Why suffer in silence Justice delayed is justice denied - UNFPA | Daily News
Gender-based violence:

Why suffer in silence Justice delayed is justice denied - UNFPA

Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle and Dr. Razia Pendse along with colleagues
Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle and Dr. Razia Pendse along with colleagues

Dr. Razia Pendse, the World Health Organization (WHO) Advisor to Sri Lanka, if gender-based violence (GBV) was any other health condition, it would be classified as an epidemic. About 15% of the global population is affected by it, the long-time advocate for women’s rights pointed out at a UNFPA workshop on multi-sectoral responses to the GBV last week

On Sunday evening, after Sri Lankan singer Priyani Jayasinghe was stabbed to death in her Pandura home, the chilling story of her tragic death brought a host of gruesome headlines, but little conversation about the way in which her attack was entrenched in a long history of violence against women in Sri Lanka.

In the words of Dr. Razia Pendse, the World Health Organization (WHO) Advisor to Sri Lanka, if gender-based violence (GBV) was any other health condition, it would be classified as an epidemic. About 15% of the global population is affected by it, the long-time advocate for women’s rights pointed out at a UNFPA workshop on multi-sectoral responses to the GBV last week.

But there’s a key difference: epidemics spread through human contact, while GBV spreads surreptitiously, thriving on the victim’s isolation.

“The unfortunate part is that there was a social sanction to this,” said Pendse. He said “Survey after survey had shown that more than 50% of women and girls who are subjected to violence, they actually justify it.”

And with that justification, comes inaction and shame, leaving a staggering number of women suffering in silence. According to the 2016 Sri Lanka Demographic and Health Survey, of the 1 in 5 women in Sri Lanka who experience Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), only 18% seek police assistance.

Ritsu Nacken, a representative from the UNFPA, described the far-reaching consequences of GBV, which undermines the health, dignity, security, autonomy of women and girls. In the case of Jayasinghe, it took her life.

“GBV is one of the most serious human rights violations in the world,” Nacken said, “yet, it often remains shrouded in a culture of silence.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY

It might be easy to justify being silent, especially as a bystander due to many measures Sri Lanka seems like haven to women.

In 1960, Sri Lanka’s first female Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike made history when she became the modern world’s first female leader. On educational measures, women thrive. More often women than men make up university education enrollment (40.1% males and 59.9% females), and according to UNESCO, at a 1.9% difference, the gap between male and female literacy is significantly smaller than several other countries in South Asia (see Figure 1).

But if you look beyond the numbers and at the lived reality of women in this country, there is work to be done.

Sri Lanka’s Gender Gap Index rating, a score generated by the World Economic Forum on a scale of 0 (not at all equal) to 1 (perfect equality), had been on a steady decline since a high of 0.7458 in 2010. Formerly, a leader in closing the gender gap in equality in South Asia, Sri Lanka is now more aligned with its South Asian peers (see Figure 2).

In some parts of Sri Lanka, as many as one in two women experience IPV, and, after the brutal assault of Dutch tourists in April and the murder of a 6-year-old girl in Jaffna in June, it is evident that non-partner violence (NPV) against women and girls is another piece of the GBV ‘epidemic.’

WHAT ATTITUDES SAY

While numbers speak volumes, it is the beliefs and attitudes of Sri Lankans that reveal the more insidious factors contributing to violence against women and why that violence remains veiled in shame and secrecy.

At the UNFPA workshop, Dr. Chandani Galwaduge was one of the many speakers who touched upon women’s reluctance to report sexual violence, citing social and gender norms as a major reason for victims to stay with the perpetrator, despite mental, emotional and/or physical harm.

Attitudinal measures collected in a 2005 UN multi-country study revealed a public consciousness that upholds gender normative beliefs, suggesting the majority of both men and women in Sri Lanka see women as inferior to men.

According to the study, 58% of Sri Lankan women and 40.6% of men believe, a woman should tolerate violence to keep the family together. Startlingly, more than 50% of women believed disobedience, defined as refusal of sex, asking a partner about relationships with other women, and partner suspicions of infidelity are “good reasons” for a man to abuse the partner. The study also suggests that the vast majority of men (78%), believe that a woman should be obedient to her husband.

WHAT’S MISSING

While these figures are several years old, the steady decline of Sri Lanka on the World Economic Forum Gender Inequality Index (see Figure 2), suggests little has changed over the years. And, the very fact that statistics are old points to a key issue plaguing research on gender inequality and GBV in Sri Lanka. There are no national statistics on these issues.

Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, Deputy Chair of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender, called that the lack of national GBV prevalence data “a major drawback.”

“We do not have a system to collect relevant data routinely, only the severe forms of gender-based violence, where formal complaints are lodged with the women's list of the police stations, are available,” she said.

And because many women do not report violence, analysts believe those lists are only the tip of the iceberg.

While some speakers emphasized the cultural reasons for women’s silence, Ashoka Alawatte, Secretary at the Ministry of Women' and Child Affairs, offered another explanation.

"Most of the research and data reveal that the lack of confidence in the system is one of the main reasons as to why victims, survivors do not report cases of GBV,” Alawatte added, “our efforts should be focused on addressing the services and response mechanisms aimed at victims and survivors of GBV.”

The WHO country profile describes Sri Lanka’s judicial system as “very formidable” and says, “The average citizen often feels quite overwhelmed and alien when dealing with the system.”

Women are likely to feel particularly alienated, because in many ways, the system is still built against them. While Article 12 calls for equality between men and women and the 1995 amendment to the Penal Code added statutory rape, sexual harassment and incest as crimes, marital rape, a kind of IPV, is not yet recognized as a punishable offense in Sri Lanka.

Additionally, some of the progress, such as the addition of 43 women help desks in Sri Lanka’s Police offices, came with a dark side. One study found that workers at these desks were encouraging women to stay in violent relationships under the pretense of keeping their families together.

WHAT’S NEEDED

Central to the UNFPA’s plan to combat GBV, the Essential Services Package calls for quality health services for support, quality social services for information on rights and access to resources and Police and justice services that are “cross cutting” and “women-centered.”

“We still have much more to do in terms of strengthening existing services and the effective coordination of all relevant sectors,” said Dr. Fernandopulle.

The to-do list for advocates includes, the establishing of a national hotline for GBV and increasing the number of shelters for women and girls who have experienced violence.

Dr. Pendse also called for the sensitization of healthcare providers to GBV. She said treatment of victims ranges from “empathy to antipathy,” as a result of cultural attitudes toward women. She emphasized that women who are abused are unlikely to say so directly and healthcare providers must know to look for hidden signs of abuse.

According to Dr. Pendse, healthcare providers aren’t the only people who need to be sensitized. “The sensitization has to start much earlier, in a manner we rear our children,” she said, “the messages that are given to a girl child and the messages that are given to a boy, are different. That's where the dissonance in terms of equity begins.”

After two days of multi-sectoral collaboration and discussion, the UNFPA’s workshop ended on Friday, with powerful words from the UNFPA representative, Madu Dissanayake.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” she said. “What we need is justice in every sector. What we need is the individual who had been trained to have the courage to do the right thing for the betterment of women and girls in Sri Lanka."

Doing the “right thing” might just start with breaking the silence. As feminist novelist Margaret Atwood put it, “powerlessness and silence go together.”


 

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