 patients who report for treatment, out of which, 3-5 of them are victims of domestic violence. During the lockdown there has been at least 100 patients reporting for treatment and 10 out them were specifically women subject to domestic violence[5].

“They say, fear is an emotion, it can’t be seen but can only be felt…”[6] but this, isn’t always true. The brutal violence and most traumatically, the silent suffering and the deep scars women carry around quietly, is a depiction of this dark harrowing truth behind the veil of the pandemic lockdown that has plagued Sri Lanka in the recent past.

A part of curing this vicious cycle lies in analysing the causes that triggers such violence. 

Being confined with perpetrators during the lockdown – The lockdown policy imposed by the government as a measure to combat the novel coronavirus has inevitably placed women at the grip of their perpetrators exposing them to increased domestic violence, leaving them with little or no hope of escape. According to a graphical representation on the severity of lockdown policies compiled by the Oxford Coronavirus Government Response Tracker, Sri Lanka ranks ‘twelfth’ out of forty countries in Asia-Pacific region[7]. This signifies that Sri Lanka has had lockdown measures which were relatively intense. As a result, the chances of women being confined at homes with their perpetrators for a prolonged time has also been one reason for the surge in numbers of domestic violence rates. 

Stress due to the loss of jobs – “The World Bank estimates that between 88 million and 115 million people globally could slip into extreme poverty in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, with almost half of them living in South Asia”[8]. One main reason for this phenomenon is the loss of jobs. While the rate of unemployment remains underreported due to the negative economic impact from the pandemic Sri Lanka, has reported an estimated 160,996 loss of jobs in the employment sector as of March 2020[9]. This type of situation generates stress over the inability to manage household finances, social stigma, and many other factors. Such stressful situations leads to ascertaining power through domestic violence. Another factor is that, along with female unemployment, women are made more dependant on their spouses or partners. This financial dependency makes it often difficult for a woman to leave her abuser putting them in added exposure to domestic violence amidst the lockdown.

Increased consumption of alcohol – “Alcohol consumption is often cited as a precursor to abusive behaviour and particularly to domestic violence”[10]. This is primarily because, along with the stress due to financial difficulties and even the fear of contracting the virus, which is stressful, most often people tend to turn to coping mechanisms such as alcohol. This coupled with, people being compelled to drink at home due to closed bars and restaurants, places women at a higher risk of domestic violence while adding to the danger women face in living with an abusive partner addicted to alcohol.

Breaking the stigma surrounding reporting domestic violence

Strict social constructs and views pertaining to ‘purity of women’ often prevents them from wither not reporting domestic violence or reporting such cases too late. This is primarily because, such puritanical norms upholds that a woman must protect her purity at all costs and this at times includes even bearing harsh domestic violence and even at times the so called ‘honour’ violence, very strict and conventional notions of protecting the honour of the family by not reporting such violence and practises such as preventing women from having connections with communities around then. Such practises instils fear in women prompting them to silently suffer domestic violence contributing to the rise in numbers.

As Sri Lanka, like every other country settles down to normalize “lockdowns” and “quarantine” we have also, spontaneously taken measures to help women who face domestic violence amidst the era of lockdowns.   

The Women’s Development Centre (WDC) which is a women’s organization that serves in a variety of areas ranging from, Monaragala, Anuradhapura, Matale and many other areas has played a phenomenal role in uplifting and supporting women during the past era of lockdown. They have been fulfilling their essential services, working daily and even 24 hours a day to help women in need. It has also been helping affected families economically by providing them with groceries, medical requirements, and other essentials. 

Janaki, a mother of two works as a Programme Officer at the Women’s Development Centre in Kandy, where she responded to several calls of survivors.

“WDC faced a unique issue. We had to receive special support to transport pregnant survivors of violence to the hospital through the assistance from the 1990 government ambulance service, which was useful …”[11]

Apart from such measures, Sri Lanka has also upheld the traditional approach of strengthening access women have to the Women in Need Helpline and the Women’s Helpline governed under the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs. “United Nations Agencies have issued guidelines for governments and security officers on how to respond and to take actions against violence. More Emphasis is given towards spreading the word of mouth which expands the capacity of a person to reach out for help.”[12]

However, as help centres and health care units struggle to manage the pandemic situation, certain places have become understaffed, completely full and even closed down trapping women with their abusers or simply leaving them with absolutely nowhere to go.

Recommendations

Although Sri Lanka is no longer under lockdown, the violence has been done and it only continues, adding to this, is the inability of help centres to help women any longer making it crucial now more than ever, to make changes to cure this vicious cycle in ways possible. 

Recognize women’s help centres as essential services

When Women’s Help Centres are recognized as ‘essential’, it ensures that in-person operations would continue even as parts of the economy closes down amidst the pandemic. This is very crucial and helpful for women who are forced to flee their homes during this time due to domestic violence. Furthermore, as an employee of the Women’s Development Centre states, Once we transported the client, we no longer had access to the transport to return back to the shelter, which put shelter matrons in vulnerable situations especially given the restriction of movement.”[13] However, if such shelters are deemed as ‘essential services’ there would be a chain of transport arranged to transport victims and helpers to and fro. In order to fulfil this step, policy makers should consider gender specific matters when articulating their initiatives to respond to the pandemic.

Employ unused buildings to accommodate more victims

One other burning problem faced by such help centres is the lack of space and thus the inability to accommodate both victims and staff. A solution to this could be to use schools and hotels which are closed down during the lockdown to accommodate the rising number of victims under safe social distancing policies as well. This requires the coordination of local governments and local businesses. This approach was employed in Moscow, Russia where, empty hotels were repurposed to create extra shelters.[14]

Expand awareness and access to law enforcement against domestic violence

The police and law enforcement could be trained to regard fleeing victims during a lockdown as an exception to violating lockdown rules. In addition, they could be trained to identify fleeing victims and direct them to the relevant help they should get. This ensures that women could still leave their homes and escape domestic violence during the lockdown and that they would also be given the support needed. This coupled with prompt action taken against such violence in the form providing virtual legal advising services, extending protection orders given to women would ensure a safer environment for women to live in even amidst a lockdown. 

“…in Somalia UNDP is supporting communities, in developing neighbourhood watch systems where each other receives training to regularly patrol their neighbourhood in order to avoid incidents of violence. In Mexico in collaboration with UN women, have taken action in establishing phone and online platforms in order to serve vulnerable women via LUNA centres which are considered as safe spaces for women and girls. In Botswana various community members inclusive of school principals’, tribal chiefs, farmers, nurses are raising awareness regarding violence and advising the government on village’s issues and needs…”[15]

Eliminate the stigma surrounding reporting domestic violence

Various cultural and societal norms compels women to either report VAW late or not at all. The stigma surrounding the notion that if a woman admits that she has been subject to domestic violence she would bring shame upon the rest of her family, is one major reason why women suffer in silence. Although, a policy implementation regarding this step could be initiated in the long run, it is important that governments engage with communities to assess this situation and plan out the necessary implementations.

Contriving more innovative methods of preventing violence

The use of technology to report violence is one of the safest and most effective ways through which women could report violence without giving themselves away. “In India, the Red Dot Initiative asks women to use a red ‘bhindi’ as a distress signal, and in Kazakhstan shop owners are warned about a code phrase, the pronunciation of which signals the incidence of domestic violence and the need to inform the police immediately.”[16] In addition to these, women and the general public has been provided and made aware of coded signals women can use and communicate to helplines to notify that they are in trouble while leaving their abusers unaware that they are reaching for help. Further, “in Mexico UNDP, in collaboration with UN Women, is helping establish phone and online platforms to support vulnerable women via the LUNA centres, which are safe spaces for women and girls.” Moreover, the media plays a vital role in informing the general public about the exacerbating violence against women, social media platforms could proactively challenge stereo types with the use of hashtags and captions that only attracts and gets the support of the public but also empowers women to raise their voices against this harsh reality.

Conclusion

The analysis of the afore mentioned criteria shows with much clarity that, Sri Lanka is currently treading on rather dangerous grounds in terms of finding mechanisms to tackle the rising rate of domestic violence, as we can see that there are very few mechanisms being implemented to relieve this situation. Analysing the root causes and devising an action plan to mitigate these factors lies at the heart of finding solutions. Sri Lanka has a lockdown policy; however, the violence has been and continues to victimize many women. This is precisely why government authorities must divert their attention towards implanting possible counter measure to mange and reduce the rate of domestic violence against women that continues to persist and increase amidst the pandemic.

[1] < https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eseasia/docs/publications/2021/02/covid19%20response%20report%205%20feb%2021_final.pdf?la=en&vs=1225 > accessed on 28th February 2021

[2] < http://www.statistics.gov.lk/OtherSurveys/StaticalInformation/Surveys/WWS_2019_Final_Report > accessed on 29th February 2021

[3] < https://asiapacific.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20eseasia/docs/publications/2021/02/covid19%20response%20report%205%20feb%2021_final.pdf?la=en&vs=1225 > accessed on 3rd March 2021

[4] < https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/brief-prevention-violence-against-women-and-girls-and-covid-19-en.pdf?la=en&vs=3049 > accessed on 5th March 2021

[5] < https://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2020/brief-prevention-violence-against-women-and-girls-and-covid-19-en.pdf?la=en&vs=3049 > accessed on 5th March 2021

[6] Ibid  

[7] <https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/20201123_SDD_Policy_Paper%20Covid-19-VAW.pdf>

[6] <https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/20201123_SDD_Policy_Paper%20Covid-19-VAW.pdf> accessed on 5th March 2021 

[9] < file:///C:/Users/C%20TECH/Downloads/17GeoJIntlAff79%20(2).pdf >

[10] Ibid 

[11] < https://srilanka.unfpa.org/en/news/violence-free-sri-lanka > accessed on 9th March 2021

[12] < https://www.unicef.org/srilanka/press-releases/unicef-and-ncpa-gravely-concerned-increase-proportion-child-cruelty-cases-reported >

[13] Ibid 

[14] < https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/20201123_SDD_Policy_Paper%20Covid-19-VAW.pdf > accessed on 10th March 2021

[15] < https://www.unicef.org/srilanka/press-releases/unicef-and-ncpa-gravely-concerned-increase-proportion-child-cruelty-cases-reported > accessed on 10th March 2021

[17] < https://www.unescap.org/sites/default/files/20201123_SDD_Policy_Paper%20Covid-19-VAW.pdf > accessed on 9th March 2021

*This Research is conducted by Minoan Gamage and Rochelle Tummodara, who are currently studying as third year undergraduates at General Sir John Kothelawala Defence University, following up the Bachelors of Law Degree and are hoping to join our internships in 2022. 

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Latest comments

  • 7
    0

    Thank you very much for this article.
    I hope Sri Lanka’s misogynist rulers will pay due attention to the issues raised in this article and take immediate action to implement the recommended measures in order to tackle and prevent domestic violence against women and children.

  • 2
    0

    Domestic violence against children & females have increased in UK as well during the lockdown but thanks to many charities & govt. sponsored help agencies, the problem has been largely addressed Isolation or the stress of being confined to the home endlessly, very often leads to mental stress, boredom & even pent up emotions, further escalated by excessive alcohol consumption, ending in violence, unfortunately, cannot be eliminated totally, even with legal safeguards & law enforcement.

    In SL. 5 weeks of continuous curfew affected many, particularly, the poor but the focus was on the pandemic. Unlike in developed countries, there are no emergency helplines & even reporting to the police has very little respite. Isn’t there a Minister in charge of women affairs who should address this issue? Just like the backword & uneducated Health Minister, who promoted snake oil vendors publicly, Ministers in this govt. are incompetent & indifferent to the problems of the average citizens of the country.

    • 2
      2

      Terrible situation in Sri Lanka. Yes, what is the minister of women’s affairs doing? What about the Mayor of Colombo? No, but our ladies sit around in soirees teaching women the art of genteel societal disposition; religious nuns into the teaching or sewing and crocheting to virginal women. All is play-acting. Sri Lanka is still reveling in the throes of the Victorian era. All nonsense that happened before the pandemic shamefully tells on our inability to cope during critical times. Change is essential. Where are the charitable groups? Open the temples, churches, and mosques to handle the sufferings of these disadvantaged women.

      • 1
        1

        RTF,
        .
        Minister of woman affair is that very same BED pan style mouth holder, most known stupid woman -Apawithara Dewi Wannihamy. So that says almost everything right ?
        :
        The very same woman having sipped PANIYA gave a nod to the world how stupid the srilanken woman are today. So what more talk my dear RTF ? Srilanka is marching backward, but good riddance to have elected bitch s sons and their henchmen to govern the country. Our elders would collapse on the spot if they were live today.

        All these were known to the very same PEOPLE, at the time, highly alleged criminals were norminated for presidency and leadership of this god punished country.
        :
        Godd riddance, what else we can say?

    • 2
      1

      R
      “Unlike in developed countries, there are no emergency helplines & even reporting to the police has very little respite.”
      *
      In fairness, extended family often intervenes here in positive ways, even with the weakening of the institution with modernization.
      That is something that we should learn to put to good use.
      The strong arm of the law is often resented by families, and something should take its place. With some education and existing care we can achieve much.

  • 3
    1

    Exceptionally well presented and most impotent relevant article to date. We are facing similar issues in the UK too. Thank you Authors.

  • 2
    0

    Please translate and publish this article in Sinhala and Tamil. Thanks.

  • 0
    6

    What about the “Sovereignty” of the Household? Anything that happens inside the household is a domestic and internal matter and outsiders (like the police and women’s protection organizations) have no business interfering in those matters. Let the Head of the household solve his own domestic problems his own way.

    P. S. Hey, that is not my position! I am simply applying the logic of countries like China, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, Cuba, Eritrea, and birds of that feather to this issue!

    • 2
      0

      CM
      Do you have the foggiest idea of how domestic issues had been dealt with in socialist countries?
      Their methods continue even after socialism.

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