Every ninety minutes a woman is raped in Sri Lanka, said Women for Rights at a press conference held in Colombo on July 14. The organisation further said that Sri Lanka is 5th on a list regarding domestic violence. Crimes causing violence relating to women and children is on the rise. In Sri Lanka the citizens live in an environment that has no respect for women and it is estimated that 95% of women using public transport are at risk of being subjected to sexual harassment.
The spokesperson for the organisation attributed this situation to the government’s policy of protecting criminals and allowing local politicians to carry out such crimes with impunity. This approach of neglect towards crime is a strategy that works from the top to the bottom of the government’s hierarchy. The organisation also said that the number of crimes against women is far higher than what is actually reported in the media.
The above statements from one of the leading organisations for women in Sri Lanka come as no surprise. The criminal justice apparatus in the country has been allowed to collapse. The investigative function of the police has now been virtually suspended and this acts in favour of the criminals. The responsibility for the collapse of the policing system lies firmly with the government and particularly with the promulgation of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which has virtually invalidated even the limited reforms of the police and other public institutions initiated under the 17th Amendment.
Today Sri Lankan citizens do not enjoy the protection of the law. Thus, the government has failed in the most primary function that any government is expected to fulfill which is the protection of its citizens. Instead of protection the government itself removes all the legal obstacles created to obstruct the criminals. Naturally the worst affected are the most vulnerable sections of society, which is the women and the children.
Earlier, on Valentine’s Day, women’s groups held a public protest demanding, among other things, the stopping of the granting of suspended sentences to criminals found guilty of rape and other serious crimes against women. The practice of giving suspended sentences is now widespread in Sri Lanka and the practice itself arose as a result of the collapse of the criminal justice system. The courts often pressurise lawyers to reach ‘settlements’ even in serious criminal cases and as an incentive the possibility of obtaining suspended sentences is offered.
Several lawyers interviewed by the Asian Human Rights Commission stated that the practice of criminal law has virtually become a farce. The police officers manipulate the system and the Attorney General’s Department makes no attempt to resist the extreme degeneration that is taking place. Besides this the courts themselves become party to this dismal state of affairs by attempting to force down ‘settlements’.
Under these circumstances the call made by Women for Rights for government intervention to stop crimes against women is quite unlikely to bear any positive results. The challenge now is for all, including women’s organisations, to take up the collapse of the criminal justice system and the rule of law in general as the common problem affecting everyone. It is only the development of the solidarity of all those who have become victims of criminals and others who are exploiting the situation that the government’s neglect can be confronted. Until then as one lawyer said, “We all are sitting ducks”.
By the Asian Human Rights Commission