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SRI LANKA: Women Battered Despite Domestic Violence Law

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Oct 10 2007 (IPS) - Sri Lankan women battered by their spouses have been seeking refuge in a law enacted two years ago to tackle domestic violence, but activists say they need far closer protection.

Victims like 35-year old Kumari (not her real name), say that while the law is a good start, its enforcement, particularly that of the &#39protection order&#39 (PO), leaves much to be desired.

"He (husband) attacked me with a sword and nearly killed me," Kumari said, adding that the attempt occurred despite a PO being issued on her behalf by a court.

The PO is a vital element of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act introduced in 2005. Any person who fears domestic violence can seek such a PO – issued for a period of 12 months by a magistrate – which bars the &#39aggressor&#39 from committing acts of domestic violence and entering the victim&#39s residence among other prohibitions.

More than 60 percent of women across Sri Lanka are victims of domestic violence while 44 per cent of pregnant women are also subjected to harassment, according to a 2006 survey by the Ministry of Child Development and Women&#39s Empowerment.

While the enforcement of the PO is a major challenge, there are nevertheless instances where it has worked, according to Sumithra Fernando of Women in Need (WIN), an organisation that has helped battered women and children for over 20 years. One victim, Samanthi (not her real name) married the man she loved but he turned out to be violent and alcoholic.

Samanthi said her husband took her money, pawned her jewellery and abused her in the presence of their two children, a four-year old boy and an 18-month old girl. She complained to police but when the assaults did not stop she sought WIN’s help to obtain a PO. "In this case it worked," said Fernando.

WIN runs many crisis centres across the country and has a shelter for survivors. So far it has obtained 33 POs and in some cases, Fernando says, the spouses have reconciled and come together under a process of mandatory counselling.

Deepika Udagama, who had the law department at the University of Colombo, believes that the law has a lot of potential as it deals specifically with domestic violence, especially between spouses.

Until its passage women getting battered was considered a &#39home issue&#39 and even if the victim had the courage to make a complaint she was advised by police to go home.

"But," Udagama concedes, "there are a few areas which need strengthening, especially with regard to monitoring." But she admits that monitoring, particularly by officials such as the police, is poor. ‘’For some police officers enforcement of a PO would be way down the list of priorities, compared to their other duties such as fighting crime."

Some of the positive features of the law is that its gender-neutral, with anyone facing domestic violence being able to apply for a PO. It permits speedy action for prevention of domestic violence. In fact, WIN is currently dealing with eight complaints from men of abuse by their spouses. "These are cases of verbal and even physical assaults by female spouses," Fernando said.

Activists say among the deficiencies in the law are the uncertain interpretation of what constitutes domestic violence. It does not include economic violence and deprivation of rights, intimidation and harassment.

Indrani Sugathadasa, secretary in the Ministry of Child Development and Women&#39s Empowerment, believes one of the biggest challenges towards containing domestic violence is having a proper support system for battered persons.

"We have now opened a shelter alongside the counselling centre at Kalutara (southern Sri Lanka) and are in the process of installing a matron there," she said, adding that plans are also afoot to open 14 more centres across the island.

Kumari has a deep ragged scar running across her face. Her broken jaw is being restructured but her right hand has missing fingers. She could barely whisper answers to questions put to her by IPS and her food intake was limited to liquids, through a straw.

Assaulted and battered from the day after her marriage, the violence did not stop when she was pregnant.

Often her husband would apologise and promise to reform. But when he taught obscenities to their pre-schooler, she complained to the police, filed for divorce and sought a PO. And that provoked the sword attack.

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