Parliamentarian breaks silence on domestic violence

Saturday, 26 March 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

IPS: She became famous playing the role of ‘Pabha’, a poor young girl in love with a rich man in a long running hit television series here. But these days, Upeksha Suwarnamali is better known for her real-life role: A victim of domestic violence turned champion of abused women.

The actress made headlines recently when she was hospitalised after being assaulted by her husband of less than two years, businessman Mahesh Walawegamuwa. After her release from hospital, she told her story to the newspapers and even addressed the Sri Lankan legislature in what she feels may be the most important speech she has made in her new career as a Member of Parliament.

“After what happened to me, I thought about this a lot. I found out that many women in Sri Lanka face this,” Suwarnamali told Parliament. “We should all get together to stop this.”

Suwarnamali, who entered politics in 2010, has now taken the cause of abused women to the highest level of Government here – seeking fellow Parliamentarians’ support in stopping the problem of domestic violence.

Advocates and activists say breaking her silence in public was the most effective way for Suwarnamali to gain support against domestic violence and bring her message to as wide an audience as possible.

A high-profile figure like Suwarnamali talking publicly about domestic violence shows the country that women continue to suffer violence at home, Chulani Kodikara, a researcher at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), a national research institute, told IPS.

Most women, even some who seek legal redress, choose to remain silent. “There are many cases of popular personalities who have suffered this and taken legal action, but they don’t want to come out in public like her,” she said.

“Her case is very important,” Kodikara, stressing that what brings it to the fore is “the fact that she admitted what happened to her is a big thing.”

Walawegamuwa was arrested but later posted bail. In interviews, Suwarnamali has said that she is seeking legal separation from him and has moved out of the house they once shared.

The Parliamentarian’s case is the latest high-profile incident of domestic violence that experts say is still rampant in Sri Lanka. In a country that gave the world its first female prime minister and chose a woman as its third elected executive president, three in five women still fall victim to domestic violence.

Samithdi Samarkoon knows firsthand how deeply rooted the problem is. She runs the Mithuru Piyasa programme that helps victims of domestic violence at the Matara Hospital, about 160 kilometres south of the capital Colombo.

“Every day we get one or two such cases,” Samarkoon told IPS. Many of the women who seek treatment at the hospital for abuse hail from rural poor families; some are even initially reluctant to explain the reasons for their injuries. “But hospital staff generally knows by the injuries and we ask them directly if we suspect.”

The programme offers the women counselling and legal aid. Samarkoon says that since the programme began in 2007, the number of women coming to them has increased. She however attributes the rise to a wider awareness of the benefits of counselling rather than an actual increase in the number of cases. “More women are now coming out and reporting this,” she said.

Samarkoon also has found out that alcohol plays a big role in abuse. But ICES’s Kodikara told IPS that at the national level, domestic abuse was still a huge problem even in the absence of alcohol.

According to the Police Women and Child Protection Bureau, anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 cases of domestic violence are reported to police annually. Many more still go unreported but a 2005 law against domestic violence has helped women seeking redress.

The law allows for the passing of interim remedies like restricting the accused person’s access to the victim. “We have had incidents where men have been barred from their own homes by judges,” Kodikara said.

But there is still a long way to go before Sri Lankans – both men and women – actively resist indifference towards domestic violence. “It is still a cultural thing, that our society is patriarchal and [dictates that] women should learn to live with it,” Kodikara said.

This is where cases like Suwarnamali’s are crucial. “She can help raise more awareness and keep the issue in the public space,” Kodikara said.