Domestic violence in Sri Lanka: the power of alternative discourse

The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act has opened up an important and new discursive ‘space of struggle’ to debate patriarchal privilege, the sanctity of the family, and the ‘meaning’ of domestic violence in Sri Lanka

Chulani Kodikara
6 March 2015

When Sri Lanka’s Parliament unanimously passed The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) ten years ago, following a six year  advocacy process by a coalition of women’s NGOs, it was generally recognised as a key milestone in women’s engagement with the law. Prior to its enactment the only “legal’ remedy available for a survivor was to make a police complaint, which was rarely taken seriously.

The Act did not create a new offence, but it did provide for the issue of Protection Orders by a Magistrate’s Court against perpetrators of ‘domestic violence’. Domestic violence is defined in the Act as acts of physical violence, which constitute offences against the body already recognized under the Penal Code, as well as emotional abuse - defined as a pattern of cruel, inhuman, degrading or humiliating conduct of a serious nature directed towards an aggrieved person. Protection Orders (PO) can be sought against persons in specified degrees of relationships. The Magistrate Court is empowered to issue an Interim Protection Order (IPO) valid for 14 days on receiving an application under the Act without the burden of having to prove her/his case. A PO valid for a period of 12 months can then be sought on the basis of evidence presented in court. A PO can also bar the aggressor from committing further acts of violence and entering the victim's residence among other prohibitions. In imposing prohibitions, the court is required to balance the accommodation needs of the applicant and the children and any hardship that may be caused to the aggressor. The Act focuses on ensuring the safety of the aggrieved person by providing a civil remedy but also preserves his/her right to initiate separate additional civil or criminal action as permissible.

The Act fell short of the expectations of women’s organisations on a number of counts. It is gender neutral, it has no provisions relating to monitoring of protection order and no provisions relating to support services, Nevertheless it is a victory gained by the women’s movement in Sri Lanka in a long struggle to address the problem of violence against women within the family and particularly intimate partner violence against women (IPVW).

Ten years on from the Act becoming law, research by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) reveals less than 1% of women who experience domestic violence in Sri Lanka will seek protection under the Act. The Act clearly remains a remedy of last resort for women survivors. This is partly because it is still not a matter that women want to take before a court of law. Dominant social and cultural norms in Sri Lanka which tend to privilege the family unit over a woman’s right to bodily integrity clearly discourages women from seeking legal recourse for violence. Indeed such violence is often seen as a normal part of married life or as a temporary disruption in an otherwise peaceful household. This discourse about violence, is part of a broader discourse around the family in which a good wife is one who listens to and obeys her husband, remains silent in his presence, avoids socialising outside the family, and attends to household chores and child care. Violence is to be endured silently and not to be disclosed to the public. As enjoined by the Sinhala idiom ‘Gedara Gini Eliyata Danna Epa’, (roughly translated as ‘home fires’ must be kept confined to the home) breaking the silence surrounding violence is still a taboo.

The implementation gap

Even when cases are filed, there is an implementation gap. For the 1% of women who have the courage to take their attackers to court, where they are confronted with the fact that familial ideology continues to operate and manifest, even in court proceedings. In protection order proceedings, familial ideology manifests itself in different ways; the trivializing and minimizing violence, the dismissal of violence as a private matter to be dealt within the family unit and not a matter to be resolved through a court of law, or as a matter to be endured for the sake of children and the family. It is also  manifested in notions relating to the exceptionalism of domestic violence, and the liability of women to make false claims and therefore requiring some form of corroboration. During the course of this research, as one lawyer told me:

" Some magistrates are reluctant to give ex parte orders even in the case of IPOs and insist on leading evidence of the husband before the IPO is issued, because of their belief that the law is sometimes abused by women who want to oust their husbands from the homes that belong to them (the husbands). This results in delay and consequently women face additional abuse".

Despite its unanimous adoption as law in Parliament in 2005, a number of political and public figures have recently sought to question the need for the Act in Sri Lanka. Their discourse is marked not so much by a denial of the prevalence of domestic violence, but by the tendency to normalize, trivialise and legitimise it by invoking patriarchal cultural narratives and local ‘wisdom’. One old proverb, particularly popular with politicians of the Rajapakse Regime (2005- 2015), is gedara sandu batha idenka vitharai, which translates as ‘violence in the home is only until the rice is cooked’, and which constructs domestic violence as a momentary disruption in an otherwise calm and peaceful household.  Take for instance, what the former President had to say at a Women’s Day celebration held in his constituency, Hambantota, in 2010: 

" We have introduced laws to bring relief to women. Sometimes I wonder whether these laws are excessive.  . . .At first glance they seem very attractive. But Sri Lankan women occupy a high status based on our culture which is 2500 years old. . . and under current legal regulations, our cultural values are being  weakened, while the legal bond has been strengthened.

There is a saying that we have heard that domestic violence is only until the rice is cooked. When two people who are different to each other live together under one roof there will be problems. These problems most often will only be until the rice is cooked. Sometimes they may last longer and be reported to the police. According to the existing law, the police now have to file a case in court. Then the husband is not allowed to enter his own home. Then the rice may get cooked, but the parties have gone to court to file for divorce . . .. We end up unable to reconcile the husband and wife. We are now complicit in their separation. This is my own view."

The alternative discourse on domestic violence 

Any analysis of the impact of the PDVA that is restricted to the number of cases filed and implementation gaps mentioned above is an incomplete analysis. The PDVA has opened up an important and new discursive ‘space of struggle’ to talk about patriarchal privilege, the sanctity of the family, and the ‘meaning’ of domestic violence in Sri Lanka. This is struggle is evident in a dominant discourse that trivialises and condones domestic violence while constructing the PDVA as a threat to the social order, and an alternative discourse that highlights the pain and trauma of victim survivors.

Even though the cases actually being registered under the Act are incredibly low at just 1%, an alternative discourse, which has for the most part remained a private between victim-survivors and institutional workers about the pain, trauma, shame, loss of self esteem and humiliation suffered by victim-survivors and their struggles to free themselves of violence, is now seeping into the public domain contradicting and challenging the dominant discourse.

Take the case of Upeksha Swarnamali (Pabha), Member of Parliament, who spoke about her experience of domestic violence before Parliament in March 2011. In February 2011, the media reported that she was hospitalized after being assaulted by her husband. On her recovery and return to Parliament, she spoke about her experience of domestic violence appealing to all 225 Members of Parliament that they should unite to address the problem.

"After my experience of violence, I reflected on it and I tried to find out more about this. I found that 60% of Sri Lankan women are beaten and 44% of pregnant women are also beaten. These women are traumatized and suffer because of men’s violence against them. I want to assist such women. I hope that all parliamentarians will join me to address this problem. Domestic violence should be eradicated from this country".

In November 2011, Roel Raymond, a blogger posted an even more impassioned and powerful public account of a personal experience of domestic abuse.  She begins by saying:

" It has never been easy for me to speak of what took place during those 5 years I was married.....I mean to now because my story or some part of it may resonate with someone out there".   

These two narratives offer a stark contrast to the dominant public discourse on domestic violence described above and maybe described as reverse discourses, wherein victim-survivors are speaking up publicly on their own behalf. As Naila Kabeer points out in her book The Power to Choose, the emergence of narratives, of opinions and arguments about what was previously unquestioned implies the co-existence of ‘competing possibles’.

That domestic violence and the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act is ‘high politics’ enough for the President to express concern about it indicates the power of this alternative discourse. The inevitable contestation between these discourses will be central to new ways of thinking and acting, not just in relation to domestic violence in Sri Lanka, but to advancing women’s rights and gender equality in general.




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