After I had written my last piece on women, I attended a consultation organized by Oxfam to discuss two presentations by women’s groups. They were on very different subjects, but dealt with two vital issues concerning women and their empowerment.

The first was the impact of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, which had been prepared in the days when Dhara Wijayatilaka was Secretary to the Ministry of Justice. Her removal from that position was a tragedy, for her commitment and her efficiency (qualities not always found in combination) were unparalleled. Fortunately, she continued to work on the subject, and a couple of weeks ago I was at the launch of her simple guide to the Act, which the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs had published.

Her own speech was characteristically matter of fact, but the other speaker, who had prepared a portfolio of legislation pertaining to women, referred to some cases of abuse. If that was upsetting, what we were shown at the meeting organized by Oxfam, by an emotional but restrained woman from a group that actively helps to implement the act, was horrifying.

Interestingly, despite her accounts, pictorial too, of the suffering some women had undergone, she was at pains to stress that only one of the cases which had come to Court under the Act had ended in divorce. My colleagues from Parliament, an enlightened and much larger group than I think the woman who organized the event and I had anticipated, were moved and one in fact asked why there weren’t more divorces in the face of such suffering. But I realized then that, in trying to prevent such violence, one of the greatest problems society faces is the idea that divorce is improper. Based I presume on the concept of marriage as sacred, which came to us with Christianity – which has largely got over the restrictive concept of permanent pair bonding it institutionalized for so long – we have forgotten the much wider concept of family and friends on which our socialization was traditionally based.

Indeed I was disappointed to find that very few of the cases had been brought to the attention of the law through friends or neighbours. The police it seemed had behaved very well when complaints were made, which did away with the view I had sometimes heard, that they treated the law as unnecessary and advised a domestic settlement. That does of course happen in some areas, but police training is much better now in this regard, and with the establishment of Women and Children’s Desks islandwide, the earlier patriarchal concept of family relations is dying.

Otherwise support came from women’s groups or the family of the victim. Sadly the family of the perpetrator, which should I believe be concerned with the wider implications, for the children in particular – in front of whom it seemed much of the violence took place – seemed comparatively less concerned. And the idea that this was both a social and a human problem, as opposed to being simply a matter for domestic settlement, seemed absent, in that few had received support from close contacts outside the family.

I go back to the suggestion I have often made, that there must be Protection groups at Grama Sevaka Division level, to provide the first line of defence as it were to the vulnerable. That would provide a focus for the women’s groups to work with, to sensitize society more widely about potential problems, and encourage them to prevent them turning virulent. As I have said before, the dramatic approach of some social service groups, that seek to blame their pet aversions for all problems, takes away from the essentially domestic nature of many of the problems women face, whether it be rape, domestic violence or sexual harassment. Ditto, it should be noted, for children, though there I should note our failure to ensure accountability in children’s homes also contributes to the problem – though that needs to be explored at greater length.

Developing structures that are closely aware of local situations and provide first line support then seems an obvious thing to do. I hope therefore that the Ministry of Public Administration will revise the list of responsibilities of Grama Niladharis, and entrust them, not with powers, but with the responsibility to develop social safety networks. These are the bodies through which training should be done, raising awareness and developing counseling services that can provide basic assistance while calling in greater levels of support when these are needed.

Another area we all found worrying was the failure of the criminal justice system to deal with what seemed obvious criminal abuse. Unfortunately, though the law prescribes mechanisms, there is no systematic way of ensuring that Prevention Orders are enforced. Here again, while the state may not have the resources to observe implementation as carefully as is needed, the development of support groups would help to provide protection as well as to alert authorities.

And even more tellingly, while there do exist mechanisms to enfore Orders, the law does not ensure that violations are investigated as criminal offences. While I realize that the level of proof required is greater for that, and dealing with abusers under simply this law may be quicker to prevent more harm, there is no doubt that a few prosecutions would help to get the message home, that domestic violence is as serious a crime against society as any other.

I hope then that the law, good as it is, is amended swiftly to make it better. Government has asked ministries to expedite legislation, since Parliament finds itself with little constructive on its agenda. Waiting for perfect legislation is a waste of time, we should move swiftly with generally agreed amendments to this Act, to the Lands ordinance to ensure gender equality, to the provisions on Statutory Rape, and in other areas where a little bit of quick work would help so many who now suffer unjustly.

Daily News 6 July 2012 –