Every year on March 8, the world briefly wakes up from its patriarchy-induced stupor to celebrate International Women’s Day. For a few days, hope reigns. Campaigns, awareness programmes, and conferences highlighting the horrors of domestic violence take place across the island and the world. World leaders publicly and vociferously pledge to uphold women’s rights; armchair activists bombard social media with heated cries on gender inequality, and newspapers dive into the spirit of things by dedicating whole pages to the problem of violence against women. In fact, for a little while, it seems as though the whole world desired nothing more than to stamp out every last trace of this global pandemic… then the day passes by and all the hype dies down ‒ until either the next ugly crime hits the headlines, or Women’s Day comes around again the next year.
A high prevalence issue like domestic violence requires constant coverage and attention rather than the once or twice-yearly stints in the spotlight it usually tends to get, especially in a country like ours where awareness on the issue is poor to the point of being non-existent. With this in mind, we recently published an article on domestic violence in Sri Lanka, highlighting the cultural and social attitudes towards this menace, the presence of male supremacy and patriarchy in our communities, as well as the need to eradicate existing deep-rooted misogynistic ideals that are slowly corroding the Sri Lankan society. We also briefly covered the 2005 Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and what it entails. Now, we intend to answer another all-important question: how should domestic violence be dealt with?
Make no mistake, domestic violence should be dealt with. To some of us, this may go without saying ‒ of course abusers should be taken to task! ‒ but to a large part of the Sri Lankan society, it is not that obvious at all. In spite of the country’s rapid growth and development, our society still fosters a rather medieval approach towards women, with an inherent tendency to sweep domestic violence under the carpet, accept it, condone it, and even encourage it, and there remains a pressing need to educate people on this fact ‒ no one should have to endure domestic abuse.
As we previously mentioned, abuse is not gender specific; men and boys can also be subjected to domestic violence. However, domestic violence against women is acknowledged to be more prevalent than violence against men, especially in Sri Lanka, and we will be looking at the situation in this context.
Identifying The Abuse
According to Savithri Wijesekera, Attorney and Executive Director of Women in Need Sri Lanka, the first step towards taking action against domestic violence is for the victim of violence to actually realise that she is a victim of violence.
“The victim should realise that she is being abused, that abuse is not acceptable and that it should not be tolerated,” she explains. “Only then will they seek help.”
That may sound a bit far-fetched; how can someone who is being abused possibly not know that she is being abused? However, if you think beyond blood and bruises and beatings, you will realise that abuse is not always apparent. Think about it: an abuser may not beat you, but he might force you to have sex even if you don’t want to. He may not slap you across the face or twist your arm but he might humiliate you, insult you, and belittle you all the time. As we pointed out in our previous article, domestic violence is not only physical; it also includes emotional, mental, economical and sexual abuse, forms of violence that might not create an outward mark or make loud and dramatic appearances, but can be just as harmful as physical blows. Add to that the cultural beliefs and familial ideologies which colour people’s thinking, as well as the fact that women themselves endorse wife-battery as a norm rather than an aberration, and identifying domestic violence becomes even more of a dilemma.
According to Wijesekera, some of the signs of an unhealthy relationship include constant emotional attacks, restrictions on movement, and the control of finances. “There are even professional working women who have their money controlled by their spouses,” says Wijesekera. “From the very beginning they are made to understand that this is the way the relationship works, and they don’t even question it because they think this is the norm. They don’t realise that it is not right.”
You will know you are in an abusive relationship if your spouse or partner:
- Prevents you from associating with your friends and family, or from going out to work or school.
- Destroys your property or things you care about.
- Makes decisions about yourself which should rightly be your own to make (like what to eat, wear etc.)
- Threatens to hurt you, your children, or your pets.
- Perpetrates marital rape
- Threatens to kill you
- Blames you for the violence and abuse he perpetrated
Like Wijesekera says, you have to question yourself. Think about what you are going through and ask yourself if this relationship you are in is actually a healthy one. Once you have identified yourself as a victim of domestic violence…
…then here’s what you need to do:
1. Remember that you do not deserve it
A CARE International survey conducted in Sri Lanka in 2013 uncovered just how deeply entrenched patriarchy is in our cultural beliefs. Among the shocking truths it revealed was the fact that quite a number of participants in the survey (38% of the female respondents and 26% of the male respondents) believed that there are times or apt circumstances in which a woman deserved to be beaten.
Many Sri Lankan women are brought up to think that way, but here’s the truth: no one deserves abuse. It doesn’t matter what you have said or done, or what lead up to the violence, it is your right to be able to live in safety and security, in an environment free of violence of any kind. Sure, you may have served your partner cold tea, but that does mean he is justified in throwing his cup at you. Yes, maybe you burned the rice, but that does not give your spouse the right to upend his plate all over you. Do not make the mistake of falling in with our backward cultural tendencies and justifying abuse of any sort.
2. Don’t blame yourself
Perpetrators of violence often try to absolve themselves of blame by diverting it to the victim, so it is imperative to keep in mind that you are not at fault for their aggression. The typical I-was-provoked excuse which abusers tend to throw about is just that ‒ an excuse. It is often seen that society tends to hold the victims responsible for their own mistreatment, frequently with “she asked for it” kind of attitudes that blame and shame the victim rather than hold the perpetrator accountable for the violence.
Remember that it is not your fault. The abuser is wholly responsible for his or her actions.
3. Reach out, talk to someone
Forget gedara gini eliyata danna epa and all those asinine adages of the same ilk. There is no shame in reaching out, and nothing wrong with getting help. It is backward attitudes and blind beliefs like these that corrode our society and hinder women’s development and independence.
According to Wijesekera, simply chatting with someone about the plight you are facing can help you get your bearings, identify your options, and figure out what course of action you might want to take.
“Talk to a loved one, a friend, or a family member,” counsels Wijesekera. “If you feel that they might not be helpful, then reach out to an organisation like Women in Need. We can help.”
She also stresses on the importance of acting at once, rather than tolerating the violence for years and letting the situation escalate.“Women in Need has never had a victim-survivor come for help after just one or two incidents of violence,” she says. “It is almost always after years and years of abuse that they finally decide to come to us for help.”
4. Decide on a course of action
Once you have realised that you are a victim of violence and assessed your situation, it is time to decide what you need to do. Keep in mind that this does not mean that you are under compulsion to make a drastic move of some sort. Many women are reluctant to contact organisations like WIN because in their minds, it automatically entails taking a course of extreme action.
“You don’t have to make a decision,” says Wijesekera. “However, at this stage, it would be good to figure out what you want to do with your life. Do you want protection from a spouse, or counseling, or legal advice? If the situation is really bad and you have faced extreme violence, do you need to take legal action against an abuser? Ask yourself what you need.”
Facing violence at the hands of a spouse or loved one can leave you helpless, bewildered, and fraught with confusion. It might seem like there is no way out, but remember, even if you don’t have a loved one or friend willing to lend a hand, Sri Lanka now has organisations like WIN who are dedicated to eliminating violence against women and providing victim-survivors with much-needed support and help. WIN also provides temporary shelter, legal services, and counseling, as well as a 24-hour hotline.
5. Stay safe
If your situation is such that you feel your life may be in danger, keep in mind that the most important factor is your safety and that of your children. Don’t put yourself at risk by hesitating to act; take action in whatever way you see is the best way to stay safe. Do not underestimate the damage domestic violence can inflict; a woman who is slapped and beaten one day may well be murdered the next. In fact, global statistics frighteningly report that about 38% of female murders are committed by an intimate partner.
It is not easy to rationally view and analyse your available options when faced with situations of violence. Act Now Sri Lanka’s website provides important safety plans and measures you can take to protect yourself during an incidence of violence, as well as necessary preparations and precautions you can take in the event that you want to make a getaway. You can also call or visit organisations like WIN for advice. If the situation demands it, call the police on 119 or 011-2444444.
The Role Of The Bystander ‒ Is It Really None Of Your Business?
Imagine this ‒ you are being abused. The place is you call home is a recurring nightmare rather than a place of safety, and a person you should be able to love and trust is hurting you. Now imagine yourself reaching out to someone for help… and that person turning away. How would you feel?
That ‘it’s none of our business’ mentality which threads through the Sri Lankan society may just be dismissed as another one of our many quirks, but this one is detrimental rather than idiosyncratic and can well be one of the root causes of the country’s abhorrent misogynistic attitudes. The intervention and support of relatives, neighbours, and the wider community is invaluable to victim-survivors of domestic violence, but unfortunately, it is rarely found in our society.
“The first thing you should do as a bystander, if you know that a friend or colleague is being abused, is talk to the person,” says Chulani Kodikara, Senior Researcher at the International Center for Ethnic Studies (ICES). “However, everything depends on the attitude of the bystander.”
For instance, in order to be of help, the bystander must first believe that domestic violence is not something that should be tolerated. He or she should also be aware of the legal options and other service options available to victims of violence, such as the availability of counseling or shelter services and the right to obtain a Protection Order under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA).“The problem with Sri Lanka is that there is a normalisation of incidents of domestic violence, as well as a lack of awareness of available services,” explains Kodikara. “Generally, the standard responses we tend to see amongst friends and family are things like ‘you must think about the children’ or ‘you must keep the family together’.”
It is often difficult to ascertain if someone is being abused behind closed doors, especially if the abuse is emotional and does not manifest itself in bruises or scars. However, some tell-tale signs you can look out for are:
- Major personality changes or unexplained mood swings
- Unexplained bruises or injuries
- Isolation and withdrawal from friends and family
- Constant and uncharacteristic fearfulness, depression, or anxiety
If you suspect that a friend, family member, or colleague is being subjected to violence, it is not easy to figure out how to take action. You might be afraid that they will take offense at your intrusion, feel unsure whether your help is wanted or be too self-conscious to get involved when no one else is doing so. However, your intervention and help might make a great difference to someone’s life. Do not take your cue from the rest of society and turn a blind eye.
That said, do keep this in mind: you cannot force anyone to extricate herself from an unhealthy relationship. However, you can do your best to talk to her, educate her on her rights and let her know that she does not have to tolerate this. Act Now Sri Lanka can help you can find out more about the importance of bystander intervention and how you might be able to help a victim-survivor.
As Kodikara says, no one should tolerate domestic violence. It is our inherent predisposition towards tolerance and acceptance that allows domestic abuse to flourish unchecked on this seemingly idyllic little paradise island of ours. Remember, it may seem like there is nowhere, nobody, and nothing that could help, but no matter how bleak your circumstances are, silently enduring this scourge is never the answer.
We still have a long way to go in our fight to achieve a zero-tolerance policy towards domestic abuse and violence against women. For example, in spite of the fact that we do have a legal remedy to domestic violence in the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, social obstacles still stand in the way of female empowerment and liberation.
“The PDVA is a good law,” says Kodikara, despite the gender-neutrality of the Act. “However, it has many implementation problems.” In fact, according to her research paper Battered Wives or Dependent Mothers, even judges have been known to have mixed feelings about the PDVA and express doubts that family violence is ever grave enough to necessitate judicial response.
Among other things, Sri Lanka is also sadly lacking in infrastructure and services that are needed to support victim-survivors of violence. For instance, when it comes to shelters for victim-survivors, Kodikara says that you can count their number on the fingers of one hand.
“For years and years, Women in Need was the only organisation that offered shelter for battered women,” she points out. “Now there are a few more ‒ including one the government is planning on building in future ‒ but it’s not enough.”
Even the few shelters that are available, Kodikara says, face problems with resources and are of a quality that hardly subscribe to the needs of the battered women they house. “For instance, in other countries, shelters are often run by people who were victim-survivors themselves,” she explains. “Therefore they have more insight into the situation, and do more to uplift and empower battered women through awareness and consciousness-raising programmes and mobilisation activities.”
Yes, Sri Lanka certainly has miles to cover before we can achieve the gender equality we so badly need, but the willingness of victim-survivors to speak out and take action is instrumental for this. For time out of mind, men have been battering women, and women have been silently enduring it, both inclinations reinforced by centuries of gender stereotyping, blind myths, and cultural ideology. The only way to break this seemingly eternal cycle of violence in the home is to act, and woman hold the key to this. After all, a family is supposed to be a sanctuary, a safe haven rather than a place of terror and grief. If you are being abused, you need to remember that you deserve to live your life with dignity, free from violence and hurt.
Featured image courtesy endabusewi.org