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No peace plan yet for Sri Lankan women

It seems that the 20-year civil war in Sri Lanka is over. But a much older war continues, with almost 50,000 cases of domestic violence reported each year.

In April, guerrilla leader Velupillai Prabhakaran made a rare public appearance and announced his commitment to a peace plan to end nearly 20 years of civil war between his Tamil secessionist group and the Sri Lankan government.

Unfortunately, an even older war continues unabated with no such peace plan in sight – the growing prevalence of violence against women in this South Asian island-state.

Violence against women is both a public and private matter in Sri Lanka, says the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, a body of global experts which monitors whether governments are honouring their commitments to the 1981 United Nations' Women's Convention (CEDAW).

The committee highlighted its concern over years of rape and sexual assault by government soldiers at police checkpoints against minority Tamil women when it reviewed Sri Lanka's record on women's rights in January.

Lalitha Dissanayake, secretary of the Ministry of Women's Affairs who presented the country report, didn't dodge the charge, noting that government commitment to gender issues "had been challenged to the utmost" in conflict areas.

She added: "The government… did not condone violence against women or human rights violations committed by security and police personnel."

While the civil war has largely been confined to the Tamil-dominated north, "everyone becomes part of a larger system of brutality," says Sharmini Fernando of the Home for Human Rights, a national non-governmental organisation that provides legal services for communities affected by the conflict.

But violence against women is not confined to the war – Sri Lanka, the committee urged, needs specific legislation to address violence behind closed doors.

Although violence affects women of every class and ethnicity, it is seldom reported, and it is not listed as an offence in the Criminal Penal Code. Police officers are reluctant to make arrests, and courts will only issue restraining orders against a brutal husband if the wife has filed for divorce.

"Reporting such incidences to the police is futile unless there is a ready remedy," admit the authors of Sri Lanka's January report to the committee.

Marital rape is not recognised as a crime, except when the couple is judicially separated. Should wives become pregnant as a result of rape they have little recourse – Sri Lanka does not permit abortion under any circumstances, except to save the woman's life.

A proposal in 1995 to amend the Penal Code to recognise marital rape sparked vehement protests by some Members of Parliament. H M H Ashraff, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress party, said that a marital rape law "…could destroy the very institution of marriage in Sri Lanka and destabilise the family system."

On the positive side, the committee noted that women have enjoyed significant gains in health and employment, and that the government has put women's further advancement "on the country's political agenda".

Sri Lanka is often cited as a South Asian success story. Its women were the first in Asia to vote; female literacy is nearly universal; and a higher percentage of girls and young women are in school than boys.

The age of marriage has risen, two thirds of married women use some form of contraceptive, and fertility rates -the average number of children born to a woman -have declined sharply to 2.4.

"To some extent, women have a good quality of life in Sri Lanka," says Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Sri Lankan lawyer who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women.

But the 'good life' comes with strings attached. Sri Lanka remains conservative and patriarchal. Marriage is considered a private matter; the common perception is that men are superior and their sexual urges indomitable.

Many Sinhalese Buddhist and Tamil Hindu women rationalise their predicament in terms of destiny. Rani, a 38-year-old mother of three who separated from her husband after 17 years of abuse, says: "I think it is my fate. I am paying for a past sin, what else?"

No national studies of violence against women have been conducted. However, police records from one year, 1996, show nearly 50,000 incidents of domestic violence were reported.

In a 1998 study of 200 lower income women in the capital Colombo, the Women In Need shelter found that 60 per cent were physically abused by their husbands. The study also concluded that alcoholism – Sri Lanka has an extremely high rate of alcohol consumption – is one of the leading causes of violence.

Abused women have few options, as parents and other family members may not welcome women fleeing their spouses.

Forty-year-old Ramini is separated from her husband. She and her three children stay with her mother. She says her husband, a heavy drinker, became violent the day after their wedding. But her siblings accuse her of "breaking up" her marriage. "They say it is shameful for them," Ramini says.

Forced sex in marriage is not generally perceived as rape, or even as violence. Says a 34-year-old Sinhalese woman: "His sexual appetite has no limits. If I refuse, he accuses me of having other boyfriends. Then he beats me."

Should women seek help in the country's few shelters, workers may lecture them about the duties of wives. Said a senior counsellor: "If a woman refuses to have sex with her husband why did she marry him?"

Where women do seek police intervention and legal recourse against domestic violence, they often run into a wall of indifference and misplaced motives. Police of both sexes usually try to persuade a battered wife to return to her husband.

According to Shalani Premachandra, chief inspector of police in the Crimes Division of the Children and Women Unit, an average of 4,000 cases of domestic violence reported every month, and nearly 80 per cent are "settled" when the wife is persuaded by the police to drop charges.

"The criminal justice system and the social support system all seem to be geared toward reconciliation, all under the guise of 'protection' of the marital relationship and the family," agrees Coomaraswamy.

After reviewing Sri Lanka's report in January, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women called for the government to put in place "temporary special measures" – including specific legislation on domestic violence – in order to accelerate improvements in the situation of women.

"It is not enough to rely on a natural evolution of things," the report said.

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Panos London

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