I was privileged, at the end of November, to attend a workshop arranged by a group of women’s organizations looking into Gender Based Violence and related issues. It is chaired by the head of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which I found had been assisting with police training. This is extremely helpful because, given the revitalized role of the police in community support, and in particular the enhanced role of their Women and Children’s Desks, assisting their officers in a better understanding of the assistance they can provide is invaluable.
In this regard I noted that I wished the section of the UN that is supposed to look after Human Rights was also similarly active. It seems rather to see its role as the lead agency in persecuting us about war crimes. Though the very helpful young lady who attended noted that it had assisted with police training, this was with regard to a programme I had initiated four years ago when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights. That had indeed been successful, largely I think because of the energies of the British Consultant in training through role play, who had also provided the initial draft of a manual which was finally published a couple of years later.
But there had been no follow up, and I was appalled to find that the office had not even contacted the head of the Police Women and Children’s Bureau. All incumbents of the post I have had to work with, since I was appointed to convene the Task Force to expedite action on the National Human Rights Action Plan, have been extremely positive and helpful. It was disappointing to find that the UN agency that should be working with them had ignored them, whereas a much smaller UN agency had been so helpful.
I should note that there was general agreement that the police had been performing much better in this area than previously. While there are still stories of individual officers who seem to think that there is nothing wrong with occasional violence against women – and I was told indignantly that this position had even been enunciated by a Cabinet Minister – by and large there is better understanding of the need for the Zero Tolerance position government has adopted. The former Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, in whose time the Domestic Violence Act was introduced, was there throughout to explain the position, and the current incumbent of that position also attended, and was as always positive and helpful.
The workshop was divided into sections in terms of the Action Plan, with reports on five areas relevant to the subject. I was suddenly asked to summarize the discussion, which I did in terms of the common themes that had emerged, rather than looking into the areas separately.
One common theme was the need for training. This applied not only to the police, but to the various government officials working in the field. In particular it was noted, with regard to almost all the areas discussed, that there was need of more and better psycho-social support. This is something I have become increasingly conscious of, not least because of the absence of such support that is highlighted at Divisional Reconciliation meetings, and I believe the Ministry of Health should take a lead in promoting concerted efforts.
I was told, to my surprise, that the Presidential Task Force had refused permission for Psycho-Social activity, but I found this difficult to believe. I can understand that the precise Secretary of that body would not have been keen on projects that did not have specific targets and measurable outcomes, but I know for instance that he has been very helpful about agencies such as NEST, that work actively with communities to provide material as well as spiritual assistance. If the Ministry of Health were to set up a programme of training, with provision for supervision of activity in the field by its staff – and I am aware that some of its senior officials in the North are aware of the problems and doing their best to alleviate what they can – then all agencies willing to help can work to this plan and help to ensure coverage of all areas without dissipating their energies.
In this regard another theme that was stressed was the need for coordination. Participants welcomed the plan the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs had proposed, of Woman and Children’s Units in each Division. It was noted however that coordination at grass roots levels was also essential, and the Divisional officials would need to work together with Grama Niladharis as well as the police officers assigned to every Grama Niladhari level to ensure attention to all those in vulnerable situations. While obviously it would not be possible to assign professionally qualified staff to each Grama Niladhari Division, systems of consultation and effective referrals would facilitate attention to all problems.
Setting such systems in place would also promote better use of the assistance civil society is willing to offer. Protection committees in each GN Division, headed by the Grama Niladhari and the Police, with participation of Women Rural Development Societies, as well as religious leaders and Non-Governmental Organizations, could prepare vulnerability indices. They could also work with Samurdhi and Divineguma officials to provide material support, which is often an essential part of healing, given the importance of a regular occupation and income to enhance self worth.
The Ministry of Public Administration has been positive about the idea of the Women’s Ministry Secretary, who has been pursuing the idea with an energy and commitment not common in bureaucrats. I hope therefore that these structures will be in place soon, with not only clear lists of duties, but also the coordination skills necessary to ensure that all those concerned work together to ensure Zero Tolerance of violence against women, and against children.