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First lines of this article was typed a zillion times (well not a zillion times in the literal sense, but of course in figurative sense). This was not because I was out of options for the first line, but merely because too many stories of people I know came to my mind: The story of the man who slapped his girlfriend because she was cheating on him, the lady I know who gets beaten up by her husband on a frequent basis because she would not get separated from him for the sake of her two daughters who might be deprived from inheriting any wealth that their father possess, the story of the woman in court whose husband sexually harasses her. With too many stories, I was obviously left in a dilemma as to whose story needs to be told, so resorting to the most practical option, I venture to tell the collective story of gender based violence (GBV) of women living in Sri Lanka. One might not notice the gravity nor the presence of it, or could be living in it and feeling it as a normalcy, however it is time that stories are told and actions are taken, for mere acceptance of a situation does not mean that is the correct way of doing things in a country or a culture.

Defining GBV

GBV is described as violence linked to the ‘gendered’ identity of being a woman, man or a person with transgender identity. In defining GBV one needs to understand the meaning of “gender” which refers to particular type of roles, activities, attributes which a particular society deems appropriate for men and women. Being socially constructed, gender takes different forms depending on the country and the culture one dwells in. Thus, people grow up learning what the society teaches be their gender based roles and in turn create inequalities and discrimination, generally favouring the stronger party, mostly the male. As the WHO provides such inequalities end up leading to inequities in fields such as health care, property rights, education and employment. The role of gender is crucial in dissecting the perpetration of violence, given that violence stems from an unequal power relation and discrimination in society. While GBV affects men and women both, women given the social structure are more proven prone to be victims of violence and suffering physically and emotionally.

GBV and Violence against Women

As mentioned before women and girls are the key victims of GBV due to the unequal power relation between men and women. Though it is not the mode of nature, the women have been victimised due to many a behaviour that has become the accepted norm by many. In some cultures men are expected to beat their women as that is the way that things are done! I once was told by a three wheeler driver that during his married life, he was yet to beat his wife. He meant it as a sign of success of his married life, however, the tone in which it was told, connoted that the man accepted that beating his wife, was quite a normal thing. Not being sure how to react I decided to keep silent. That was a few years back, however a few weeks back, trying to mend a fault on my part in keeping silent upon hearing the proud recital of a man on how he slapped his girlfriend, I decided to tell him that it was not the right thing to do, and that any sensible woman would seek justice against such activity. I was told in response that he lost control, while another near him added “I will beat my wife if she tells anything against my parents!” I was left wondering what was wrong with people, and how the society is to function with people who deem that giving a warning to one’s wife on the probability of getting beaten upon speaking against her in laws to be an exclusion clause against any violation of rights caused by violence perpetrated against his wife.

Dissecting Violence against Women

Violence against women come in many forms, among which are domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, incest. We can think of many a story which we have come across in our life which relate to this: the wife who is beaten by her drunkard husband, the school going girl being beaten by her father over a love affair, the girl who is raped by her uncle and the father who sexually harasses his daughter are stories one hears in the Sri Lankan society. Though one hears of these, how often does one react to them? If you were to think of a story which falls in this line, would you be able to say that you have taken action to prevent such an act, or would you, yourself be a victim of any of these? If you were, would you have taken any measure to prevent such activity from occurring in the future or have you merely kept mum, and waited for the situation or its gravity to subside? The answers may vary, but the frequency of one’s inaction would be much higher than expected in our society, be it for lack of knowledge regarding one’s rights, be it because you believe you deserved to be subjected to such violence due to teachings of the society you live in. The end result be the same whatever be the cause of suffering in silence : The ever increasing rate of women subjected to violence and the rise of incidents of violence against women.

“What’s with these laws against violence?”

Sri Lanka has an equipped legal mechanism to address issues of violence against women and GBV. Among these legal instruments are The Domestic Violence Act passed in 2005 (yes, this does cover incidents where your husband would be beating you, and yes, you can file a case against him or seek protection from him legally). Apart from this the Penal Code of Sri Lanka does function to protect women and men alike from being subjected to violence.

In addition to domestic laws, Sri Lanka is also a signatory to many international treaties which concentrate on the protection of rights of women and girls alike, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women, The Convention on the Rights of the Child, and Convention on Torture and other, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of Punishment. The rights enshrined in these instruments are to be upheld in the country with the objective of addressing protection of people from violence perpetrated against them.

Laws v Practice

So we see that there is a whole lot of rights that exist, and a whole lot of laws that “protect” women from violence. But as it is evident through daily occurrences the laws alone cannot play the role of the protector of those perpetrated by violence in the Sri Lankan society. There is a need for the creation of awareness, from the woman who lets her husband batter her and her children trying to protect their property rights, to the man who claims he will beat his wife in the name of love for his parents (oh! please spare me from such talk!). What one sees as necessary for any hope for right to be protected would be victims grasping that they ‘do’ have rights, and the perpetrators of violence too realise that the victims ‘do’ have rights. If this does materialise, oh jolly be the day! In case this will not be an option for the near future , why don’t we just go with the most practical option, and say, do get those so called laws dusting away in some unknown corner to practice! High time this happens, don’t you think?