During a time when feminism, women’s rights and violence against women is spoken about at great length, it seems the authorities and relevant government bodies do not consider women’s issues to be a priority.
When contacted by The Nation with regard to sexual violence against women, especially in the Northern Province, Women’s Affairs Minister Chandrani Bandara said she was unable to comment due to being busy with election campaigns. Despite multiple attempts, State Minister of Children’s Affairs Rosy Senanayake was also unavailable for comment.
Contacting the Police Media Unit was also futile as although willing to gather data on the topic, Police Spokesperson ASP Ruwan Gunasekara said he was unable to comment on the topic as he wasn’t aware of the number of complaints police stations of the relevant districts had received.
While the authorities seemed to be generally unaware or uninterested in women’s issues and violence against women, it is a relief that organizations and collectives seem to give priority to women’s rights
The lack of knowledge of the authorities regarding such a pressing issue makes one question if the government itself is not interested in eradicating violence against women and children? While Minister Bandara herself said in an interview, “During the government’s 100-Day Program, we will complete our work on increasing women’s representation in politics/Parliament by 25 percent,” it seems that the women already in politics, including herself, do not consider women’s issues important to address.
While the authorities seemed to be generally unaware or uninterested in women’s issues and violence against women, it is a relief that organizations and collectives seem to give priority to women’s rights. When speaking about women’s issues, focus can be made on how the armed conflict affected women and if there has been an increase in crimes against women in the Northern Province.
Speaking about the situation of women in the Northern Province was Jaffna District Women’s Federation Secretary Varatharajan Sasirekha. Sasirekha said, “One issue is that many young girls have been forced to look after their families as they had lost their husbands due to consumption of illicit liquor (kasippu). It was a huge social issue a few years ago in Jaffna. Many of those who consumed it have either lost their lives, are bed-ridden, or are unable to work. Therefore, the women are forced to look after these families.”
She added, “This situation too has created a lot of issues for these young women. For example, we have received complaints of husbands abusing them, physically and verbally because they suspect their wives when they deal with other men. At the same time, the frustration that they cannot do any work also aggravates the situation. But they have no option, but to go to work.”
In addition, single women also face the risk of being vulnerable to several other social issues. “They run the family and most of the time they do not have a male to assist them. Therefore, the woman is in a vulnerable situation where people are likely to take undue advantage of her situation. This has actually lessened in Jaffna. But it is prevalent in the recently war affected areas.”
Sasirekha also stated that affected women could lodge their complaints with the Jaffna District Women’s Federation and with the Women Development Officer (WDO) of the Jaffna Kachcheri. “We have received several complaints and we look into them without harming the reputation of the women concerned.”
While the Northern Province is given focus, and for the right reasons, when speaking about the effects of war, especially on children, it is also important to look at Sri Lanka as a whole and females in other areas of the country.
Praja Diriya Foundation’s Chairperson TB Indrani Kusumalatha spoke about the plight of women in the Puttalam District. She explained that due to settlements after the armed conflict, there has been a population increase in Puttalam. “Although land was divided, resources weren’t,” Kusumalatha said, explaining that thus women were forced to find employment.
“In some families, although the husbands are alive, the wives are the breadwinners,” she added. However, lack of job opportunities means that women have to settle with being in the sex trade. In the past three years, 248 sex workers have registered with Praja Diriya Foundation. According to Kusumalatha, these females come from low income family and following conversations with sex workers, the Foundation has learnt that none of these females willingly works in the sex trade.
Speaking about the difficulties faced by sex workers, Kusumalatha said that there is a lack of awareness and education on protection, sexually transmitted infections and diseases and health. She also said that due to the nature of the job, most women are also introduced to drugs and addiction is another issue that Praja Diriya Foundation addresses.
Further, social stigma regarding prostitution was also spoken about and while Kusumalatha said, “what an individual does with her body and sexuality is solely that individual’s decision,” she also added that it was usually women themselves who look at the sex trade and workers with disgust. Additionally, the legal system does not recognize the sex trade and thus sex workers are neither given a place nor protection under the legal system.
Sex workers face violence within their families and society too, due to the social attitude toward the sex trade. However, this isn’t something only faced by sex workers, it seems, and this is evident when looking at the increase in crimes against women.
The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) recently appointed a committee to investigate sexual violence against children in the Jaffna District. The committee is expected to present a report by August 31. The decision for this move was taken with the recent rape of a school student in Punkudutheevu, Jaffna. The incident reopened eyes to the reality of the plight of children and women in Sri Lanka, especially the Northern Province.
Looking at the number of complaints received by the NCPA from the beginning of the year to the end of May, of a total of 3,892, 6.9 percent or 271 complaints were from the Northern Province. Further, in 2014, the NCPA received 213 complaints from the Jaffna District, 144 from Kilinochchi, 86 from Mannar, 160 from Mullaitivu and 160 from Vavuniya. This is a steady increase from the complaints received by NCPA in 2010 where seven cases were reported from Jaffna, two from Kilinochchi, four from Mannar, two from Mullaitivu and 19 from Vavuniya.
However, the rapid increase could be due to a social change which allows people to lodge a complaint with the NCPA or the Police more willingly than before. According to the NCPA media unit, a change of attitude has resulted in an increase of complaints. This attitude change is due to many reasons, including the many awareness and educational programs organized by the NCPA.
“Once the crime has been committed against a child, there is nothing we can really do. Their lives are already ruined. Thus we need to prevent the crimes,” an official at the NCPA media unit said. He added that many incidents, especially of a sexual nature, remained hidden. However, increased awareness has resulted in an increase in complaints and this is important to remember when looking at the number of complaints of each year.
Further, special focus will be given to sexual violence in the Jaffna District, NCPA media said. This will be achieved through the committee appointed by the NCPA.
Looking at the cases reported to the NCPA in 2014 from the entire country, of the 10,315 reports, 522 are regarding sexual harassment, 508 are regarding rape and 411 are regarding grave sexual abuse. Thus it is safe to say that when looking at crimes committed against children, those of a sexual nature are higher in occurrence. The NCPA thus raises awareness both among school children and civil society to ensure the protection of children, especially sexually.
The NCPA, through their hotline (1929), accepts reports and complaints regarding crimes against children. The large number of women’s rights organizations also work towards addressing issues faced by women. It is thus the government bodies that need to set their priorities straight.
As the NCPA media unit said, any amendments they are planning on making to ensure the safety of children and their rights can only be introduced after the coming elections and government change. This could be said about women’s issues too. Thus if the government gives priority to pressing issues like women’s and children’s rights, the country itself can move forward to ensure crimes against women and children are properly dealt with and the causes for the crimes addressed.