Blog Archives

Sunila Abeysekera on One Billion Rising

Sri Lanka needs to rise. The injustice is too deeply set– it’s time we snapped out of the apathy and made some noise.

Investigations of the Wijerama gang rape victim is against the victim. Yes, you read that right. It was reported that the police suspect she’s a sex-worker and so her claim of being raped has got to be false. Yes, that’s the logic of those who have been appointed to protect us. Where’s the justice for women? Double that with ineffective laws to protect women, and you’d see that women in Sri Lanka are not safe.

Sunila Abeysekera spoke to Beyond Borders on why Sri Lanka should join One Billion Rising.

Video- filmed and edited by Megara Tegal in Nepal. 

Sexual Offenders Go Scot Free (Only in Sri Lanka)

In Sri Lanka sexual offenders are pretty much the same as petty thieves. After all, assaulting and raping a 12 year old girl is the same as stealing mangoes from your neighbours garden– at least that’s how our judiciary see it.

In 1995, after much coercion by women’s rights lawyers and activists, a law was passed stating that anyone found guilty of committing a sexual offence will receive a minimum prison sentence of seven to ten years. Now that law acted as a deterrent. It was a strict sentence that would ensure that the more devious of men would not act on their lascivious urges for fear of being contained behind bars for several years. Progress was being made up until 2008, when a particular High Court Judge in Anuraddhapura, felt it wasn’t fair to dispense such a harsh ruling on a man who had consensual sex with a 16 year old girl. The victim and the accused had eloped, gotten married and started life together as a married couple. With consent from the Supreme Court, the judge simply ruled a ‘suspended sentence’. A suspended sentence is the blacklisting of criminals who are free from any form of punishment unless another complaint is made aganist them.

Using this verdict several criminal lawyers have helped sexual offenders escape serving a prison term. Since 2008 to 2009, it’s been found that of 129 reported cases identified by LHRD, an alarming 114 received a suspended sentence which included a paltry compensation fine and freedom to harass the victim and maybe even commit the crime over again but this time around make sure the victim doesn’t spill the beans on him.

That’s 88% of the reported cases. 88% of  those who have been found guilty of sexual offences- some as harsh as violently assaulting and raping a woman, ganging raping a woman who was waiting for her bus in the middle of the night, and a man who repeatedly raped his niece and threatened to kill her if she spoke about it- all free to walk among us.

Will the ‘suspended sentencing’ of sexual offenders be lifted? Going by what the Attorney General’s Department said at a press conference organised by the Lawyers for Human Rights and Development (LHRD) on the matter- not too soon; if anytime at all.

Attorney, Kalyananda Thiranagama who is also the executive director of Lawyers for Human Rights and Development (LHRW) stated that court proceedings must speed up. One of the reason’s a suspended sentence is declared is because the court cases are prolonged. While Dr. Mario Gomez of the Law Commission of Sri Lanka said that at the very least the Supreme Court should set up guidelines to direct High Court Judges when passing verdicts on sexual offenders. The Attorney General’s Department however, did not have a satisfactory response, instead they were vague and uncommitted.

So what hope is there? Well for now we can raise awareness. Having read this do share this information with friends and family, if we can make enough noise about it, maybe the government will finally realise that intimidation and forced sex is nothing close to a petty crime.

– Megara Tegal

Meg is a member of the steering committee of Beyond Borders. She’s a journalist, part time TV show host, 3rd grade caricature artist, student in social sciences and she holds the world prize for klutz-iness. Her opinions are her own. She blogs here.

Man Up!

For the guys there was a huge risk factor involved. There was a fair chance the commuters on the bus would band together and beat the living day lights out of them. But that was what Reach Out and Beyond Borders had set find out when we conducted disruptive theatre in buses recently.

Despite it being a nerve-wrecking social experiment, disruptive theatre was dynamic way to gather research for our campaign against harassment of women in public places.

The skit was simple. We planted a designated perpetrator and victim on popular bus routes and enacted a typical harassment scenario. A few team ‘observers’ stationed about the purlieus discreetly made a record of how Sri Lanka bystanders- male or female, young or old, reacted.

After 6 disruptive theatre skits over four weekends, in buses as well as public places (shopping malls like Majestic City), we had sound qualitative evidence to suggest that Sri Lankans are somewhat indifferent when in the vicinity of street harassment or they simply didn’t know how to react.

On one occasion a female passenger offered her seat to our victim. Apart from that our perpetrator was shot a few glaring looks of disapproval from both men and women but that was as far as the bystanders would go.

Going by our research it’s clear that Sri Lankans need to be educated on how to react appropriately, if we wish to make Colombo a safer place for women. They also need to be made aware of the gravity of street harassment; the damaging long term psychological effects it has on women. Further research indicated that many Sri Lankans are oblivious to the law enforced against street harassment and the possible 5 year imprisonment sentence that entails it.

More information on advisable and safe ways to react to street harassment, whether you witness it or you’re a victim of it, check out the ReachOut Facebook page- http://www.facebook.com/reachoutnow

Note: All participating BBites and ReachOut members emerged from the disruptive theatre with their limbs intact; completely unharmed save for a few accidentally squished toes.

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What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is an act of a sexual nature using assault, criminal force, or words or actions, which causes annoyance or pain of mind to the person being harassed.

It can include

  • unwelcome physical contact and advances
  • words or comments of a sexual nature that makes the person hearing it uncomfortable
  • dirty jokes and obscene gestures
  • showing pornographic material
  • demanding or requesting sexual favours
  • circulation of abusive emails
  • any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non – verbal conduct of sexual nature

Sexual harassment can occur in the work place or in public places such as in buses.

Both men and women can be guilty of sexual harassment.

What a Victim of Sexual Harassment

SHOULD DO

SHOULD NOT DO

tell the harasser to stop ignore it
complain to authorities laugh it off
confront the harasser  

Victims Ignore Sexual Harassment

because

  • of an environment that does not encourage complaints
  • the fear of making matters worse
  • the fear of harm to one’s name
  • its acceptance as a common occurrence in the workplace
  • of lack of awareness about legal relief
  • of the absence of sexual harassment prevention policies in the workplace
  • of the common practice of blaming victims rather than the aggressor
  • of low self esteem

The Law

Sexual harassment is an offence in the Penal Code (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 1995 (section 345).

The offence is described as: “Harassment of a sexual nature using assault, criminal force, or words or actions which causes annoyance to the person being harassed.”

The punishment for the offence is

  • imprisonment with or without hard labour for any period up to five (5) years, or
  • a fine, or
  • imprisonment and fine imposed together.

The perpetrator can be ordered to pay compensation to the person against whom the offence was committed.

Encouraging or condoning sexual harassment is also a crime under the law.

Filing a Sexual Harassment Case

  • Make an entry at the nearest Police Station
  • The Police will then conduct investigations
  • The Police will decide, in consultation with the Attorney General’s Department whether or not to file action in court.

Source: ACT Now- Resources for Combating Violence Against Women

Feminism and the Law

Does the legal system cater to women? Many feminist don’t believe it does. Which could be agreed upon as the law provides inadequate protection for women’s injuries, which are among the most under reported crimes in the world.Why it is that Sexual harassment was not considered an offense for a long time? And pornography is protected by interpreting the constitution so to categorize it as free speech in some countries such as United States, while many feminists such as Catherine Mackinnon would consider it a discrimination of the sexes? And why is it that abortion is not dealt with by looking at the woman’s desire to have a child but by the ‘interest of society’? Is the society so patriarchal?

Such is quite evident by the views taken by many jurist such as Hobbes who stated that the mother is sovereign in relation to children but family is strictly a patriarchal institution, therefore meaning all decisions made in a family are the ones made by the man in the house and even looking at the public sphere it is evident that only few women are represented in parliament and especially in a country which boasts about having the world’s first woman prime minister.

The systems of laws generally only function to protect a preconceived character such as a white, middles class woman, while in reality it’s a complete different. Mariana Valverde stated that the needs of a woman picking coffee beans for fifty cents in Brazil and the needs of an American woman sipping coffee while writing about feminism would be a whole lot different and therefore it is a requirement we fight the stereotypes which blur the needs of each and every woman into one mould, as each woman’s needs are different from the other.

The law has recognized the rights of women mostly after the French Revolution as it made women aware of their rights. But till 1884 in UK wives were capable of being imprisoned by their husbands if they pleased, and as they were legally married she was under a contractual agreement and was considered the property of the husband. Domestic violence wasn’t recognized in the UK till 1975.

So clearly it has been a very slow process in evolving the system to protect the rights of women. International law cannot be given any recognition either as many women suffer due to war have crimes committed on them such as rape by members of the armed forces. Also International laws are quite reluctant to be a moving force to prevent young girls and women being circumcised and preventing traditional rituals such as Sati being carried out.

What has happened to human rights? Are we to believe that women are not considered as human beings, as most feminist believe the law is controlled by a patriarchal system which considers the man as the superior being.

– Radhi De Silva.

Related posts : Abortion in Sri Lanka, No Noise for Gender Violence.

Radhi is a Core Group Member of Beyond Borders Sri Lanka and an undegraduate student of law. Despite many studies conducted on the matter, It’s unclear whether she’s a feminist. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the organisation.