The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.
This week saw the launch, by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, of two books that provide guidance with regard to women’s rights. One is a Commentary on the provisions of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, which came into law in 2005. It is written by Dhara Wijayatilake, our most senior Public Servant, who also has a sterling reputation for integrity – which is perhaps why she was removed as Ministry Secretary, when she thought something she had been instructed to do was not quite ethical.
I suspect such questioning will not be common now, and perhaps one can hardly blame the new generation of Public Servants, who have been trained to believe that politics is more important than ethics. But the combination of intelligence and practicality that this Commentary encompasses is perhaps the best indication that, unless we swiftly develop a better system of training, with greater attention to identifying objectives and prioritizing them rather than processes, the best laid plans of governments will get nowhere. Indeed perhaps there will be no such thing as plans, let alone well laid ones, as we replace governance with simply reactions to one crisis after another.
Practicality in the pursuit of identified goals is the keynote of the Commentary, and this needs to be stressed when, too often, laws are interpreted without sensitivity. The law was introduced to prevent violence against women, but there are still officials who, as the Ministry introduction to the book indicates, consider domestic violence ‘as a private matter that needs to be resolved within the family’. Such an approach obviously leads only to further suffering for women, from what we are gradually beginning to realize is the most prevalent social problem all over the world. It is for this reason that I have been advocating community based solutions as well, to prevent rather than cure, with local protection committees that will identify potential problems and deal with them through counseling and support mechanisms rather than necessarily resorting to the law.
One problem about resorting to the law is the formulaic approach of some of our magistrates. I am aware of instances in which interim orders are given, because these are an easy option when examination of the merits of the case seems complicated, and then those orders last for longer than a permanent order can. The reason for a time limit on permanent orders is so that the problem can be resolved, rather than a preventive mechanism put in place on a permanent basis. Therefore to have interim orders that go on and on clearly defeats the purpose of the law, which is to overcome threats, not keep them looming over women – or indeed over men, for the law is not gender specific – when they are serious. Unfortunately, with clever lawyers having recourse to the Act when there is no serious threat but simply a desire to build up a case for other reasons, magistrates give in to convenience and simply issue orders which they then forget about, with no concern for the actual objective of the Act.
This Commentary then is a necessity to sensitize law enforcement officials, police and magistrates and also social workers, about the problems women face, and to promote sympathetic action. I hope it will be the basis now of workshops on the subject, in which the different executive bodies that have responsibility coordinate preventive and remedial action. I hope too that better understanding of the problem will lead to training also of counselors who will be proactive through community initiatives, since this is a field in which greater understanding of and attention to root causes of unsocial behavior can help with reducing problems.
The second book that was launched was by Dr Charika Munasinghe, who also has a distinguished pedigree of committed social service. This book is a Directory that presents in simple form all laws and policies pertaining to women. It will be particularly useful to law enforcement officials, but as the Ministry makes clear it should also be used to social service providers. They also note the role of health service providers, since this is an area in which much needs to be done to promote awareness, as well as to institutionalize practical preventive mechanisms. Unfortunately there is still too much diffidence and secrecy about matters in which information should be readily available, with public understanding of the support systems in place.
Both books will contribute significantly to fulfillment of the National Action Plan for Human Rights, which rightly stresses in several places the need for greater awareness for stakeholders of both rights and remedies. It notes the range of stakeholders, and I hope this will be registered by the Women and Chidren’s Desks which the police have established in many areas. As I have mentioned previously, the commitment and capacity of many of those manning these desks is impressive, but it is necessary to make this universal, through more training programmes. These should also involve other stakeholders such as the Medical and Social workers mentioned in the Action Plan, and if possible Judicial Officers too.
For this purpose the two publications the Ministry brought out this week, which will I hope soon be translated into Tamil too, will prove invaluable tools. But it is also necessary, as the Action Plan makes clear, to raise general awareness of these issues. The Plan mentions the need to ‘engage the media to formulate a strategy to promote positive attitudes on the role and status of women as a means to combat violence against women’, and it would be good if the media gave appropriate publicity to these books, perhaps even publishing extracts from them, to fulfil its own responsibilities in the national effort to promote Human Rights.