Time to acknowledge lethal gender-based violence | Daily News
International Women’s Day:

Time to acknowledge lethal gender-based violence

“My father is a hot-tempered person who gets angry very easily. So I do not know whether the killing was planned or a result of sudden anger.”

These are the words of a young woman from Panamure, Sabaragamuwa Province, whose mother was killed by her father in 2016.

She continues: “My mother was discharged from hospital recently. She needed time to recover, but he wanted her to go with him. My mother suffered a lot. I have seen my mother being beaten by my father since childhood. He used whatever he could get his hands on to beat her. She had fractured arms and legs several years ago. My mother had to go to hospital this time because my father inserted a wooden pole into her vagina and she was badly hurt.”

The technical classification of this type of death is ‘unnatural’. Defined as a death not caused by disease or aging but by external causes such as injury, trauma, or poisoning where the manner or circumstance could be homicidal, suicidal or accidental or at times even undetermined, unnatural death is an obscure term that obfuscates a real problem: island-wide, women are dying from intimate partner violence at an alarming rate.

Studying the problem

In December of 2015, the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) commissioned a research team at the University of Kelaniya’s medical faculty to conduct a national study to better understand unnatural deaths of women and girls in relation to intimate partner violence in Sri Lanka.

This study, which was conducted over a span of almost two years and released earlier this week in advance of International Women’s Day, is the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. According to the UNFPA, such studies are important not only to find out how and why these deaths occur, but also to ensure justice for the victims’ families where violence is involved.

A mixed methodology - using both quantitative data and qualitative evidence - was used to gather information, including from police, JMO (judicial medical officers), ISD (industrial safety division) records, and interviews. The unnatural deaths in five provinces in specific from 2016 were studied - Western, Sabaragamuwa, Eastern, Southern, and North Central.

The objectives of the study were threefold. First, the researchers aimed to calculate incidence rates and examine types, injury patterns, and factors associated with unnatural deaths of women and girls in the five selected provinces. Second, the researchers aimed to describe the problems associated with the judicial processes and outcomes relating to unnatural female deaths. And third, the researchers aimed to provide policy inputs and guidelines to address the problems associated with the investigation and judicial processes relating to unnatural female deaths.

Grim results

The results of the study proved nothing to write home about.

Of the total 729 deaths studied, 234 were classified as accidental, 252 as suicides, and 243 as homicides. Thirty-nine percent of homicides and 35 percent of suicides were the result of intimate partner violence. In 36 percent of homicides, the alleged perpetrator was the legal spouse of the victim, and in 21 percent of homicides, it was a blood relative.

According to Anuruddhi Edirisinghe, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Kelaniya and the principle investigator of the study, “These results indicate that the system has failed to keep women safe.”

Furthermore, in only eight percent of the cases had the deceased woman previously reported the interpersonal violence to law enforcement agencies at least once; in three percent of the cases, the women had reported such violence three or more times. UNFPA country representative Ritsu Nacken said that the low rates of reporting to law enforcement authorities indicate that gender-based violence in the country is still shrouded in silence.

The most common method of suicide was poisoning, and 100 percent of the homicides studied were carried out with sharp force. In three out of every five deaths, the underlying reason was the inability to solve relationship issues. And in one out of every five interpersonal-violence-related homicides, the husband committed suicide after killing the women. Finally, 37 of the homicide victims, or fifteen percent, were raped in advance of being killed.

Distrust of judicial system

In addition to outlining the statistics and causes of unnatural death of women in the country, the UNFPA report also analysed the ways unnatural deaths of women are investigated, and how these investigations are received by the victims’ families.

According to the report, police and preliminary forensic investigations of unnatural female deaths were concluded within 24 hours in more than 80 percent of the cases.

A majority of those interviewed were comparatively more satisfied with police and forensic investigations than they were with the judicial outcomes.

“Police OIC was very supportive and helped us a lot. Our son-in-law was arrested. A wooden rod and some other evidence were collected by the police dogs and he was remanded,” said the mother of a female homicide victim from Mandoor, Eastern Province, whose husband killed both her and their eight-month-old child.

But she continued by expressing her disappointment in the judicial process thus far.

“The case is not yet concluded. Still court hearings are going on. I am not going to courts regularly. I am fed up now. I do not have any specific expectation of the legal outcome. I have lost trust in people. His family has migrated from here. If there is a God, he will be punished.”

Out of the 243 homicides studied, only 47 percent had ever proceeded to the Attorney General’s Department (AGD), whose responsibility it is to file an indictment. And the progress for the cases in which an indictment is issued proceeds too slowly, some say.

At the end of three years, only 30 percent of the cases ever reached the high court for judgement.

There is palpable frustration on the part of families who feel justice hasn’t been served.

“It’s been five years now but still they haven’t given any punishment to the perpetrator,” said a man from the North Central Province whose wife and twelve year old daughter were murdered in a robbery five years ago. “I come to the police every month. They have been saying the file is in the Attorney General’s Department.”


At a panel event for the launch of the study, experts in the field discussed policy recommendations to address the high rate of unnatural deaths among women and girls due to gender-based and intimate partner violence, in the country.

These recommendations were broken down into three main categories.

The first category is prevention by addressing underlying etiologies. Since one out of every three homicidal and suicidal deaths of women is the result of disharmony in relationships, the report suggested the implementation and expansion of redress mechanisms, gender-sensitive counselling services and support, and gender-sensitive law-enforcement protection and legal aid for those in need.

The enhancement of psycho-social support during bereavement was also suggested. The second category is improvement of the quality of death investigation systems. This, in general, would require coordination between and strict impartiality and gender-sensitive conduct on the part of all the main stakeholders who investigate deaths.

Also suggested was the establishment of guidelines and institutional standard operational procedures for the investigation of unnatural deaths, the accreditation of laboratories, the establishment deadlines for report submission and annual audits, and the incorporation of public feedback into each process.

The final category of policy recommendation is to make the court system which supposedly administers justice more efficient. This, the report’s authors and panelists explained, would require, first and foremost, clearing of the current backlog of cases.

As well, it would require reforms to the legal and penal codes

Media must do its part too

In addition to the main policy brief released by the UNFPA this week, another study, on reportage of such unnatural deaths, was released by the organization as well.

Analyzing the ways unnatural deaths of women are reported in English, Sinhala, and Tamil newspapers, the study found that such deaths often receive wide-reaching media coverage because the incidents cause much speculation.

Yet while the country does have legal frameworks within which the media are expected to operate, according to the UNFPA they often do not.

“While newspaper coverage in all three languages is problematic, very often reportage of unnatural deaths in the Sinhala newspapers do not conform to ethical guidelines or accepted ethical standards of reportage,” the report explained. It chastised both Sinhala and Tamil newspapers for identifying victims by their names and addresses, exposing them and their families to visibility and speculation, as well as identifying alleged perpetrators and suspects, subjecting them to scrutiny before they’ve been proven guilty.

The report also pointed out widespread sensationalism in coverage of such unnatural deaths.

“There is a high degree of sensationalism and emotiveness in the writing, photography, headlines, colouring, details, spacing, and positioning of articles in the Sinhala newspapers.

Innuendo and embellishment are found to distort information.”

In order to combat what the UNFPA classified as harmful reportage, it impressed upon the media in attendance of the launch event, its responsibility to not exploit grief or do anything that might retraumatize victims’ families or put anyone at risk.

A full list of suggestions and guidelines for the media, as well as both policy briefs in full, can be found on the UNFPA Sri Lanka website.

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