Preventing domestic violence
After I had written my last piece on women, I attended a consultation
organized by Oxfam to discuss two presentations by women's groups. They
were on very different subjects, but dealt with two vital issues
concerning women and their empowerment.
The first was the impact of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act,
which had been prepared in the days when Dhara Wijayatilaka was
Secretary to the Ministry of Justice. Her removal from that position was
a tragedy, for her commitment and her efficiency (qualities not always
found in combination) were unparalleled. Fortunately, she continued to
work on the subject, and a couple of weeks ago I was at the launch of
her simple guide to the Act, which the Ministry of Child Development and
Women's Affairs had published. Her own speech was characteristically
matter of fact, but the other speaker, who had prepared a portfolio of
legislation pertaining to women, referred to some cases of abuse. If
that was upsetting, what we were shown at the meeting organized by
Oxfam, by an emotional but restrained woman from a group that actively
helps to implement the act, was horrifying.
Interestingly, despite her accounts, pictorial too, of the suffering
some women had undergone, she was at pains to stress that only one of
the cases which had come to Court under the Act had ended in divorce. My
colleagues from Parliament, an enlightened and much larger group than I
think the woman who organized the event and I had anticipated, were
moved and one in fact asked why there weren't more divorces in the face
of such suffering. But I realized then that, in trying to prevent such
violence, one of the greatest problems society faces is the idea that
divorce is improper.
Based I presume, on the concept of marriage as sacred, which came to
us with Christianity - which has largely got over the restrictive
concept of permanent pair bonding it institutionalized for so long - we
have forgotten the much wider concept of family and friends on which our
socialization was traditionally based.
Indeed I was disappointed to find that very few of the cases had been
brought to the attention of the law through friends or neighbours. The
Police it seemed had behaved very well when complaints were made, which
did away with the view I had sometimes heard, that they treated the law
as unnecessary and advised a domestic settlement. That does of course
happen in some areas, but Police training is much better now in this
regard, and with the establishment of Women and Children's Desks
islandwide, the earlier patriarchal concept of family relations is
Otherwise support came from women's groups or the family of the
victim. Sadly the family of the perpetrator, which should I believe be
concerned with the wider implications, for the children in particular -
in front of whom it seemed much of the violence took place - seemed
comparatively less concerned. And the idea that this was both a social
and a human problem, as opposed to being simply a matter for domestic
settlement, seemed absent, in that few had received support from close
contacts outside the family.
Social safety networks
I go back to the suggestion I have often made, that there must be
Protection groups at Grama Sevaka Division level, to provide the first
line of defence as it were to the vulnerable. That would provide a focus
for the women's groups to work with, to sensitize society more widely
about potential problems, and encourage them to prevent them turning
virulent. As I have said before, the dramatic approach of some social
service groups, that seek to blame their pet aversions for all problems,
takes away from the essentially domestic nature of many of the problems
women face, whether it be rape, domestic violence or sexual harassment.
Ditto, it should be noted, for children, though there I should note our
failure to ensure accountability in children's homes also contributes to
the problem - though that needs to be explored at greater length.
Criminal justice system
Developing structures that are closely aware of local situations and
provide first line support then seems an obvious thing to do. I hope
therefore that the Ministry of Public Administration will revise the
list of responsibilities of Grama Niladharis, and entrust them, not with
powers, but with the responsibility to develop social safety networks.
These are the bodies through which training should be done, raising
awareness and developing counselling services that can provide basic
assistance while calling in greater levels of support when these are
Another area we all found worrying was the failure of the criminal
justice system to deal with what seemed obvious criminal abuse.
Unfortunately, though the law prescribes mechanisms, there is no
systematic way of ensuring that Prevention Orders are enforced. Here
again, while the state may not have the resources to observe
implementation as carefully as is needed, the development of support
groups would help to provide protection as well as to alert authorities.
And even more tellingly, while there do exist mechanisms to enforce
Orders, the law does not ensure that violations are investigated as
criminal offences. While I realize that the level of proof required is
greater for that, and dealing with abusers under simply this law may be
quicker to prevent more harm, there is no doubt that a few prosecutions
would help to get the message home, that domestic violence is as serious
a crime against society as any other.
I hope then that the law, good as it is, is amended swiftly to make
it better. Government has asked ministries to expedite legislation,
since Parliament finds itself with little constructive on its agenda.
Waiting for perfect legislation is a waste of time, we should move
swiftly with generally agreed amendments to this Act, to the Lands
ordinance to ensure gender equality, to the provisions on Statutory
Rape, and in other areas where a little bit of quick work would help so
many who now suffer unjustly.