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Brightening the future by ending sexual violence now 

06 Feb 2022

By Dr. Devika Brendon There have been a lot of politicians all over the world telling us that a nation’s security and economic prosperity are the most important factors in making a country great. Freedom from terrorism and poverty are huge benefits to strive for and to measure our happiness by. A close third, in the eyes of 20 of us in Colombo, is personal safety – safety from harassment, abuse, and violence, that is suffered disproportionately by those identifying as women and girls in this country.  At the beginning of September 2020, a campaign to end sexual violence was founded in Sri Lanka. As sexual abuse – including child abuse, rape, assault, and harassment – are significant community issues, we decided we should create a community awareness campaign.  The focus of the campaign is to ensure that everyone in this society reads and hears the personal stories of victims of sexual violence and abuse, so that they cannot dismiss or ignore their damaging effects on their fellow citizens. First person narratives are powerful in expressing human experience in a way that personalise incidents and humanise statistics. We set up secure email accounts; safesrilankanow@gmail.com and endingsexualviolencenow@gmail.com, to which those who have experienced gender-based violence can send in their accounts of incidents of harassment, violence, and abuse which they have directly experienced, or witnessed. In a society where misogyny and disrespect towards women and girls are normalised, many of these incidents occur each day throughout the country. Many people reporting these incidents are not taken seriously, as harassment is often expressed in words and gestures rather than in physical form.  Even assault and rape are treated as rare ‘one-off’ cases, rather than seen as part of a systemic problem.  Misogyny is not only directed at girls and women. Transgender people are under particular threat due to police violence, and police have been reported to have used historical colonial laws to abuse queer men, including transgender men. Heterosexual people would not believe the indignities of forced anal and vaginal checks which are implemented to see if a cis man has been having sex. We can see that a lot of antiquated laws are being used to persecute LGBT people, so it is clear that systemic legal reform is needed.  Transitioning medically is now possible legally, and trangenders people can change their IDs too, but on a micro level, plenty of Sri Lankans go out of their way to persecute trans people. Identifying as homosexual in this country is still against the law. Awareness of the right to safety and human dignity of people who are seen as existing outside the widely accepted narrow gender norms is happening incrementally, and on a macro level.  We created a Facebook page and group in which these issues can be publicly discussed, an Instagram page where we post content and commentary that can be shared, and a blog (‘End Sexual Violence Now’) in which the stories of the victims and survivors of violence can be posted publicly, in their own words, and with their identifying details removed for their protection.  Of particular interest to us is the way the complaints regarding these incidents were addressed and handled (or mishandled) by authorities, as so few incidents result in a legal charge, and many perpetrators continue to offend, believing that their offences will never be prosecuted.  Once we have a range of first person accounts, we will collate and cross reference them and use the content to make specific recommendations for improvement in the reporting and processing of these cases, to relevant government officials and those in charge of the Ministries of Justice and Defence (overseeing the Police) and Education (incorporating Women’s and Children’s Affairs).  Attacks on female foreign business owners, tourists, and travellers have also drawn attention to the high prevalence of violence and lack of safety felt by women and girls in Sri Lanka, and has had a negative impact on the country’s reputation as a tourist destination.  The lack of informed sex education in the country, and the lack of general understanding of the need for consent, the widespread menace of street harassment and bodyshaming, the casual reduction of women’s personalities, the acceptance of objectification and humorous jokes at the expense of women, the fear and ignorance directed towards those identifying as non-binary in gender, including LGBTQI people, add to the social disempowerment of those identifying as female, and these aspects will take some time to challenge and change. The current thinking and mindsets of a great proportion of the population, both women and men, must change for positive changes to take place in the way people behave and for a more inclusive, accepting, and safe society to form. Walking on the streets or travelling on public transport is a daily challenge most women in Sri Lanka dread. While some women choose not to get involved, through apathy, ignorance or fear of repercussions, there are many of us who oppose that opinion, and want to do something about it.  This issue has been intensified by the ‘shadow pandemic’ that has emerged over the past 18 months globally, due to the rise in domestic violence as a result of the lockdowns and office closures, which have forced many people to work from home. People who could previously gain some respite in a workplace from issues of violence and disrespect in their home environment, now had no alternative but to endure it. As stress levels rise, due to unemployment, anxiety, and financial worries, so do domestic violence levels. Children as always have been particularly vulnerable to toxic situations, as are pregnant women, and those with chronic illnesses and disabilities who need special care.  Even before the pandemic highlighted these areas of concern, the need for sex education, relationship etiquette, respect and boundaries to first be taught at home was clear and evident. Sri Lankan parents don’t generally speak openly about sexual matters with their children, and that ignorance is what leads to children’s curiosity in exploring via ‘other means’, including the Internet with its easy access to pornographic content. Sex education should also be taught in schools as a subject, not merely from a biological perspective, but from a social, emotional, and relational point of view.  Pornographic content online is easily accessible, and its objectifying impact normalises disrespect towards women. Sri Lanka has the opportunity to educate its social media using citizens from an early age, to be aware of the messages that are being given to them by what they consume and by what they expose their minds to view online.  Women In Need (WIN) Founder and a founding member of our ESVN campaign Caryll Tozer confirmed: “Our end goal and mission is that Sri Lanka is a safe place not just for visitors to the country but for our own women as well. We must be a shining example to the region to show that respect for women is fundamental to the national happiness of a nation. Women are the nurturers of those to come.” Gender-based violence is such a broad problem, and so deeply entrenched in our society, that we are aware that the campaign will take several years to really show results. However, all the campaign participants feel encouraged that by doing this work we are assisting to create a brighter future for all citizens of the country in which we live. (The writer is a teacher, editor, reviewer, and writer of English literature. Her poetry, short stories, and reviews have been widely published in Australia, India, and the US. Her journalistic work has appeared in The Sunday Times, The Sunday Island, Roar, Groundviews, and LMD.) 

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