The war is over, declared the government three months ago, and all of Sri Lanka breathed a collective sigh of relief. Little did we realize that this was simply an allusion to the end of aerial bombing and other military measures. The life that we Sri Lankans lived during the three-decade long war hasn’t changed one tiny bit.
Nobody knows this better than Sri Lanka’s women. The past thirty years of conflict has bred a mutant gene of increasingly brutal political and social violence throughout Sri Lanka. Women have borne the brunt of much of this violence as the mutant gene took hold of the country's men, making them more violent towards the women in their lives.
Last year, the Gender-Based Violence Forum (GBV Forum), a collective of UN and other international and local organizations, alerted Sri Lanka to the fact that “at least 60 percent of all women in Sri Lanka have experienced domestic violence.” They added that “…the most prevalent types of violence against women are rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexual violence, forced prostitution, and trafficking."
In Sri Lanka’s decades-long journey of violence, women have been the first and easiest victims. While accurate numbers of displaced women are not available, more than 60% of the 500,000+ displaced people in the country are women. Living in temporary shelters, displaced persons camps, detention centers, and state-run orphanages, women and young girls in the conflict areas have been at very high risk of abuse and violent acts.
Outside these conflict areas, the story isn’t any better. Police stations nationwide routinely record between 8,000 and 10,000 cases of violence against women per month, but women’s rights advocates estimate that this is merely the tip of the iceberg.
The mutation of violence that was spurred on by state-sponsored acts of political violence and intimidation, has now firmly taken root. There is no longer any shame in hitting or beating a woman, and this apparently peace-loving Buddhist nation has turned a blind eye to the increasing rape of young girls and incest in the heartlands of the country.
Not even women in the spotlight are spared from violence. Women politicians are verbally abused on Live TV, prominent female actors and singers are assaulted and demeaned as prostitutes, and the prostitutes… let’s not go there as I probably won’t finish writing this if I take time to spell out every public act of violence against women in the last few years.
As Sri Lanka tries to shed its mind-set of war, and as we look for another way to define ourselves and what we live for, the impact of this national soul-searching on women is not immediately clear. Will an end to war mean an end to the violence that is now so commonplace? Will an end to the aerial bombing and the suicide bombers mean that we can stop living in fear—within our homes as well as outside of them? Will we be safe and find real refuge in the “shelters?” Can we aim for public office without being humiliated and assaulted?
At the risk of being called a cynical pessimist, my answer is a resounding NO. No, because we have not even begun asking the right questions⎯questions that will help us dig deep into the mindset of violence. No, because the archaic laws that are superficially revised from time to time at the bidding of various UN agencies will not lead to the paradigm shift required in our justice system. No, because we still do not talk about violence, even though we live through it.
As Sri Lanka slowly edges towards a new era of life without an ongoing military conflict, as we strive to piece together a nation that has been torn apart by racial tensions, and as we work to raise ourselves out of the quagmire of national debt and poor quality of life, we can only hope that the mindset of violence will die a natural death.
Perhaps we can kill off that genetic mutation in Sri Lankan men, as the final act of war?