Protecting Women’s Rights

Development Policy Framework of the Government of Sri Lanka recognizes women as ‘pioneers’ of development. Investments in women have translated into positive outcomes with their associated challenges.
Female-headed households
  • There are 1.1 million households or 23% of the households are female-headed households according to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10
  • The majority of female-heads of households are in the age group of 40-59 years
  • Among the total female-heads of households, more than 50% are widows while a small percentage (4.5%) has been reported to have never married again
  • Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10 did not cover the districts of Mannar, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi where significant number of female-headed households are expected due to the conflict
  • Discrimination against female-headed households has become an emerging political concern
Female migrant workers
  • The female participation for foreign employment was 51.73% out of total departures of 247,119 in 2009. Most females who departed in 2009 were housemaids and it was 89% of the total women migrant workers
  • 42% of women who migrated as housemaids were between 30 and 44 years. This indicates that women of childbearing ages tend to utilize higher income avenues available through overseas employment
  • Rights violations of female migrant workers is a growing concern
What is the Issue?

Gender-based Violence

Available evidence suggests that the prevalence of Gender-based violence (GBV) varies a wide range in Sri Lanka according to various studies carried out on different aspects of GBV. Although they are based on different sample sizes in various locations and among different sub-groups of the population, it is reasonable to assume that evidence gathered through such studies can provide an important insight about the magnitude of GBV in Sri Lanka.
Key Factors influencing Gender-based Violence in Sri Lanka
  • Disaster situations make women more vulnerable to various types of abuse
  • General intention of domestic violence is not primarily to harm the women but to uphold power and control over the victim
  • Disorderly and scarce coverage actions by legal officers, police as well as medical systems produce barriers to legal proceedings and proper documentation of GBV
  • Incest: unable to resist due to ignorance, fear and helplessness
  • Close kinship ties that attach women to their households set them vulnerable to abuse by their kith and kin who exploit the helpless situation of the victims
  • Family conflict, alcoholism and assault can also be interrelated to each other as collective factors influencing GBV
  • Sexual abuse is highly correlated with poverty, family size, and history of child abuse in the family
  • Alcoholism of father and long-term absenteeism of mother due to foreign employment
  • Sexual jealousy and reluctancy, refusal of the woman to have sex are the main causes that lead to intimate partner violence
  • Superiority, authority, patriarchal attitudes are the leading causes of intimate partner violence
  • Domestic violence occurs as a result of the matters related to dowry, alcohol, and adultery of both partners
  • Younger age of the victim, shorter duration of marriage, low parity, low educational level and the consumption of alcohol or drugs are the main causes of intimate partner violence
  • Suspicion, alleged misbehaviour of the victim, authority of the abuser, and extra-marital relationships appear to be the major causes that lead to violence
  • Economic dependence and low educational level also seem to be two major factors influencing partner violence
  • Women in nuclear family set up seem to be more vulnerable to GBV compared to extended family units
  • Wearing ‘unsuitable’ clothes, travelling alone, falling sleep, crowding, and not protesting against sexual advances seem to be the contributory factors leading to GBV in public transport
  • Unemployment among men and men’ s suspicion of the actions of women appear to be factors leading to domestic violence in internallly displaced settings
Characteristics of Survivors of Gender-based Violence
  • Women and adolescent girls are at high risk of GBV; one out of four females are sexually abused by the time they reach 18 years of age
  • Majority of women are being abused during their adulthood
  • Elderly women appear to be more vulnerable to abuse than elderly men and most common forms of abuse have been assault and neglect in providing medical care
  • An interesting feature of GBV in Sri Lanka is its occurrence commonly among all the ethnic groups
  • The poorest socio-economic groups in the Sri Lankan society appear to be more vulnerable to GBV
  • Working women seem to be at high risk of different forms of GBV irrespective of their socio-economic status and place of work
  • Migrant women appear to experience both physical as well as psychological abuse while employed abroad
  • Employed women in Free Trade Zone factories are also exposed to the risk of GBV
  • Pregnant women also appear to be vulnerable to GBV
Policy Framework on Women

The constitution guarantees the rights to equality, equal protection of the law, and nondiscrimination on grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, or place of birth, and grants them the status of fundamental rights. The constitution also authorizes the state to make “special provisions … by law, subordinate legislation or executive action” for the advancement of women, children or “disabled groups”. The constitution’s Directive Principles of State Policy enjoin the state “[to] ensure equality of opportunity to citizens, so that no citizen shall suffer any disability on the grounds of … sex”.

The National Plan of Action for Women (2002 - 2007) aims to implement the goals of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The plan identifies a number of issues of concern with regard to women’s rights and sets forth goals, strategies and activities to advance its objectives within the time frame of 2002–2007. It addresses issues including access to education, health care and related issues, and violence against women. In response to UNSCR 1325, this action plan has a section on women, armed conflict and peace building.

The Women’s Charter (1993) calls for gender equality and freedom from gender discrimination in recognition of Sri Lanka’s obligations under its own constitution and international human rights law, notably CEDAW, although it has no enforcement mechanism. It enjoins the state to take certain measures to ensure women’s rights within seven broad areas:

  • political and civil rights;
  • rights within the family;
  • right to education and training;
  • right to economic activity and benefits;
  • right to health care and nutrition;
  • right to protection from social discrimination; and
  • right to protection from gender-based violence.

SAARC Social Charter: Sri Lanka Action Plan (2008 – 2015) The thrust of this policy is women’s empowerment, hence it addresses aspects such as discrimination against women in legal provision and in law enforcement; inadequate women’s representation in decision making and in public life; gender inequality in the labour market; and inadequate support services for women to prevent gender-based violence in areas such as domestic violence, trafficking, and commercial sex work.

The Population and Reproductive Health Policy (1998) is another important policy document that includes a separate goal for achieving gender equality and countering violence against women. This policy calls for the strengthening of “laws and enforcement procedures, so that violence and sexual exploitation against women are eliminated.” It is important to note that Sri Lanka does not have a separate policy that champions gender equality and addresses violence against women.

Women’s Rights Act (Draft) in 2002-2003 the Sri Lankan government proposed an act that addressed gender discrimination and advocated equal opportunities for women. The structure and provisions of the proposed policy, did not however meet the standards of the Constitution or CEDAW, and was critiqued by women’s groups.

Legal Framework
The national legal framework consists of many initiatives, these include:
  • The 1978 constitution which contains provisions that guarantee fundamental rights and offers protection against violence by the state (Art. 11; Art 12(1) , (2) and (4));
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  • mendments to the penal code in 1995, 1998 and 2006 which redefined sexual offences and the offences of grave physical harm and amplified penalties for rape and made incest (Section 364 A), grave sexual abuse, sexual harassment and sexual exploitation criminal offences;
  • Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 of 2005 offers for request by victims of domestic violence to the Magistrate’s Court for a protection order and array of allied remedies to prevent further violence. A Plan of Action was introduced as a measure to ensure that the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act (2005) is effective and meaningful. The key agency coordinating the Plan of Action is the National Committee on Women.
  • Torture Act No. 72 of 1994 incorporating standards of the Torture Convention, 1984.
  • Mediation Boards Act No. 72 of 1988 to establish Mediation Boards to resolve disputes including family disputes; and Civil Law.

The penal code defines rape as sexual intercourse between a man and woman under several specified circumstances; penetration is sufficient to constitute an act of sexual intercourse. For a man to be accused of raping his wife, the couple must be judicially separated by court order. Living separately as a result of a breakdown in the marriage does not constitute the necessary separation. Where the spouses cohabit, the husband may not be accused of rape.

The penal code criminalizes incest, defined as an act of sexual intercourse between persons who are related within certain degrees. Sexual intercourse is prohibited between parents/grandparents and their children; brothers and sisters; aunts/uncles and nieces/nephews; and some in-laws.

Sexual harassment
The penal code criminalizes sexual harassment, defined as assault or the use of criminal force, words or actions to cause “sexual annoyance or harassment” to another person. Sexual harassment may also be prosecuted under the 1998 Prohibition of Ragging and other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act. Ragging that involves the sexual harassment of a student or staff member at an educational institution. In the private sector or in cases of employment in certain statutory bodies, a woman who is compelled to leave her job because of sexual harassment may seek redress from a labor tribunal for constructive termination.

Commercial sex work
The penal code prohibits the act of procuring a person of either gender and of any age to become a sex worker within Sri Lanka or in another country, regardless of whether such person’s consent has been obtained. The code also prohibits the acts of removing a person from Sri Lanka for purposes of prostitution, procuring a person for employment in a brothel, and detaining a person without consent in a brothel for purposes of sexual intercourse or sexual abuse. There are no specific government policies on commercial sex work. However, the Women’s Charter enjoins the government to take measures to eliminate all forms of exploitation of women and children, such as prostitution and trafficking.

Sri Lanka is a country of origin for the trafficking of women and children for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The law prohibits trafficking in persons. The government of Sri Lanka ratified the SAARC Convention on Preventing and Combating Trafficking in Women and Children for Prostitution, the first sub-regional treaty addressing trafficking in persons, in the year 2002.

Customary forms of violence
The practice of female circumcision on newborns is fairly widespread among the Muslim community in Sri Lanka; the practice is not prohibited or regulated by law. A 1996 survey by the Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum confirmed that female circumcision is practiced in all parts of the country. The practice involves a symbolic incision on the clitoris of the girl child on or before the 40th day after birth.

International Comparisons