Photographed during happier times, the picture is of Yazmin smiling brightly and Darshan embracing her lovingly. Yazmin doesn’t look much like herself in the photograph any more. She has lost weight, her sparkling eyes now tired and glazed with tears, her face bearing all the markings of a woman who has been through some kind of hell.
Yazmin, like thousands of women in Sri Lanka is a victim of a silent crime that goes unpunished save for a small percentage of cases. For the past two years, Yazmin has been subjected to physical and emotional abuse by her husband; the man who had vowed on their wedding day to love, cherish and protect her.
On June 28 this year, Yazmin experienced the most brutal assault by her husband— a tall, robust man who is now retired from the army. Behind the closed doors of their house situated in a residential area of Colombo 7, but in the presence of their children—two daughters aged 16 and 15 years and son of 12, Darshan in a rage struck her head with his fist and rammed his knee heavily between her legs. Severely injured and bleeding, Yazmin was hospitalized for five days. Doctors and medical students visited her frequently surprised by the degree of injury and disfigurement she had received.
Once discharged from hospital, Yazmin who is strong and independent by nature contacted Women In Need (WIN), an NGO that helps victims of domestic violence by providing them with counselling, temporary shelter and legal advice.
When the Prevention of Domestic Violence ACT (PDVA) came into operation on October 3, 2005, five years ago this month, victims of domestic abuse were thrown a life line. The state recognised domestic violence as a crime not only because of physical and mental abuse inflicted on the victims but also the devastating effect it has on children who witness the abuse. While it is difficult to gather the exact numbers of those who are subjected to domestic violence, it is rampant islandwide.
WIN, one of many NGOs dedicated to helping these victims dealt with 22,591 cases in 2009. Apart from the women who seek help there are thought to be thousands more who continue to live a life of suffering.
Five years on, how successful has the Act been?
Savithri Wijesekera, Executive Director of Women In Need (WIN), says the organisation has observed that domestic violence has become more gruesome in recent years. Before, women would approach them with black eyes and broken teeth, but in the past five years, WIN has been helping women from all walks of life whose attackers have slit their jaws, completely severed their limbs and burnt them unrecognizable with acid. “There’s a lot more brutality now, and I believe it cuts across all social classes,” elaborates Savithri. “The women who come to us include professionals, labourers, middle-class women and housewives. It cuts across all ethnicities, classes and ages.”
Before the Act was introduced victims of domestic violence had only the option of applying for a criminal case. However, the PDVA was designed to protect the victim rather than convict the offender. With the introduction of the Act, it’s clear that women are exercising their rights and are using the egress it offers from the abuse. “The whole purpose of the legislation is about the safety of the aggrieved person,” explains attorney-at-law Dhara Wijayatilake who was responsible for the preparation of the Act while serving as Secretary to the Ministry of Justice. “The criminal regime only seeks to punish the offender. A crime is an offensive act against society, so the criminal regime looks at it like that. This is a civil law remedy, and is focused on providing protection to the aggrieved party.”
However, the PDVA has not had the desired results since it was enacted. While the PDVA in itself is quite solid, there are several external shortcomings that fail to bolster the Act, one of which is the lack of state-run shelters. “There’s no state link,” explains Shyamala Gomez, Gender Advisor to the UN and an expert on women at the Centre on Housing Rights And Evictions. “The credibility that you attach to a state-run shelter is missing.
My belief is that the state has to come in. There’s a national plan of action that goes with the Act which would make a huge difference if it was implemented properly,” she elaborates. “On paper it’s a wonderful Act. But in terms of actual usage, the Act itself talks about officers, counsellors, women’s affairs counsellors and child protection officers; these are all state employed personnel and you need to train people to do this. You need all these people helping,” explains Shyamala, adding “You can’t have the Act working in a vacuum. We need all these things and that’s where we fail dismally.”
Savithri also shares Shyamala’s view on the lack of state-run shelters. “The state has to look into the support services, because at the moment it is only provided by organisations like ours.”
One of the common misconceptions that casts the law in an unfavourable light is the belief that the Act breaks marriages. Shayamala dismisses this saying, “There are thousands of women who prefer counselling and not a divorce.” Yazmin is one such victim. She still loves her husband and even though he has filed for a divorce, does not want to be separated from him. Instead she believes she can save their marriage with counselling.
If the victim and her husband get back together after counselling or choose divorce, the final stage of the PDVA is the monitoring of the victim and the offender. Dhara explains that this is one other aspect of the Act that requires some finetuning. “We should have a meaningful monitoring programme. Maybe have an independent body. The court can’t be a monitor; the court has to have reports submitted to it. It can use its powers to get someone to monitor and submit reports,” she suggests. “Of course once a protection order is made even if the court doesn’t monitor the case on its own, the aggrieved party can always complain if there is a violation.”
While there is a law to help women out of domestic violence, women must be empowered and encouraged to seek it out.
Shyamala explains, “We are living in the context of a male dominated society, the culture, the up-bringing and such apply to these women. And no woman even goes to the police station the first time she is beaten.”
“Our experience is that she has to be beaten five to ten times at least, before she walks into WIN leave alone the police station. So coming to WIN is a big enough step, going to the police station is a bigger step and going to court is an even bigger step, because people still have a lot of respect and fear about the court house.
And for a woman she thinks she’s standing there alone and fighting her battle alone, and having to tell their innermost private problems in court or in the form of document. She really wouldn’t want to do that unless she’s really desperate,” adds Savithri.
From WIN’s cases, it is clear that the law is effective, though not without a few shortcomings. If the state was to implement the action plan that was designed to support the law, by maintaining state shelters and training personnel, the law would be that much more effective and help improve Sri Lankan society at large.
What the Prevention of Domestic Violence ACT (PDVA) says
The PDVA provides the victim with a Protection Order against the offender. The offenders can range from relatives such as the spouse, ex-spouse and cohabiting partner of the aggrieved person. The law even extends to offenders who might be the ascendants, descendants, collaterals, cousins, aunts or uncles, nieces or nephews of the victim’s spouse, former spouse or cohabiting partner.
Applications for a Protection Order through the PDVA can be filed by:
- A police officer on behalf of a victim.
- A parent or guardian, if the victim is a child; or by someone authorized by the National Child Protection Authority.
Three stages of the legal procedure
Stage 1- The stage at which the Application is first considered and a determination is made regarding the issue of an Interim Protection Order.
Stage 2- The stage at which the Inquiry is held and a determination is made regarding the issue of a Protection Order.
Stage 3- The stage at which compliance with the Protection Order is monitored.
Source: (WIN) Cases Filed Under The Prevention Of Domestic Violence ACT, No. 34 of 2005; An Analysis by Dhara Wijayatilake.
Adapted from: http://www.sundaytimes.lk/101024/Plus/plus_24.html