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Justice is Elusive for Women of the North

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Photo courtesy of Kumanan Kanapathippillai

Women of the north have been one of the most affected communities of the war; they are a socially excluded community. Approximately 60,000 households in the Northern Province were estimated to be female headed as of 2015. However, the current numbers are estimated to be lower.

Men died in the war, were injured or disappeared. Families lost ancestral land and lost their livelihoods. As a result, widows in these regions have been seen as easy targets because they don’t have male protection. These circumstances make women exceptionally susceptible to sexual violence and exploitation. Those from ethnic, racial, religious or political minorities become targets for conflict related sexual violence. Those who have become vulnerable due to the conflict could be targeted when they return to their homes1.

Some women are already survivors of sexual violence and rape from the war. Yet, there is little to no consistent and available psychological and mental health support. Data shows that the security forces were among the perpetrators of this violence during and soon after the war. Some reports indicate that security forces’ involvement in the violations continued for a period even after the end of the war. Irrespective of who the perpetrator is, stigma attached to rape and sexual assault, fears of social ostracization, as well as violence or threats from the offender can push victim-survivors to withdraw their complaints or refrain from reporting. These Tamil women in the north have the further trauma of rape being used as a weapon of suppression. The culture of impunity of perpetrators is worsened by these women’s lack of social, political and economic clout.

This has further contributed to the increase in violence against these women. Immunity enjoyed by men, and particularly those of the armed forces who are now celebrated as war heroes in the South, has further threatened the safety of these Tamil women. As of 2016, it was found that women were yet to receive justice for sexual offences committed many years ago. There have been reports of former female combatants being harassed by the security forces even after they were released from rehabilitation camps. Not only do these women not receive justice for past offences but access to justice for ongoing violations, even those from their homes, is a struggle. Reports indicate an increase in domestic violence in the North and East.

There has been a failure to include2 and consider the experiences of these women when designing resettlement plans, a lack of representation of these women at decision making levels, lack of gender sensitivity in the justice system, severe delays in the criminal justice process, idleness and corruption in law enforcement3. Many victims of sexual exploitation were young widows heading households with dependent children or elders. The main perpetrators of sexual offences currently include state officials in charge of law enforcement, humanitarian aid workers, social workers and other private actors. Many women are vulnerable to sexual exploitation when seeking assistance related to post-war rehabilitation, resettlement and reparation while some have also received threats of sabotage of their requests for assistance unless they complied. For example, when women approach officers to complain about a missing family member or for documents to prove eligibility for rehabilitation or resettlement assistance4.

Stigma and special vulnerabilities

Social stigma, the value placed on marriage and chastity for women as well as victim blaming by members of their family have been some of the main reasons for the silence of these women. For example, victims are accused of behaving improperly or being inappropriately attired when approaching officers. They also fear their freedom of movement will be restricted by their families if they report the incidents. Given that many women have lived without men they also feel that complaints of sexual violations will receive accusations of lies or of having fantasies5.

Work and income

Culture has dictated that women are emotionally and financially dependent on men and men should be the breadwinners. Yet, the loss of life resulting from war has led to a sudden change in traditional gender roles within the family unit. However, there are programmes where women are encouraged to become entrepreneurs.

Sexual bribery

Majority of women were mothers who required access to state services for housing, livelihood assistance or jobs. Women also felt they were susceptible to sexual exploitation due to their weak bargaining power and lack of material assets or money6. These struggling women are therefore forced to offer bribes either by money or their bodies.

Many women have remained silent and not approached authorities to file complaints. They live in shame – both of themselves and their daughters – and fear of ostracization and further harassment from the perpetrators. Those who did complain had a male family member who supported them. None of the accused have been charged, rather have been transferred to another location, despite some officers habitually and repeatedly demanding sexual bribery from multiple women. These women have felt that the discrimination is not merely based on their gender but is twofold – it is also their ethnicity7.

Alcoholism and drug use

There has been an increase in drug and alcohol use and abuse in the Northern regions. An official working in Vavuniya says that it is still prevalent along with higher numbers of domestic violence, although the official is unable to verify a causal link.

Access to justice

The report submitted by the Centre for Equality and Justice refers to the study conducted by FOKUS WOMEN which found that of the 73 female police officers in the North and East, only 37%, were fluent in Tamil.

If no Tamil speaking police officers are present, women are asked to report back on a later date. If only male officers are present at the police desk, women feel uncomfortable to make a statement or go to the police station. It was also found that although some preliminary inquiry in the police station is conducted with Tamil speaking police officers, the complaints were recorded in Sinhala and they were asked to sign these documents without understanding their contents. Concerns were also raised about the accuracy of complaints being recorded when assistance of a translator is required. For example, many translators bring their patriarchal attitudes that are biased in favour of perpetrators. The study also suggests there is a failure to record all the information at the first instance, which would then lead to gaps in the proceedings and the details of the incident.

Further, the police emergency number has on many occasion been operated by Sinhalese speaking police officers giving women no option but to report the emergency only in Sinhala. A Tamil woman who has no knowledge of spoken Sinhala is therefore effectively denied access to proper emergency response from the police. Some accounts say that the emergency number has been unreliable: “sometimes they come, sometimes they don’t” (Mannar). However, a recent account from Vavuniya says a children’s hotline and women’s hotline has been established with access to female police officers. Even if these women jump through hoops and barriers to reach out to emergency services and are granted a preliminary inquiry and complaints are recorded, they still face a herculean task typically with long delays in receiving justice. It has also been observed that women from ethnic or linguistic minorities face more difficulty in accessing justice due their unfamiliarity with the Sinhala language, while officials have shown a lack of sympathy towards victim-survivors who speak different languages.

Time taken to obtain justice

Out of 1,653 rapes reported of girls below 16 years of age, 1,283 were pending trial and 358 were pending conclusion in December 2020. In 2019, 1779 cases of rape were reported to the police. Past sexual history of the rape victim is allowed to be questioned during the trial. The two finger test is also used on rape victims by some medical practitioners. This procedure can retraumatise the victim. There is also a lack of sufficient victim/witness protection schemes. Insufficient or lack of safehouses and psychosocial care can also compromise safety. Sri Lanka does not have specific laws that address rape and sexual assault of women from these uniquely vulnerable circumstances from socially excluded communities.

A 2020 study of 14 rape cases before a High Court in a region not affected by war shows that filing of charges by the state takes approximately 3 to 11 years. The minimum time of obtaining a judgement from the date of the rape was 5 years while the longest has taken 19 years. There is also a very low rate of convictions for rape (3.8% in 2019). Women would still face various risks in their process of obtaining justice. These could include police officers and health care professionals being susceptible to bribery, political pressure and intimidation from perpetrators who are in positions of power or are known to persons in power.

It is therefore evident that the process of seeking redress is flawed. Many recommendations have been put forward in several reports, some of which include:

Resource allocation to assist in expediting sexual violence cases

a. Specialised courts

b. Gender sensitivity training of law enforcement personnel and those in the criminal justice system (lawyers, judges, court staff, JMO) including busting myths on rape

and negative stereotyping

2.  Accountability measures to address long court delays

3.  Cadre creation of well-trained medico-legal and mental health professionals

4. Safe houses and shelter for victim-survivors of sexual violence

5. Gender sensitive bilingual female officers at women and children’s desks

6. Swift emergency responses with Tamil and Sinhala speakers available on the phone

7.  Transitional justice mechanisms must have 50% of women, and represent women’s wartime experiences of sexual and gender based violence, torture and enforced

disappearances

8.  Zero tolerance policy by the government of sexual bribery and harassment; dismissal from employment of offenders. Acceptance by the government of the existence of

past and present violations is vital in effectively addressing the issues at hand

9.  Eliminating surveillance of rehabilitated female ex-cadres and obtaining assistance of women development officers to reintegrate them.

10. Redistribution of titles deeds to the original owners and landless women.

The lives of these women have been a struggle and will be for the foreseeable future if serious effort is not put into justice, accountability and reforms.

(1).  Centre for Equality and Justice, Conflict Related Sexual Violence.

(2). FOKUS Women, Sexual Exploitation of Female Heads of Households Affected by War in the North of Sri Lanka, Briefing Paper no.5, March 2016.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

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