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Prolonged Covid-19 travel restrictions: Increase in domestic violence cases  

2 years ago

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By Sarah Hannan     Domestic violence is considered to be a grave social issue and given that anyone could become a victim of domestic violence, the discourse around the matter seems to be limited.   A victim of domestic violence faces mental and physical abuse, and trying to understand their plight and providing much needed support for them would require the services of various mediators.   With the country undergoing lockdowns and travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic from time to time, there seems to be an increase in the number of domestic violence cases that have been reported.   According to the statistics shared by the State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-Schools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure, and Education Services, the emergency hotline (1938) established to assist on women’s affairs had received 1,215 calls on domestic violence cases for the year 2020.   However, the number of domestic violence cases reported for the period from 1 January to 31 May 2021 had increased up to 1,227.   Providing much needed clarity on what can be categorised as domestic violence, Founder of Child Protection Force and Attorney-at-Law Milani Salpitikorala explained: “An incident of violence that occurs within a household atmosphere, be it between spouses, between parents and children, or between partners that are living together, can be categorised under domestic violence. While the common understanding is that women are mostly subjected to domestic violence, even men can become the victims of domestic violence. Therefore, complaints regarding domestic violence can be raised by women, men, and children.”   Salpitikorala further noted that amendments to the Penal Code are currently under discussion where clauses about emotional abuse are to be included, which will allow the seeking of legal action against a person that is constantly being verbally abusive, causing mental strain to the victim.   When asked about the reason for the increased number of domestic violence cases getting reported amid the pandemic. Salpitikorala noted: “One of the main contributors towards acts of violence is identified to be alcohol and substance abuse, and initially, it was observed that during the first lockdown last year, there had been reduction in domestic violence cases being reported. However, due to the lack of access to alcohol and certain substances, there have been reports of persons displaying aggressive behaviour towards the family members as well.”   Confirming the increase in domestic violence cases during the travel restrictions and lockdowns, Police Women and Child Bureau Director Dharshika Ranasinghe noted: “The main reason behind the increase of domestic violence cases during this period is due to the abuser and the victim being isolated within the same household, and most often, the conflicts between them arise due to the lack of food and the financial instability that they have to face, given the present situation in the country. These conflicts later escalate to domestic violence incidents.”  Ranasinghe also added that in most of these incidents, the victim would call the 1938 hotline to report it, but when the Police contact them to inquire about the incident, they tell them to discontinue the inquiry. “We cannot discontinue the inquiry as such, as we have to consider the safety of the victim in future instances. Therefore, we urge these victims to visit the nearest police station and make a complaint about the incident.”   Given that most people are required to stay at home due to the pandemic, and explaining how a victim could seek legal aid, Attorney-at-Law Nalin De Silva stated: “The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 2005 (PDVA) was passed to ensure the safety of women and children, and even men could seek legal aid for domestic violence cases under the said Act. However, as a society, we do not have to be limited to an Act to take action against cases of domestic violence, it is the society itself that needs to provide the necessary protection to persons that are victims of domestic violence.”   Further elaborating, De Silva noted that even amid the pandemic, there is no barrier in taking legal action and that the courts are in operation for special cases.  “As advised by the Police, a victim can lodge a complaint about the incident and is able to continue legal proceedings in court. Therefore, we urge the victims of domestic violence to take all necessary steps to report the incident, so that their safety is ensured.”   In addition to that, De Silva noted that emergency contact numbers such as the Child Protection line 1929, Women’s Affairs line 1938, the number for the nearest police station, contact number of a lawyer, or even a contact number of a reliable person from the family or a friend, should be noted down or saved on the phones to be accessed easily when the need arises.    
Statement by National Forum Against Gender-Based Violence   The National Forum Against Gender-Based Violence in Sri Lanka, as a national body of state and non-governmental organisations working against gender-based violence in Sri Lanka, pointed out that since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, there has been an increased demand for support services with regard to domestic violence to which the members of the national forum have been responding in various capacities.   Whilst acknowledging and commending the response taken by the Government for operating the national hotline 1938 for 24 hours, the forum noted that, there are further challenges that require immediate attention and that failing to respond may result in serious harm or fatalities.   The forum called on the:  
  • Respective Sri Lankan authorities in law enforcement and social services to urgently adopt standard protocols on responding to domestic violence specific to the pandemic. Ensure that calls for assistance are responded to promptly, that survivors are not burdened or re-victimised by being compelled to return to abusive homes or attend inquiries during travel restrictions; survivors are assisted in terms of securing medical treatment, examinations by Judicial Medical Officers for maintenance of official records, and referred to public and private institutions providing care, assistance, and protection during this time; 
  • Justice sector of the country to deploy without delay, a mechanism for survivors in need of urgent protection orders to secure such orders by means of online applications in terms of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 2005. The support of the Sri Lanka Police to communicate protection orders to respondents, and to monitor and respond to breaches of such protection orders; and 
  • Leaders of political and administrative offices to highlight the importance of safeguarding the rights of and providing safe and non-judgmental protection to survivors of violence, is crucial at this juncture. 

Call for guidelines for Police on domestic violence inquiries   MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya in May had written to the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka to issue guidelines to the Sri Lanka Police on how to respond to incidents of domestic violence amidst the Covid-19 restrictions, emphasising the duties of the Police in terms of Articles 11 (freedom from torture), Article 12 (1) (equal protection of the law) of the Constitution, provisions of the Assistance and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witness Act, and the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of Sri Lanka ensuring that; 
  • Victims are supported to seek medical services 
  • Victims are supported to access safe spaces of their choices during travel restrictions 
  • Arrest perpetrators of domestic violence and secure protection orders if needed 
  • Respond urgently to calls for assistance 
  • Ensure that health and safety of victims is of primary consideration 
  • Refrain from shaming, blaming, and verbally abusing victims and adding to their emotional distress 

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