This article was published by the Daily Mirror http://www.dailymirror.lk/105882/How-Effective-is-the-Domestic-Violence-Act-
For Anuja* (40), abuse and beatings were a part of her everyday life. For 22 years she stayed with the man she had fallen in love with and married, despite the verbal, physical and sexual abuse he inflicted on her.
Her reluctance to leave him was partly because she was economically dependent on him. After the birth of their second child, her husband forced her to abandon her career as a school teacher to help him run his wayside restaurant. When she finally decided enough was enough and filed for divorce, she was forced to withdraw her case and return to her abusive husband after their relatives intervened.
The violence then escalated. Soon after her return, her husband assaulted and raped her repeatedly. On another occasion whilst working in the restaurant, he got into an uncontrollable rage owing to a simple oversight on her part and assaulted her mercilessly in the presence of customers and chased her out.
Another of her most harrowing experiences occurred not much later when he assaulted her in the presence of their children and cut her hair with a pair of scissors. She sustained injuries to her hands and head during the struggle. He then tried to break her leg but the neighbours intervened and prevented it.
Manic anger still running high, he took her in their vehicle to the town and announced to all those who were present that she was “punished” because she had an extra-marital relationship.
It was after this incident that Anuja sought the help of Women in Need (WIN), a non-profiting group that offers help to those affected by domestic violence. After regular counselling to help her through the trauma, WIN lawyers filed an application for a protection order under the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (PDVA) No 34 of 2005.
Anuja is one of many battered women that WIN’s staff deals with on a regular basis. The degrees and forms of violence vary, from emotional abuse to acid attacks and broken limbs.
Emotional, sexual and physical violence falls under the PDVA which defines domestic violence as violence that occurs within the home or outside between individuals in a close relationship. It could take the form of physical or emotional abuse.
The Act provides protection to victims who face these forms of violence that may also be general criminal offences in the Penal Code of Sri Lanka, such as hurt, grievous hurt, and bodily harm.
Sadly, even after a decade since the law came into force, there is limited awareness of it among public and even among some magistrates, which vitiates the Act.
According to research by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), only 1% of the battered women who walk through WIN’s doors choose to use the PDVA for relief.
Diluted and gender neutral
The PDVA was enacted in October of 2005. Drafted in consultation with women’s groups and gender advocates, it was a strong Act that identified that women are primarily the victims of domestic violence and that Sri Lankan society must recognize that wife battering is unacceptable.
However, it encountered much opposition before it was passed.
Chulani Kodikara, Senior Researcher at ICES, who has carried out extensive research on domestic violence in Sri Lanka, said “some Parliamentarians did not see the need for it and thought it was detrimental to the family”.
Domestic violence is entrenched in Sri Lankan culture. It is widely believed that domestic disputes should be settled at homes and wife beating is ‘part and parcel of married life’. In fact, a Sinhala saying suggests that ‘there are three things you can beat: the dog, the drum and the woman.’
Worryingly, these beliefs are being passed on to the next generation. A publication by UNICEF titled A Report Card on Adolescents, says that 54 percent of Sri Lankan youth – both girls and boys – between the ages of 15 to 19 years believed ‘a husband is justified in hitting his wife’.
In such a context, it was not surprising that the bill was not immediately acceptable to all parliamentarians. However it was ultimately unanimously passed consequent to some amendments being made to the original bill which was drafted by women’s organizations. These amendments included making the Act gender neutral and making provisions for counselling and efforts at reuniting the wife and husband. “The Act is very broad now” she added, “it includes violence within the family. So there’s spousal violence, violence between siblings, and violence between parents and children.
Nevertheless it is an extremely important piece of legislation which opens up an opportunity to recognize violence against women in their homes. If you take police statistics of what you call family disputes, the police themselves will tell you that at least 75% to 80% of those complaints are complaints from women who are being beaten by their husbands”.
What needs to be revised
The PDVA serves to protect only. It does not recognize abuse directed at wives to be a criminal act. While beating someone can be filed as assault, the PDVA does not seek to mete out punishment to a husband who beats his wife. It simply safeguards the victim with a protection order. If the perpetrator violates the protection order by approaching the victim, only then can he be imprisoned and that will be a short sentence. However, these forms of violence are criminal as per the penal code.
At present, in cases of domestic violence, lawyers file the case under the PDVA as well as assault under the penal code. Apart from lawyers, the police may also file a case on behalf of a victim.
However, the few police who use the PDVA at times leave out filing a case for assault as well. Why is this a problem? First, the perpetrator will not face charges for assault. Next, the protection order issued under the PDVA is only valid for one year. After which the victim is made vulnerable once again. This brings to question the effectiveness of the Act, and probably explains why most women refrain from using its provisions.
Nothing can stop a man with a grudge. According to Chulani, some abusive husbands are known to disregard even the interim protection order. “Emotions are running high and people are not being very rational about the consequences of what they are doing” she elaborates. “The perpetrators don’t often comply with the law – on the one hand if he is poor he may not mind going to jail for a couple of years. On the other hand if he is wealthy and have connections, he will use his influence to not be subject to the law. This is another reason why one has to be cautious when and how to use it because the support systems are weak”. The support systems are indeed weak or non-existent. There are no mechanisms in place to provide the victim with economic support until they are able to support themselves, medical care, assistance in caring for their children or ensuring that the children are not abducted after school by the abusive husband. Currently Sri Lanka has only a handful of functioning shelters for battered women.
Insufficient support for victims
The government, however, is in the process of building shelters across the country. Ms. R. A Chulananda, Director of the Women’s Bureau of Sri Lanka said, “Under the Women’s Bureau, we have established safe homes. There is one in Colombo and one in Ratnapura that are currently functioning, as well as a safe house for victims of trafficking which is in Gampaha. There are three others that are nearly complete in Jaffna, Mullaitivu and Batticaloa, and we will be recruiting staff at the safe houses from 2016”.
She went on to say that the Women’s Bureau of Sri Lanka plans to build more shelters in various parts of the island.
Shelters aside, the bureau has a National Women’s Committee with a complaint centre and hotline (No 1938), for those who need assistance. “We also provide psychosocial counselling; we have 10 counselling locations at district level. The Legal Aid Commission also provides legal aid free of charge for those who cannot afford it”. As for the PDVA, she mentioned, “the Ministry is also working on restructuring the legal framework of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act. This was part of the 100 Day Programme introduced by the new government. The dialogue is on-going”.
Another aspect that renders the PDVA ineffective is that marital rape is explicitly not considered ‘rape’ in the Penal Code. In Anuja’s case, the PDVA would have been useless as her husband raped her.
Strengthening the PDVA is an urgent need, especially given the prevailing belief that wife beating is acceptable, and that maintaining the family unit is deemed more important than the bodily wounds and mental scars of the wife.