Friday, March 07, 2014

March 8 is Int’l Women’s Day: Inspiring change to help domestic violence victims

Domestic violence is one of the most persistent evils in society. No matter where they live, how educated, or how high a place they occupy in their respective societies, the rosy dreams of a happy future for most married women have not just turned sour. They have been shattered into pieces by acts of unspeakable violence perpetrated on them by their husbands.

As the severity of these violent deeds increase, so do the numbers of women on whom they are committed day in, day out.

In Sri Lanka domestic violence is as ubiquitous as the plastic bags one finds in every nook and corner of our streets.

And like most other women mercilessly battered inside their own homes for trivial reasons, by men who once promised to love, honour and protect them, Sri Lanka’s domestic violence victims too suffer their pain and shame in silence within the four walls of their homes.

For years women activists the world over have tried in vain to turn around this rising tide of violence against women inside their homes. But that miracle can only happen when there is a genuine change - a change of heart in our male dominated society towards women in general and empowering victims to live their independent lives.


In this context, the global theme ‘Inspiring Change’ chosen to observe Women’s International Day on March 8 is appropriate and timely. Appropriate, because these crimes have invaded almost every aspect of our social fabric.

Timely, because the victims of these crimes are fast running out of services they urgently need.

The services needed by domestic violence victims are unique and numerous, embracing a wide spectrum of disciplines, says Sumithra Fernando, lawyer, women activist and a senior member of Women-In-Need (WIN) a non governmental organisation created in the 1980s solely to help domestic violence victims in Sri Lanka. “All the services and interventions have to be integrated to provide full and holistic protection to the victims and also to ensure that domestic violence would not recur.”

What kind of services are they, we asked.

“The most needed services are counselling and psychological services, shelters/safe houses, health and medical care, legal and other forms of advice, crisis centres, support groups, sensitisation and awareness raising, outreach and perpetrator programs.”

Are there problems in providing them? Have you identified these gaps?


“At WIN, we have identified several challenges and gaps in providing services to Domestic Violence victims.

The main challenge is to decide on the priority of action to be taken. As the victim is in a devastated, confused frame of mind. Her mindset begins to alter in many ways. She may restrict her conversation and initially there may be a delay in offering the services. She may be in fear or shock. This is the biggest challenge for the service provider.

Another challenge or gap, is that domestic violence is not regarded by society as a real issue and everyone lives in denial. The service provider thus has to break the numerous barriers and convince the parties.

Any examples, we asked. Let me cite Kamala’s case.

“Kamala, was subject to violence, both physically and sexually for over a decade. When she informed her parents, she was advised to be patient as the person who wronged her was her husband. When she could not tolerate the harassment any longer she went to the Police station to make a complaint.

The police did not take much notice, and tried to mediate. She was advised to get back to the husband. Ultimately when she was disfigured and disabled she was brought to WIN by a friend.

WIN provided counselling, shelter, legal advice and filed an application for a protection order. Then there was Sumanala.

Sumala was a victim of domestic violence who obtained services from WIN. She was kept in a WIN shelter together with her two children who too were harassed by the father.

She was counselled, and empowered. A protection order was obtained in respect of Sumala and her children. Notice of the protection order was served on the relevant agencies, yet she was confronted by the perpetrator who tried to cut her neck with a sword. She escaped being killed but lost two fingers. She was subject to violence as there was no protection provided for her.

“Medical care and support is one of the significant services required by a victim of Domestic violence. Delay in forwarding the medical reports is another gap we have identified as it inevitably causes delay in the legal process. But here, I should emphasise that the victims need services beyond medical assistance as well. They need empathatical listening and psycho-social support. The medical professionals are cannot spare the time due to large number seeking their services. This is another gap in the services provided for them.

Do you see any gaps in the present role of the police and law enforcing agencies such as the courts in provision of services for women?

“Gender insensitive court procedures discourage women from pursuing their cases. Gender bias permeates the entire fabric of the court systems.

“Law enforcement agencies also tend to consider domestic violence as a private or a family issue and not a violation of rights or a case of abuse. Domestic violence is the last on their priority lists and often it is a matter of trivilisation and negative attitudes. Police at most times mediate the cases in a very unprofessional manner. The family counsellors too reconcile the cases without considering all the circumstances.

“Anula is a tragic example. She was asked to get back with her husband by the family counsellor although it was brought to the notice of the judiciary that her life was in danger.

“Within a week she was brought back to the hospital and it was said that her husband forced alcohol into her mouth and she died. Her death could have been prevented if the parties acted with responsibility and professionalism.

“Double victimisation is a major hindrance in victims obtaining services. The phenomenon of the victim of physical and sexual violence being twice victimised, first by the abuse and then by the blame adduced by the blame that accompanies it, makes the victim reluctant to seek assistance.”

Counsellors, we know play a vital part in reintegrating these unfortunate women to the normal stream of society. We asked Fernando her views on their supportive roles. She had this to say:

“A counsellor is an adviser, guide, confidante, advocate, teacher, mentor, director, and instructor. An effective counsellor is a trusted confidante who listens, reassures, and accepts the victim and the survivors, guides her in exploring options and, deciding what action, if any to be taken. Gender Based Violence (GBV) counselling which includes domestic violence counselling is not same as medication and conflict resolution.

“Working with perpetrators is risky and requires special planning, but it can be extremely rewarding. At the same time it can also be intensely frustrating.


“Empowerment and confidentiality are the key concepts in gender violence counselling.

“However, there are some facts one must bear in mind: Many victims of GBV want someone to tell the abuser to stop, but this intervention is inappropriate for GBV counsellor to undertake. GBV counsellors do not necessarily know what is right for the victim/survivor, as one solution will not fit all individuals. GBV counselling should thus facilitate client’s own decision making process.

“Most women regard domestic violence as their overwhelming GBV problem. Once aware of gender equality and human rights, they want the abuse to stop. They want someone to tell the abuser to stop.

“Counsellors not trained in such interventions do not know how to respond. So the real challenges here is that the Counsellor’s frustration in not being able to solve GBV cases will often take them out of a supportive role and into a stronger advice giving role.

This negates the idea of empowerment. Counsellors should guide the survivors to decisions and not make decisions for them and not tell them what to do.”

Is there an effective plan that could be put in place?

“Any plan should include an array of actions and services to reduce suffering and to increase functioning. It should also include help in the following areas: social and economic empowerment, social integration through group activities, social acceptance supportive community attitudes.”

To our final question on how we can persuade more victims to come forward and break the silence, she says, “Domestic violence incidents are concealed from everyone, even from the family.

“Stepping forward to break the silence is thus remarkable and brave: it is a statement of extreme trust in the person in whom the victim confides, someone she trusts, someone she feels can provide help.

“Women coming for help to a crisis centre must feel that way, to break their silence”.

By Carol Aloysius - Sunday Observer