By Kamani Jinadasa –
Lifting The Veil Of Silence Around Sexual Violence Against Women & Girls In Sri Lanka
Three months ago in Vanni a 16 year old Tamil girl, Saranya Selvarasa passed away in the Kilinochchi Base hospital. Saranya was orphaned after the death of her parents. Her father died during the war in 2006 and after the war her mother passed away in an accident. Saranya and her two younger brothers were adopted by their grandmother, who had been doing the best she could to care for them under very difficult conditions. When Saranya’s grandmother tried to seek answers for her granddaughter’s death she was informed by the doctor who handled her case that she had been gang raped by at least three men. The police visited the grandmother’s home after Saranya’s death had been reported in the local media. They tried to pressure Saranya’s grandmother to conceal the gang rape and say instead that Saranya had died due to a mental disorder. The police then threatened to have the grandmother imprisoned on charges of “damaging Saranya’s character” if she failed to comply with their demands. Her grandmother refused to comply with their threats.
As I write this article the news of another brutal rape and murder of another school girl in Jaffna, Vidhiya has surfaced.
Saranya’s story and now Vidhiya’s, are not new to post war Sri Lanka. Horrific stories of sexual violence perpetrated against Tamil women and girls by the military have been seeping into our news feeds sporadically, mainly via international news agencies. What makes it even more disturbing is that these stories are being brushed off, conveniently ignored and even discredited, claiming that they are nothing more than attempts to damage the government’s reputation. While rates of sexual violence against Tamil women, children and men have not been measured, there is substantial anecdotal and plausible evidence to indicate that this is happening on a regular basis with little or no accountability on the part of the perpetrators in the North. The manner in which the lives of victims change after such experiences cannot be truly captured. Who can a survivor turn to when the perpetrators are more likely to be the military or law enforcement officials?
At a wider level, a report which sought to capture prevalence rates of violence against women and girls (VAWG) reflected that 14% of men in the sample from four districts in Sri Lanka had admitted to perpetrating rape. Among men who did admit to perpetrating sexual violence including rape, over half of the men stated they were motivated by feelings of sexual entitlement. More alarmingly 28% of the men that had perpetrated acts of sexual violence including rape against women said that they had been in the 15-19 year age group at the time they committed their first rape. The same report calls attention to very high levels of impunity experienced by these men who admitted to perpetrating rape. Accordingly 97% of the men in these four districts had faced no legal consequences for their actions.
Given the conditions surrounding the lives of women and girls in the North, where there are an estimated 90,000 women headed households one can only imagine how these similar statistics surrounding their vulnerabilities are exacerbated.
Despite the fact that Sri Lanka elected the world’s first female Prime Minister and has very low maternal mortality rates across districts which have participated in national census’, police statistics reveal that registered incidents of rape saw an increase of nearly 20% during 2012-2014. It is reported that every day, three to five children are raped in Sri Lanka. The total number of all crimes against children besides sex crimes include crimes of violence, abduction, trafficking and other offenses, increased by a dramatic 64% between 2011 and 2012. It is time for us to admit that we are experiencing an epidemic of sexual violence in our country.
Given the resurgence of extremism and mysoginism that was allowed to prevail under the previous government’s regime, issues surrounding sexism and violence against women and girls were undermined or ignored. We had a former parliamentarian, Mervyn Silva stating that if women are sexually attacked it is due a fault in the way they are dressed. We currently have an MP, S.B. Dissanayake who vowed to strip a former female head of state of her clothes and make her run down the streets naked. Members of parliament that have been convicted of rape have been released. Another politician who was involved in the brutal gang rape of a Russian woman and murder of her British partner walked scot free for years until the British government applied tremendous pressure for some level of accountability. These are the lessons we are teaching other men in Sri Lanka. We have given men the license to go ahead and flaunt or exercise their feelings of sexual entitlement and power with absolutely no consequences. What does that say about us as a nation?
Following the news item about Saranya’s case, I started a petition to pressure authorities to take necessary steps for a proper investigation into her untimely demise. Many brave women have come forward with their own experiences of rape and the steps they have taken to reduce the risk of their own daughters facing the same fate. Women have taken the burden of risk aversion into their own hands, through their activism, individually or through women’s organizations as there is little faith in the system that has prevailed in Sri Lanka to date.
The good news:
With the change of government I see a definite increase in reporting of VAWG. There is a better space for women’s organizations and activists like me to feel safer to take action when terrible incidents like this occur.
The new government has decidedly placed more qualified people in certain positions as per their experience and interests. The sum of these choices can be felt in Saranya’s case. Subsequent to the development and circulation of the petition Rosy Senanayake, State Minister of Children’s Affairs and Natasha Balendra, Chairperson of the National Child Protection Authority flexed the national law enforcement apparatus to facilitate an impartial investigation into her death. Saranaya’s body was exhumed and taken to Colombo for forensic analysis and the post mortem report is expected to be produced on 18th May (Vavuniya Magistrates Court – Case No: AR 141/15). In a situation where the entire story would have been buried with Saranya, a proper legal process has been activated instead. In this case there is a higher likelihood that justice will be done.
On 15th May three brothers suspected in the rape of Vidhiya were arrested. I would like to add that while Vidhiya was murdered on 13th May it took two days for mainstream Sri Lankan media to pick up the story even though protests were held in Jaffna immediately after the news of the rape and murder emerged. News of bribery, constitutional amendments and a foreigner’s visit to Sri Lanka make the headlines within minutes.
My question is though, what will it take for Sri Lankans to react collectively to the levels of violence that is meted out to women and girls every day? What will it take to motivate Sri Lankans to act in instances where violence is not meted out only towards their own kith and kin? What will it take for Sri Lankans to open our eyes to the realities of what women and little girls like Saranya and Vidhya are facing daily in the North and that their lives are as equally important as those in the South? What will it take for people to understand that impunity experienced by perpetrators of sexual violation of a person in the North can only mean that the same is most likely to occur in the South as lack of accountability will become the norm? What will each one of us do to make Sri Lanka safer for women and girls? When will we, as a nation, lift this veil of silence?
*Kamani is a Sri Lankan working at the International Rescue Committee, New York. The views expressed here are entirely her own and do not represent the views or opinions of the International Rescue Committee.
 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/torture-and-sexual-abuse-in-sri-lanka-four-years-after-war-frances-harrisons-bbc-documentary/; http://www.hrw.org/reports/2013/02/26/we-will-teach-you-lesson-0; http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/101east/2013/12/scars-sri-lanka-2013122492410187367.html
 de Mel, N., P. Peiris and S. Gomez (2013). Broadening Gender: Why Masculinities Matter—Attitudes, Practices and Gender-Based Violence in Four Districts in Sri Lanka. Colombo: CARE Sri Lanka
 Ibid, 67% of the male sample
 http://www.adaderana.lk/news/30879/three-nabbed-over-kidnap-rape-and-murder-of-student-, http://newsfirst.lk/english/2015/05/3-suspects-arrested-in-connection-to-rape-and-murder-of-a-student-in-jaffna-watch-video/95080