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Rape and domestic violence in Sri Lanka:

Triggered by a mind-set?

by Ingeborg Vinding - on 04/07/2015

Water runs through rock, not because


of its power, but because of its persistence. The same could be said about
changing a nations mind-set. A culture that propagates violence against
women and children is not a culture, it is a nightmare we still need to wake
up from, said Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, Executive Director at the LGBT-NGO
Equal Ground, when I met her in her office.
According to Rose Wijeyesekera, a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Law,
University of Colombo, this nightmare became part of the Sinhalese
culture during the colonial period: The Sinhalese culture was very
favourable to women, there is no such thing as discrimination against
women, she tells me over lunch during the first annual World Conference
for Womens studies held in Colombo. It was the Dutch and British colonial
powers that implemented the male-dominated society into the Sinhala
culture, the major ethnic group in Sri Lanka. She explains that the Christian
colonial powers brought the notion of the marriage as a holy sacrament,
which before had just been a flexible partnership. Later the British
introduced laws that favoured the male sex and a narrative about the man
as the superior gender evolved, influencing all areas from land rights, to
governance, family decisions and intimate relations.
The report Broadening gender Why masculinities matter published by

CARE in 2013 shows how deep rooted the patriarchal culture is and how
fatal consequences it can have. CARE interviewed 1658 men and 653
women from four districts in Sri Lanka: Colombo, Hambantota, Batticoloa
and Nuwara Eliya. Some of the reports main findings was that 33% of the
men had at least once committed physical and/or sexual violent acts
against their intimate partner and 17% of the men had at least once
perpetrated sexual violence including rape against any women. The
numbers talk for itself, and according to Rose Wijeyesekera the reason is to
be found in the Sri Lankan culture and hereby in the mind-set of the Sri
Lankan people both men and women.
The problem lies in the execution of the laws
Rose Wijeyesekera explains that most of the Sri Lankan laws are gender
neutral but they are not being enacted like that, she is stating that there is
a problem in the administration grounded in the patriarchal culture: If you
take the domestic violence act it is very much gender neutral, but there is
no point in having a gender neutral domestic violence law in a patriarchal
culture, because the police and the court are culturally biased against
women, so there is a high tendency that they will interpret and apply the
law in a way that will bring out discriminatory effects on women. Findings
in the CARE report corroborate this theory: Only 18% of the men who had
perpetrated forced sexual relations said that they were afraid of being
caught. And only 7% of the perpetrators had experienced legal
consequences of their attack. The impunity that goes with these attacks is
unbelievable one in a hundred rapists are caught and put to jail, and
under the previous government nobody did anything about it, men were
just allowed to go mad and rape women and children, says Rosanna
Flamer-Caldera.
The missing consequences of attacks has a direct effect on womens
handling after a molestation: only 32% of the women who had experienced
violent attacks by their partners had reported it, and only 10% of women
victims of violence or sexual violence from their partners or non-partners
had told their families. Rosanna Flamer-Caldera explains that everything is
kept secret because of the shame-factor. The women do not dare to
leave their husbands, because what will they do then? she asks, and
continue: and in fact some women who have left their families is asked by
their parents: what are you doing? Go back, you are his wife, he can do
whatever he wants with you, dont put shame on our family by leaving
him. And that happens all the time even in Colombo 7, she ends.
The CARE report also shows that the main reason the men conducted
sexual violence was because of their sexual entitlement, which underpins

that the problem lies within the mind-set and perception of Sri Lankan men.
According to Rosanna Flamer-Caldera this thinking is also present in the
current generation of young men: They are brought up in houses where
their fathers are doing these things to their mothers, abuse have to stop,
and until one person in that generation decides to stop it, it will go on from
generation to generation.
According to the CARE report many children and especially boys have
experienced some form of violence or neglect during childhood, which
shows that some of the molestations are catalysed by twisted standards
and maintained from childhood to adulthood: 28% of the male sample had
experienced sexual abuse when they were children and 46.6% of the men
who had committed violent and/or sexual assults had been sexually abused
as children, the report concludes: The findings reveal the vulnerabilities
that men face throughout their life cycles, portraying them as victims of
abuse, which can ultimately contribute toward their perpetration of
violence. Equal Ground recently did a report about transgender and found
that out of 22 male to female transgender, 19 had been abused as kids:
We need a lot of therapy in this country and we dont have enough
psychiatrists to handle the load Rosanna Flamer-Caldera notes.
The womens contribution to maintaining the patriarchal culture
It is not just men but also women who actively contribute to maintain the
patriarchal culture, the report shows: 75% of the women (and 79% of the
men) reported that some women ask to be raped by the way they dress
and behave. And 43% of the women (and 25% of men) declared that A
real man produces a male child. When it comes to household work the
report shows that women actually take more responsibility than the men
endow upon them: 83% of the women believed that it was their
responsibility to feed, bath and change nappies of children, which only
64% of the men agreed on.
According to Rose Wijeyesekera all Sri Lankans have been culturally trained
to think in stereotype gender roles and she underpins that the majority of
both men and women still finds comfort in thinking that men are superior to
women: Women find comfort in that it is the husbands role to secure the
economical situation and that the women take care of the cooking and the
children. It is also still present in the young and educated generation;
although she emphasized that the young generation has a more equal view
on gender rights, they are still subjected to the cultural norms. She tells an
anecdote from one of her law classes with undergraduate students, where
more than 75% of the students are girls: We asked the question: who will
go out and work? And around 30% wanted to practice law, the rest, the

majority, preferred to work in comfortable zones where they didnt had to


compete with their male counterparts and several of the students thought
that after marriage the women should stay at home. So this is the situation
with undergraduates, then imagine young people who are not educated.
Rosanna Flamer-Caldera also thinks that women have propagated the
patriarchal culture and that they are continuing to do so: They hide behind
the explanation that: this is a cultural thing, thats really hard to break.
She also criticizes the womens movement for being fragmented and
explains why Equal Ground stopped participating in the gender based
violence forum in Sri Lanka: People were not willing to address the root
courses of violence, they felt that if they did campaigns telling women that
they should dress probably and know their place at home, it would stop the
violence. It doesnt stop the violence; the violence will just go on, she says
and explains that women in Sri Lanka need to understand that it is
legitimate to fight back and make people responsible for what they do.
The media opportunities
Professor Jasbir Singh from the University of Jammu in India states that the
media has a crucial impact on economic, political, social and cultural
spheres at the local, national and global level: Images might lead to the
imitation of depicted behaviour of females and males and to the creation of
norms of acceptable behaviour. Some studies mention that changing
portrayal of women in advertisements have been the result of increased
number of educated women working outside the home, he explains at the
World Conference for Womens Studies. Hence, the way the two genders
are portrayed in the media has a direct effect on how people perceive them
in real life.
Kiruththiga Tharumarajah, Media lecturer at the University of Jaffna, thinks
that the young generation have a different view towards gender, mainly
because of the access to social media: They have a bigger exposure than
there parents, they have access to all media and good connections with
their friends on Facebook. However they are still dominated by the
patriarchal narrative. The male dominating culture has always been in
Hinduism, the majority religion of the Tamils in the North, and compared to
Sinhalese culture the Tamil society is according to Tarumarajah even worse
when it comes to the suppression of women.
She thinks that it is a problem that the TV in Jaffna has a lot of Indian
Channels that portray the stereotypical gender roles. Also, Tharumarajah
recently did a research of three Tamil newspapers in Jaffna and found that
there was an under-representation of womens issues, especially in the

political context. Furthermore she found that there were almost no female
journalists and it doesnt seem like that will change with the next
generation: Most of my female students are afraid to work in the media
because of the situation, she says. Dr. Nalin Abeysekera from the Open
University of Sri Lanka did the same research on Sinhalese newspapers and
found that they also were very male dominated, had a low female
involvement, and that the female journalists only covered areas such as
women affairs, entertainment and not hard news.
Having a more balanced coverage of both men and women in every sphere
of the society would apply nuances to the stereotypical gender roles, for
example more females who speak about politics and more men who speak
about parenting. That would be one way to change the mind-set and to
break down the very static roles in society.
Changing the cultural norms
The 31st of March Media lecturer Kiruththiga Tharumarajah and her
students published a gender magazine called Visaisirakukal (Wings with
force) in Jaffna where they write about gender issues from the perspective
of men, women and transgender: We give space for both men and women,
so we hope that it will be read by both genders and have an impact,
Tharumarajah says. They hope that projects like this mixing fashion with
more deep subjects and addresses both men and women will have a
positive impact towards changing the gender stereotypes.
Rose Wijeyesekera explains that the universities are very attentive towards
the way they portray the genders in textbooks and have human rights
programmes on the schedule where the students are taught womens
rights. Rosanna Flamer-Caldera underpins the importance of educating the
Sri Lankan population and states that it needs to come from above, from
politicians, doctors and lawyers.
More female journalists would most likely ensure a more equal and nuanced
portrayal of both genders in the media, and more women in the parliament
would be a way to ensure that there is a legislation passed to secure
women, children and minorities, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera explains and
notes: I am happy that the president said in his presidential campaign that
he will work on the violence against women and children, so lets see if this
will happen.