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Sri Lanka: Island Dilemma: Is It Marital Rape or Domestic Violence?

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Rape in its various manifestations - statutory and marital, incest, in conflict situations, among displaced women and those who migrate overseas - has been a continuing topic of research studies presented at the biannual conventions of the Centre for Women's Research (CENWOR), Sri Lanka. The only organisation in Sri Lanka devoted exclusively to research on women CENWOR organised its eleventh and most recent convention early this year in Colombo.

As a result of the research and recommendations of other women's groups, such as the Women and Media Collective, which translates women's articles into Sinhala, Women In Need (WIN), a crisis-centre for battered women that offers legal aid, and individual activists, the government amended the existing Penal Code, in 1995, taking into account rape, age of consent and incest. According to the amendments, the punishment for rape was enhanced to 10 years' imprisonment, while the age of consent was raised from 12 years to 16 years. The insistence on evidence of women having resisted their attackers was also deleted in the new laws. Incest, which had so far not been regarded as a criminal offence, was also included in the amendments.

Soon after the amendments came into force, the nation's heartthrob - the young and handsome actor Kamal Addararchchi - was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and slapped with a fine of a million Sri Lankan rupees. Addararchchi was charged with raping a minor girl in his apartment where she had gone to ask him for a role. Justice Shirani Thilakawardene's verdict in the Addararchchi case became a landmark judgement in implementing the amended laws on rape.

However, the amended laws do not cover marital rape. In cases of marital rape, the perpetrator can be brought to trial only if he is judicially separated from his wife. As Jezima Ismail, President of the Muslim Women's Congress in Sri Lanka, says, "There is no tradition of legal separation in Sri Lankan society... women live separately from abusive husbands, and they go to (the) law only when they want a divorce."

Ruhani Perera, lecturer and researcher at the University of Colombo, quoting WIN in her research on marital rape, says, "A sexually abused woman does not associate 'rape' with her experience of sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Also these cases are not filed as 'marital rape' cases as they are dealt with as domestic violence issues that can be settled between the parties with counselling."

Adds Perera, "Within the Sri Lankan context, the reality is that sex in itself is a taboo subject and rape within a marriage is regarded as a domestic or private matter in the legal system. The victimised woman takes her cue from the legal and social climate and opts to suffer in silence. A variety of reasons prevent such women from addressing this issue - social stigma, fear, shame, community and family disapproval, fear of losing children, negative attitudes and possible harassment at the hands of the police."

In cases of rape - of young women, prepubescent girls, and old women well past menopause in camps of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) - it is an expression of power and aggression especially in situations in which women are almost completely helpless. In the case of young girls, the loss of virginity is a deterrent to a future marriage, a slur on their character. Incidents of young girls, raped by soldiers, committing suicide by jumping into wells have been recorded during the ongoing conflict in the North and East of the country. All rape victims are ostracised, not only by society but even by their own families and certainly by their husbands if they happen to be married.

When young Selina, 24, ran away from her Saudi Arabian employer during her stay as a housemaid in that country, she alleged that both the man of the house and his teenaged son had raped her almost every night. Her agony was compounded by the fact that when she complained to the mistress, she was slapped and told that she had been brought to that house for this very purpose!

The tragedy is that most complaints by Sri Lankan domestic workers in foreign countries - the Middle East and Singapore - are disregarded by their agents and by the Sri Lankan authorities as well. There have been numerous cases of runaway maids seeking refuge in half way houses and leading meaningless lives waiting for better days.

There have been cases, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch reports of 2004, 2006 and 2007, where housemaids, who had been repeatedly raped by employers, were returned to the same families by the police.

Samanthi, 25, was arrested by the Saudi Arabian police when she gave birth to a child at a hospital in that country because she could not prove that her employer had raped her and that the child was a result of that violation. The police considered her a party to the act of rape in a country where the law punishes rape victim.

Another tragic but common form of sexual abuse within families in Sri Lanka is incest. According to a study by Voice of Women, a radical women's publication and advocacy group, the commonest incidence of incest are by fathers and step-fathers and in families where mothers have migrated for jobs leaving behind young daughters in the care of their fathers.

Says Eva Ranaweera, editor of 'Voice of Women', "In 327 cases of sexual abuse among girls we studied, four step-fathers, four brothers, two grandfathers and 18 fathers were found to have committed the crime. Of the 18 cases where the fathers had raped their daughters, 15 of the mothers had gone abroad for employment. We came across a case where the father had raped his three daughters repeatedly... there was also an instance of two brothers of 18 and 15, respectively, raping their younger sister." These figures speak for themselves.

(Courtesy: Women's Feature Service)

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