Domestic violence - thoughts for action
"Domestic violence, or woman abuse - often referred to as battering, is the most common and least reported crime. Battering happens to women of every age, ethnic group, class and nationality. It is done by the men we married who beat us, by our sons and nephews who bully us and slap us around and by male relatives who verbally harass and degrade us."(from The New Ourselves, Our Bodies)
violence against women has been on the increase during the past several years as indicated by records maintained at the Women & Children's Unit at the Police Head- quarters. This could be due to several factors. For instance, the continuing civil war in the north and east of the island and the southern insurrection has led to a situation where violence against women has become a peripheral issue in the light of the greater issue of loss of life in the battlefield.
Activism around the issue and creation of greater consciousness raising has allowed for more space and opportunity to articulate the problem thus leading to increased reporting than before. It could also be the result of more incidents taking place than before.
However, lobbying by activists and concerned groups resulted in changes to the century old Penal Code which criminalised incest, trafficking and sexual harassment. The reforms increased penalties for rape and recognised the offence of grave sexual abuse, which does not amount to penile penetration. However, it failed to recognise marital rape and to legalise abortion (at least in circumstances of pregnancies through rape and incest and foetal abnormalities). Marital rape was made justifiable only in cases of judicial separation.
Although ad hoc research has highlighted the prevalence of domestic violence, the criminal law is yet to recognise domestic violence per se as a crime. Domestic violence for the purposes of this document is defined as follows. It is violence, which takes place primarily within the home and among members of a particular household. It includes both sexual and non-sexual forms of violence.
The sexual violence ranges in degree from rape (both marital and non-marital) to other forms of sexual abuse, molestation, harassment and incest. The non-sexual violence takes the form of physical, verbal and psychological abuse. The perpetrators of domestic violence are by and large males, and the victims, females. This is obviously not invariably so and there are incidents of domestic violence where the position is reversed, or where the abuser and the abusedare of the same sex. However, these incidents are relatively minimal.
The commonest relationship which is involved in domestic violence is the marriage relationship, although others can exist between the abuser and the abused. Domestic violence is an issue which is largely unrecognised and unacknowledged in Sri Lanka. Although micro level initiatives have been taken by the NGO sector to address the issue steps are yet to be taken either by the State or NGOs to address it at macro level, and recognition has not been given to the fact that the problem is one which impinges on society as a whole.
From some of the studies carried out on the issue it appears that there are a diversity of reasons and factors which precipitate such violence either by the husband or some other male relative. Several points should be made in this regard. To begin with, assault and battery are crimes, which carry heavy penalties. If the men involved in the situations discussed in the various studies had inflicted such violence on anyone other than their wives or partners or other female relatives, the legal process would have been immediately activated.
The fact that they can subject these women to such gross abuse with impunity constitutes a serious breach of the fundamental rights of the victims. The rights of women are violated not only by the men involved, but also by the State which fails to give them equal protection of the law. These women are excluded from the legal protection which is afforded to others.
A society and community which condones such violence and accepts it as justifiable is also guilty of the violation of the rights of women. What then is the reason for this exclusion and discrimination? Data available illustrates not only the scenario of violence within which many women live, but also the social norms by which they are compelled to function and which make them helpless in the face of the violence which is inflicted on them. Contravention of these norms (which are not imposed on men) will invite violence, often under the guise of punishment and the community and society at large will not help or protect them.
This again is a form of exclusion. Further, even where the immediate cause of the battering may be alcoholism, financial hardship, stress, low self-esteem or any other reason, the issue, which has to be addressed, is why should a man's response or reaction be that of abusing his wife?
The structure of the relationship is tilted in favour of the male who plays a dominant role as the figure of authority within the family. He is also the controlling figure in the relationship. Any threat to his position or any negation of it from within or without, may trigger off a violent response.
This violence is often a premeditated and calculated act. Even when it is not, the fact that the women are the targets of a man's loss of self control demonstrates their inherently subjugated and hapless position. An underlying perception of male authority of the female is the deep-rooted cause of the violence inflicted upon the latter. Socio-cultural norms condition all segments of society into accepting a hierarchical system of gender relations in which the male is the figure of authority; dispensing discipline and justice towards women. These perceptions cut across all boundaries of class, education and income levels, and employment status. It is ironic that women themselves often appear to subscribe to these views even more than men do.
The perceived obligation of women towards their family, the community and society at large also play a part in trapping them in these conditions. The problem of domestic violence cannot be addressed, unless and until these social attitudes and perceptions towards the problem undergo a change. At the micro level women are not receiving support, whether moral or otherwise, or protection from violence, at the point at which they need it most, i.e. from their families and communities.
At the macro level, society in general is perpetuating the predicament of women by its tacit acceptance, both in the abstract and in the concrete instances, that being beaten is an inevitable aspect of a woman's life. However, research also demonstrates that, although society does accept a gender based power structure, people are not comfortable with acts of violence even though it takes place within the structure.
For instance if women are embarrassed to disclose that they are abused at the hands of their husbands, men too are equally keen to hide the fact of their abusive behaviour towards the wife in view of the effect on the reputation. It is this sentiment which should be focused upon in sensitising society at large to the issue.
Another key factor in this equation is the health service provider. Some of the studies reveal that cases of serious injuries continue to be referred to the hospitals at the high levels of the hierarchy. However, even if a severely injured woman is given health care by the State, there appears to be no special attention being paid to the cause of her injury, particularly if it appears to be one that would amount to domestic violence.
The level of awareness of the issue among medical practitioners appears to be inadequate. Further, given the constraints under which doctors in the State hospitals work, it is unrealistic to expect them to do very much more than treat a woman's physical injuries. They do not have the time, training or facilities to address the root cause of her problems, except to refer her for psychiatric treatment if required. None of the health care institutions provide counselling for women victims of violence, except in the case of the psychiatric ward of the General Hospital.
Here too, a woman would be given assistance only if she is referred to as a psychiatric patient. Hence, women victims of violence who do not conform to this 'definition' will have no trained counselling support from the State health sector. The role that the police play in 'addressing' domestic violence also needs to be taken into account. In the first instance the main problem that has been identified with the police in relation to domestic violence is that of ineffective law enforcement.
Although the law does not deal with the issue of domestic violence per se, the criminal laws of the country as set out in the Penal Code contains provisions which would or could address the situation. However, in spite of the laws which can be invoked to handle this problem, the police do not appear to be perceiving domestic violence in the same light as violence committed in a non-domestic context and are downplaying its significance and gravity. Further, unlike other acts of violence which are a public issue, the police view domestic violence as an essentially private matter in which they should not interfere. They do not seem to recognise that violence in any context is a breach of the criminal laws of the country and must be dealt with in the same way. This explains their tendency to make 'station settlement' and to 'mediate' between parties and persuade them to 'make up their quarrels'. They fail to understand the dangers, both physical and psychological, which are a reality in the lives of victims and as a result the necessary support is not forthcoming.
This should be addressed by educating and sensitising the police to begin with, as no progress can be made without a drastic change in attitudes. Strengthening the institutional infrastructure of the police, by training them to effectively handle the situation and by strengthening the existing special units 'Women and Children's Desks' and expanding their capacity is also vital. The non-interventionist stand taken by the police towards domestic violence ties up with the lacuna in the law.
A specific offence of domestic violence if introduced into the criminal law would facilitate and encourage the police and the courts to recognise and focus on the problem. The constitution gives all persons the guarantee of equality and specifically state that no person shall be discriminated against on the basis of sex. There are also provisions relating to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment which are directly relevant to the point in hand.
However, the fundamental rights provisions of the constitution are only enforceable against the State and cannot be directly used against the perpetrators of domestic violence. Therefore, where domestic violence is concerned, in effect, these provisions are not having a positive impact on women. At the most, action could be brought against the police compelling them to enforce the existing provisions of the criminal law and to prosecute the offenders.
(Source - Monitoring Progress: the Elimination of Discrimination Against and the Achievement of Equality for Women - Sri Lanka Report on Domestic Violence, CENWOR, 1999)