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Budget 2022: Revealing the Government’s priorities

  • 25% decline in budgetary allocation for women and children

 By Harini Amarasuriya

As the nation grappled with the 2022 Budget, gas shortages, fuel shortage panic, and Covid-19 booster shot rollouts for citizens over 60 years in selected districts, a tragic incident in Panamure barely captured our attention. According to media reports, residents of Panamure surrounded the local police station in protest after a 38-year-old father of three died while in police custody. Responding to a question in Parliament, Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekera stated that the deceased man was arrested on a complaint of assault – which had led to hospitalisation – made by his eldest daughter.

The Minister went on to say that there was a history of domestic violence complaints against this man, and that the on-duty Police discovered him having attempted death by suicide while in the cell, and that he had died upon admission to the hospital. Media showed enraged villagers and members of his family alleging that the man was beaten to death by the Police. “Should a man die because of a domestic problem?” one woman demanded. Two police officers on duty have been interdicted, an inquiry is pending, and an open verdict on his death has been given by the coroner, at the time of writing this article.

When I tried to piece together the elements of this incident based on media reports, what emerged was a tragic example of the failure of systems at multiple levels that should be in place to protect and support those in need of help in this country. There has been a series of domestic violence incidents in relation to this family. Some of these incidents had been reported to the Police at various times. Yet, presumably, there was no proper intervention.

The man was a father of three daughters – presumably school-going. Some reports state that the oldest daughter is just 14 years old. The wife of the deceased had also made complaints regarding domestic violence previously. However, despite the presence of multiple government service providers – the Police’s Women and Children’s Desk, a Women’s Development Officer, Child Rights Promotion Officer, Probation Officer, a Public Health Unit, local school, etc. – this family slipped through the cracks. Consequently, a 38-year-old man is dead; his three children are without a father; a woman is widowed, and a village is in uproar. One cannot even begin to imagine what trauma the wife and children – especially the daughter whose complaint led to the arrest of her father – must be going through at this point. Media reports indicate that the village is strongly on the side of the dead man, demanding justice for his death, and certainly, no one deserves to die as he did. But I also hope that some thoughts have also been spared for his wife and children.

Reports of an increase in domestic violence, especially during the Covid lockdowns, have been made by the Police as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs). There have also been lurid reports of intimate partner violence, some leading to death in recent times. The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act was passed in Parliament in 2005. Women and Children’s Desks were established in police stations many years ago to deal specifically with issues regarding women and children. There are many other laws and policies in place to deal with issues of domestic violence, child protection, and sexual and gender violence. Yet research has consistently shown that implementation of these initiatives, policies, and law have been far from satisfactory. Despite a plethora of training programmes to sensitise the Police regarding dealing with such cases, there have been horrendous stories of harassment and intimidation by the Police when women attempt to file complaints of domestic violence.

Routinely, women are told that children need fathers and that they should try to “sort” things out with their husbands for the sake of the family. Women have been compelled to return to extremely violent situations with no support. Sri Lanka, to date, has only seven shelters in the entire country – a majority managed by the NGO sector – for women. When I raised questions in Parliament regarding child protection issues – specifically about the availability and quality of legal as well as other forms of support for victims – the then Minister for Education (under whom the State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-Schools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure, and Educational Services is placed) Prof. G.L. Peiris acknowledged that there were serious delays in the law and significant problems with the care and protection of children. For instance, during the period from 1 January 2020 to 23 September 2020, 6,063 complaints had been received by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) on child abuse. Yet, only 3,900 investigations had been completed. The quality of care and support – especially psychosocial support – received by children in contact with the law is far from satisfactory. This is despite years of discussions, research findings, policy documents, and campaigns to reform the sector. Every discussion or workshop ends with an acknowledgement of the gap between policy, law, and implementation, and with recommendations for improvement.

Yet, implementation requires more than good intentions. At a most fundamental level, resources – especially money – need to be allocated to implement policy. In this year’s Budget, there is a 25% cut in the allocation made to the State Ministry with probably the longest title: State Ministry of Women and Child Development, Pre-Schools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure, and Educational Services. It is under this Ministry that the two primary state institutions responsible for the care, protection, and support of children are located – the NCPA and the Department of Probation and Child Care. It is also the Ministry responsible for developing, implementing, and monitoring programmes for women – especially programmes on domestic violence. But this year’s allocation is not unusual. Since 2015, governments have not allocated even 1% of the budget for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, except in 2016, when the princely allocation of 1.55% of the total budget was made for the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs as it was then known. This means that successive governments had allocated less than 1% of the total budget for 52% of its population plus the children of this country. Sectors such as health and education, which are equally if not even more central to the wellbeing of women and children, have been similarly sidelined over the years.  Is it surprising that the family in Panamure fell through the cracks of care and support that it should have received? Sadly, this case will further discourage women and children from seeking support for domestic violence – certainly from the Police.

The one sector that has not had to suffer budget cuts, even after the end of the war, has been predictably, defence. In 2022 as well, when most ministries have had their budgets slashed, the Ministry of Defence has seen an increase. The total allocation for the defence and security sector is 21.12% of the total expenditure of the Government. This exceeds the combined allocation to education, women and children, health, agriculture, and transport. Why the country needs such a huge allocation for the defence sector, even in the absence of a war, is highly questionable. It is also unlikely that the benefits of this large defence budget will go towards improving the lives of officers in junior positions who face many difficulties or even those suffering from war injuries or disabilities sustained while on duty.

Budgets reflect government policies and priorities. Hence, they are essentially political documents. Even the most cursory analysis of budgets over the years shows a consistent neglect of the vulnerable and those in need of care and support. If at all, support is offered in the form of patronage and handouts – unsustainable initiatives that have little impact on improving or strengthening the wellbeing of people. This year too, considerable amounts of money have been allocated for rural development, including an increase in the allocation for elected representatives for “development” work in their constituencies. That these allocations are made with elections in mind is no secret. If there was a real intent of focussing on rural development, resources should be channelled through the large network of public sector officials responsible for such work and based on nationally or locally designed development plans. Certainly, money and projects should not be disbursed on the whims and fancies of elected representatives. Yet, this is how politics works in Sri Lanka currently. In a culture where knowing the “right” person or being networked within power circles is the single most important means of ensuring a decent life, the politician becomes the most sought after source of patronage and protection. This, in turn, is the relationship that ensures the politician’s survival. The 2022 Budget, the first budget of Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, has not disappointed on this front. The fact that it has ignored the most critical issues facing the country and some of the most critical sections of citizens, underscores how little successive budgets have been about the citizens of this country. Or perhaps, what it shows is how irrelevant they have been to successive governments.

 (The writer is a former senior lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka and is currently a Member of Parliament representing the National People’s Power)