Road to reform – LGBTIQ rights in Sri Lanka
By Sarah Hannan
Sri Lanka grapples with abiding to its own Constitution, the Penal Code, and the recommendations that are periodically presented at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). While we are yet to witness the full effects of a true democracy, it is of utmost importance that the citizens of Sri Lanka are equally aware of the contents of these documents.
Today, the basic rights of a person are constantly discussed and many countries which are violating the Fundamental Rights of its citizens are questioned at the UNHRC during every session. As of recent, the rights of the LGBTIQ community are discussed at length and we now see positive impacts of nations who are willing to repeal archaic penal codes.
Last month, our neighbouring India repealed its Penal Code 377 – decriminalising its LGBT community. With this news, the LGBT community in Sri Lanka was questioning our own Government’s stand and are seeking answers for the decade-long recommendations that have been presented through the Universal Periodic Reviews tabled at the UNHRC.
So where do we stand on this social issue?
What are the actions that representing agencies have taken in this regard?
The Sunday Morning finds out:
In an independent survey conducted by Equal Ground Sri Lanka last year to map LGBT persons(1) from Colombo, Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, and Matara Districts, recorded that 19.6% individuals identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bi, or trans. The study further showed that 25% of the LGBT individuals were in forced heterosexual marriages, 46.7% of the community experienced police harassment, 72.2% were refused education, 57.14% were terminated from work, and 70% were denied medical assistance.
Equal Ground Executive Director Rosanna Flamer-Caldera speaking to The Sunday Morning stated that her organisation had been lobbying for law reforms and repeatedly requesting the decriminalisation of the LGBTIQ community since 2004; “Unfortunately we have to reach the Government of Sri Lanka through the UN. Our recommendations were first presented before the United Nations Human Rights Council during the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review in 2008.”
According to Flamer-Caldera, the local law enforcement officials continue to arbitrarily detain persons under the penal code section 365A; “We are treading on a difficult path to bring in reform and possible decriminalisation of our community in the eyes of the law and the society. While the Government states that the LGBTIQ community’s rights are protected by the Constitution of Sri Lanka under Article 12 of the section on fundamental rights, local law enforcement continues to book persons under the Penal Code sections 365 and 365A violating the said fundamental rights.”
To repeal or to amend
While internationally-recognised human rights groups as well as our own institutions are lobbying for decriminalising the LGBTIQ community and requesting to repeal Penal Code sections 365 and 365A, the Supreme Court passed a verdict decriminalising the accused on 30 November, 2016 during an appeal hearing(2).
The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) in a dossier titled ‘Recommendation for Law Reform’ published on May, 2015(3) presented recommendations to the Sri Lanka Law Commission, requesting to repeal or at least amend sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code:
“…Section 365 of the Penal Code be removed or at the least amended to conform to international standards and to ensure that the right to privacy and liberty are respected, specifically to the extent of decriminalising sexual acts between consenting adults in private. An amendment should also address the ambiguity in the present language, which allows for use of the provision in an arbitrary manner.”
The CPA further recommended the removal and at the very least, amendment of Section 365A of the Penal Code in line with concerns raised in relation to Section 365.
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2018(4) published that among other pressing human rights matters that are gaining traction; the Government of Sri Lanka rejected recommendations to repeal section 365 and 365A of the Penal Code during a UN review conducted in November, 2017.
Psychological effects and social stigma
The Sunday Morning contacted Nivendra Uduman, a trained Counselling Psychologist and Psychotherapist to understand the stigma that the LGBTIQ community is facing and whether the healthcare system is geared to guide these individuals out of this stigma.
“The LGBTIQ community in Sri Lanka faces a great deal of stigma and discrimination due to societal norms and beliefs, prejudice, the law, and religious/cultural beliefs. This stigma translates into daily struggles individuals who are a part of the community would experience, like sexual harassment, bullying, abuse, ostracisation from family and community, etc.
The stigma that exists around divergent sexual orientations also seeps into healthcare, legal bodies, and other essential services that are necessary for daily living in Sri Lanka. The negative attitude and prejudices that we hold about people who are of different sexual orientations also lead to them developing self-directed stigma, which most often is quite psychologically damaging for the individual.”
According to Uduman, these individuals develop a negative perception about themselves and develop psychological illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder. There is also a risk of suicide that needs to be taken into consideration. Shame, guilt, and feeling like a burden are some of the common emotions that they endures, mainly because of how other people treat them.
Accessing support to deal with psychological, social, and other difficulties that people in the LGBTIQ community experience can also be quite challenging in Sri Lanka, as the number of LGBTIQ-friendly and affirmative mental health professionals are scarce.
Shedding light as to how these individuals are treated within the healthcare industry, Uduman explained that in many instances – mainly based on anecdotal evidence from people he works with in his counselling practice – healthcare professionals also contribute to further perpetuating stigma, harassment, and discrimination.
Moreover, it is questionable as to whether our healthcare services (not limited to mental health services) are equipped with the necessary knowledge and sensitivity to respond to the sometimes unique needs of individuals who identify themselves as LGBTIQ.
Uduman further noted that there are still instances where a transgender individual may be asked to display their genitals at a hospital (when it is not medically relevant) just to satisfy the curiosity of nursing staff and attendants.
“There are counsellors and psychotherapists in Sri Lanka who still prescribe daily masturbation and meditation (to rid someone of their ‘gayness’). Homophobia and transphobia are also prevalent amidst the very people who are supposed to help and heal.”
Delivering much needed counsel and therapy
While much needed reform is anticipated from legal bodies and the healthcare sector, Uduman and a few of his colleagues in the healthcare sector are facilitating counselling and providing therapy for members of the LGBTIQ community who require it.
“The main challenge I face during counselling and psychotherapy, with people who have different sexual orientations and gender identity, is helping them cope with the stigma, shame, and sometimes the violence (both emotional and physical) they face within their families and relationships. It is difficult when their environment is harmful for their physical and emotional health. The lack of acceptance from family, ridicule and discrimination at the workplace, intimate partner violence, are some of the key issues that I have seen.
‘Coming out’ is also sometimes a challenging phenomenon that I see, because of the many layers that it has, and of course the potential ramifications of coming out. ‘Being outed’ is also a situation that we must consider, where one’s sexual orientation or gender identity is revealed to someone else without one’s consent, or when one is not ready to do so. This also causes a great deal of emotional distress.”
There is also the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases and other physical health problems that they have to deal with and accessing mainstream healthcare can be difficult. Meanwhile, there are a few trusted medical professionals in Sri Lanka who work with the LGBTIQ community and are a part of the referral network that Uduman and his associates endorse. This includes psychiatrists, psychologists/counsellors, medical doctors, and surgeons.
1. Report on Mapping LGBT Persons in Four Districts published by Equal Ground in December, 2017: https://issuu.com/equalground/docs/mapping_lgbt_in_colombo__kandy__mat
2. Supreme Court Verdict on 30 November, 2016: http://www.supremecourt.lk/images/documents/sc_appeal_32_11.pdf
3. Centre for Policy Alternatives dossier on Recommendation for Law Reform, Page 07: https://www.cpalanka.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/CPA-Submission-to-Sri-Lanka-Law-Commission.pdf
4. Human Rights Watch World Report 2018, Pages 507–512: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/201801world_report_web.pdf