Violence against women on the rise

At least 60 percent of all women in Sri Lanka have experienced domestic violence, according to the Gender-Based Violence Forum (GBV Forum), a collective of UN and other international and local organisations.

Specialists believe such abuse is on the increase in a country that scores well on most social issues such as education and healthcare.

"The prevalence of gender-based violence is reported to be high and widespread, cutting across class, race, ethnicity and religion," Lene K Christiansen, the country representative for the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), said at the 25 November ceremony in Colombo to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.

"While some positive measures to address gender-based violence through enactment of laws are in place, it remains hidden in the private domain, shrouded by a veil of silence and denial," she said.

Abuse on the increase

The GBV Forum stated that the number of reported incidents had been increasing. "Whether this is due to increasing incidents of gender-based violence or due to efforts by many organisations to encourage women to speak out against this crime remains unclear," it said. Nonetheless, even the increasing incidence of abuse did not indicate the true dimensions of the problem, it stated.

Law enforcement officials and those working in advocacy programmes agree that violence against women is probably increasing in Sri Lanka, where women make up about 51 percent of the population of 21 million people.

"Violence against women and abuse has not gone down; if at all, it may have increased," Buddhika Balachandra, officer in charge of the Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Children and Women of the Sri Lanka Police Department, told IRIN.

Police stations nationwide routinely record between 8,000 and 10,000 cases of violence against women per month, according to Balachandra, who said the real figure could be far greater.

Veil of secrecy

"Violence, especially domestic and sexual abuse, still tends to remain under-reported due to various social stigmas that are attached," Maureen Senevirathna, the head of Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere (PEACE), an NGO, told IRIN.

"Breaking the silence is one of the biggest challenges facing Sri Lanka in addressing gender-based violence," UNFPA's Christiansen said.

Balachandra said newer forms of abuse had also emerged. "One of the fastest growing trends is abuse using mobile technology," he told IRIN. "There is a trend where women have been recorded in intimate or private environments, and the clips have been used as blackmail or been circulated or uploaded on the internet."

The GBV Forum said women living in the conflict zones in the north and east of the country, in post-tsunami shelters and institutions such as orphanages and detention centres, faced the highest risk of abuse. "In Sri Lanka, the most prevalent types of violence against women are rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, forced prostitution and trafficking," it said.

Photo: GBV Forum
Bus with the slogan "Violence against women hurts us all...Act now," part of the campaign launched by the GBV Forum

Awareness campaign

The GBV Forum launched a 16-day public advocacy campaign on 25 November that includes slogans on buses, a white ribbon campaign and a media campaign in which men speak out against violence against women. The campaign ends on 10 December, World Human Rights Day.

"This public awareness campaign acknowledges that victims of violence are largely women, whether in an urban or rural setting, in an IDP camp, inside a bus or train, in the street or in the place of work," Christiansen said. "But the campaign also acknowledges that violence against women is not merely a 'women's issue' but is an issue that affects us all, an issue that requires collective action by every one of us."

Balachandra said awareness could do more for prevention than punitive measures. "At the end of the day laws can do so much, they can fill the jails, but they may not necessarily end the problem."