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The complacency around violence against women 

a year ago

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Violence exists and goes on without being addressed not necessarily because we do not see violence as violence; it is because we think that acts of violence are justifiable, ignorable, and sometimes, pardonable, and it results in us not seeing its gravity.  These attitudinal barriers were acknowledged by the United Nations (UN) Women, which commemorated the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women which fell yesterday (25), and said that gender-based violence (GBV), although pervasive, is not inevitable.  Sri Lanka’s situation, especially in the past few years, has been sort of a mixed one – on the one hand, a socio-economic background has been created for Sri Lankan women to showcase their talents as singers and actresses, athletes and scientists at the international level, and on the other hand, we continue to see serious violations of women’s rights stemming from gender inequality in local and domestic environments.  If we take a look at the recent incident that took place in the Parliament where a male Parliamentarian indirectly hurled abusive, sexual remarks at a female MP and the wife of the Opposition Leader, it shows that even if Sri Lankan females had the opportunity to enter the Parliament, both through the national list of parties and votes, there is a serious concern about their rights to be treated equally and fairly in the Parliament. The immediate question this situation raises is, if a female MP is not safe from verbal abuse in the country’s main law-making institution and if action that can be taken against such is limited to the expression of disapproval and demands for an apology, what about females coming from less socially and economically privileged backgrounds and their rights in the general society?  It is true that even though there have not been significant changes as far as legal and policy contexts pertaining to women’s rights are concerned, there have been some social and attitudinal changes for the better. When singer Yohani de Silva gained international fame, when several female Police officers were promoted to the Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) post, and when Prof. Neelika Malavige was chosen as a member of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, the general public who commented about these on social media platforms did not seem to be concerned about their gender.  However, such changes are not adequate to stop serious issues such as violence and gender based discrimination against females, and in fact, being excessively complacent about the aforementioned achievements can distract us from the issues females are facing at the lower levels of the social, economic and institutional structures.  One of the best examples of such complacency is how we compare the situation of Sri Lankan females concerning their right to be treated equally and humanely with that of females in certain Middle Eastern countries, who live in much more stricter cultural, social and legal norms. However, that is tantamount to fooling ourselves, and looking at a person or a phenomenon existing in a less favourable situation is one of the rudimentary ways of downplaying the seriousness of matters.  This is one reality that shows a great need for attitudinal changes.  It is also important to note that this comparison almost always happens in a way that keeps Sri Lanka on a pedestal. We speak of how brutal and prevalent rape incidents are in India and think that Sri Lanka is a better place; but we do not talk about how India learnt from incidents such as the 2012 Delhi gang rape incident and took steps to appoint 399 courts as fast track courts (expected to complete cases ideally in two months) to hear rape cases and also other grave crimes against females.  In fact, comparing ourselves in this way is not limited to violence or gender-based discrimination; it relates to a number of other pressing issues concerning females.  Why do we not compare our situation to countries such as Iceland and Finland, which have over 47% of female MPs (as of October 2021) and rethink our female representation in Parliament which is slightly over 5%?; and why do we not look at countries like Scotland that have made menstrual hygiene-related products free and understand that Sri Lanka, as a country, is lagging far behind when it comes to ending period poverty?  One might say that these are developed countries that have better social and economic conditions. But is that not the whole point of this discussion – instead of being complacent, taking one step forward to try and reach the next level?  Violence against women is not only a pressing concern; it is also a worsening and changing issue. In addition to the violence we knew, after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, various reports based on anecdotal evidence suggested that during lockdowns and travel restrictions, domestic violence had increased, and that the main victim of these incidents was females. Even though there are no lockdowns for the time being, people tending to work from home while living with Covid-19-induced stress are factors that may lead to disputes and violence.  Not only legal, policy and social changes, there is also a great need for attitudinal changes to address violence against females, because nothing can change the status quo for the better as much as we, the people. At the same time, how we identify violence has to change – it has to switch from the traditional understanding of violence, i.e. physical assaults, to all forms of violence including verbal and psychological violence.  Most importantly, our attitudes need to change to stop justifying violence depending on our personal interests, and understand that regardless of the reason, any form of violence against a person of any gender identity, is wrong. 

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