Access to justice for women in Sri Lanka: A true WIN-WIN story

Saturday, 30 March 2019 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Duchess visit


  • Cybercrime a serious emerging threat to young women
  • Sri Lanka’s legislation to protect women comparatively strong 
  • Women often do not know their rights
  • Sri Lanka as a prime tourism destination could be tarnished by GBV


By Chandrika Gadiewasam

It is estimated that one in four of Sri Lankan women are victims of domestic violence. It makes little difference if one lives in Colombo, in the rural outskirts of the country or if one belongs to so-called educated diaspora living in ‘progressive’ countries. Marriage in particular, appears to provide a licence for men to abuse their wives with impunity, leading to cycles of violence and ripple effects which brutalise children and lead to generations who suffer from traumatic memories. 

It is also estimated that half of all women murdered worldwide are killed by their spouse or intimate partner. So how does the violence that begins with a drunken slap go down the slippery slope to battery, abuse, marital rape, manslaughter and even murder? Will cybercrimes lead to even more suicide in Sri Lanka? What can be done by society to prevent the suffering of its vulnerable women and children, and to prevent prolonged cycles of abuse, trauma and violence which sap at the very foundations of human wellbeing? 

One organisation at the forefront of the fight to eradicate the scourge of gender-based violence in Sri Lanka is the long standing ‘Women in Need’ (WIN) organisation which has for many years made determined efforts in a number of diverse areas, aiming for the protection of women and children from violence. Although WIN started as a ‘Drop-in Centre’ for women in crisis, in time, the issues that WIN was called upon to handle became more complex and diverse. A number of its long term initiatives now include the provision of legal advice, counselling and safe houses to women who are under the threat of domestic assault, working with the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs and with the Police and judiciary, raising awareness among stakeholders including men and boys, school children, university students, state, police and legal personnel, etc. 

WIN Executive Director Savithri Wijesekera discussed the work and achievements of WIN in the recent past, in addressing gender-based violence in Sri Lanka. According to her, many women are still not aware of their rights, and recourse and also there are deeply entrenched attitudes of stigma attached to women who break the silence about their suffering. 

New threat of cyber harassment

She pointed out that cyber-crime (including cyber harassment and so-called ‘revenge porn’) are an emerging new threat of horrific proportions, affecting young women with possibly tragic repercussions even leading to suicide in some cases. The current law in this regard is the cybercrime law which is very broad, and does not address this aspect specifically. The state and law enforcement including CID should take this new danger very seriously and address it with a special unit and special training, as well as drafting more effective legislation in this regards, she recommended. 

Parents in particular had an important role in this area to educate themselves and get an understanding of the dangers involved, as well as to be close to their children, and also be in a position to advise them for example not to bow to peer pressure, and ensure that children confide in them. Banning phones and internet outright was obviously not a practical solution in a modern world but similarly it was important that parents know what is happening in the lives of their children. 

She highlighted a recent report of a ‘Facebook party’ which had resulted in the arrests of more than 100 youth for involvement with drugs, and said that parents must be alert and aware as to what their children are doing. It is therefore important to strengthen the relationships with their children. WIN along with grassroots organisations have carried out some awareness programs with schools, where principals have invited them, but there has not been much official attention to this problem. 

SGBV’s negative repercussions in society

Savithri stressed that it is important for law enforcement to ensure that crimes against women were taken seriously, going on to mention that the recent release on bail of a provincial councillor who had allegedly raped a 16 year old girl, was sending a very negative message to citizens of the country that some people can get away with such crimes with impunity. Similarly while Sri Lanka is currently considered a number-one tourist destination, its treatment of foreign women (for example street harassment and exploitation) such as the recent rape in Hikkaduwa, will send a very damaging message to potential tourists. Savithri stressed that it was important to take steps to strengthen implementation of the strong laws that were already in existence.

Furthermore, she strongly emphasised women themselves should bring up their sons to respect women, and not to treat them as inferior or sexual objects; this appears to be more widespread in Asia. The message from all sources therefore should be that this kind of action will not be tolerated. 

Access to justice

Often in cases of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), whether incidents happen in the domestic environment or on the street, or at the workplace, it is seen that women and girls hesitate to take action and seek legal recourse with a number of economic, social and institutional factors contributing to this reluctance. Through its numerous services, WIN facilitates victims/survivors of sexual and gender based violence to access legal and other remedies provided in law. 

Some projects are articulated in such a way as to address the challenges and various obstacles faced by women victims in accessing the justice process. For example a current project, ‘Ensuring Formal Justice Sector Responsibility and Accountability to redress Sexual and Gender Based Violence against Women and Girls’, seeks to encourage women to seek redress through legal means. Under this project WIN, in consultation with The Asia Foundation is engaged in a research where formal justice sector responses are documented and analysed. Attorney-at-Law Niroshika Wegiriya who coordinates this project was interviewed in regard to its scope. Following are excerpts:

Q: What are the objectives of your Access to Justice project? 

A: WIN has been providing a number of services including awareness raising, counselling, safe houses, legal aid, and in this particular project a main objective was to actually observe and support the judicial process in cases where women availed themselves of the justice system. This is the first time such a project has been carried out in Sri Lanka, along with studying how courts handle these cases. WIN has found out a number of positive practices of the formal justice sector when dealing with sexual and GBV cases. 

We are happy to say many judges are sympathetic to and even empathise with women who are in such situations, although the lawyers appearing for the defence may be hostile, as they want to win their case, regardless. It was also found out that judges pay special attention to cases of statutory rape and for example ensure the privacy of the child when hearing such cases. On the other hand we have also seen some very traumatised, injured women who gather the courage to come to court but have to face insensitive attitudes from the defence lawyers and judges.

WIN is also focusing on working with men and boys, because if men tell other men that GBV is wrong, the message is stronger, and we have carried out school programs, to educate boys to respect women, as much as they respect their mothers and sisters, and not to objectify women. 

Q: What are the challenges you faced during the implementation of this project?

A: There are many challenges that prevent women from speaking out. They are naturally reluctant due to the sensitivity of the issues, there is social stigma, and unfortunately they have no faith in the police and judiciary. They are ashamed to go to the police or courts, they fear families will be broken apart and they aim to protect the matrimonial unity. There is an attitude that these problems should not be made public and women often appeal for it to be settled out of court somehow. 

Another important reason is that women are dependent on their abusive spouses. People are not aware of the laws available – for example did you know that a protection order can prevent an abusive husband from entering the matrimonial home even if it is his house? Women do not know how to make use of these safeguards. So the worst challenge is economic dependency, as they have no way of supporting themselves or their children. For us too funding is a challenge and in terms of the cases undertaken by our project, some cases are continuing beyond the term of our project, so we may be unable to closely monitor them further. 

Q: What support do you need from women, men and other stakeholders to better achieve your objectives? 

A: We need more people (women and men) to be aware of rights, and we have organised activities to promote awareness, for example social media campaigns, community awareness programs including street drama events, and training for stakeholders such as police women. We need men and boys to understand why society as a whole suffers when there is domestic violence, and we need law enforcement to take these cases seriously. 

WIN staff at Visit of Ban

Q: What do you feel about the progress you are making? 

A: We are supporting a large number of women through our various programs, in spite of the fact that our organisation is not very well-funded, many working here are deeply committed to this cause. More women are coming forward to our district crisis centres following the community awareness programs conducted. We have also received a number of requests from different stakeholders including Divisional Secretariats, Sri Lanka Midwives Association, National Apprentice and Industrial Training Authority (NAITA) (targeting youth). We have many success stories of women who were saved from what would otherwise be a lifetime of suffering.

Q: What are you doing to address the issue of alcohol abuse?

A: This is a crucial factor contributing to GBV. There are positive cases where our counselling has resulted in men being rehabilitated from alcoholism, which obviously benefits the women, and the family institution. This is an area where progress can definitely be made.

Q: What can the women themselves do to help fight GBV?

A: It’s very important to educate oneself of the law. For example even in the case of cyber harassment, for example if there is an offensive photograph in a phone, the Police can act under laws like the obscene publications law, but they tend to refer them to the CID, which is not necessary. Women should come out and break the silence, but it’s not as easy as we think, due to the cultural and social backdrop. 

However it is important to realise that if this is not brought out into the open, it may result in a life being sacrificed. Children too can be traumatised very much and permanently emotionally scarred. To prevent this, women have to take a stance, and be courageous. We have success stories, for example where a judge had given a protection order according to the DV Act and prevented an abusive husband from coming near the family at least until the child’s exams were over.

WIN’s 2six4 App 

WIN also recently launched a smartphone app titled 2six4 which can be downloaded through Google PlayStore, and features one touch access to needed contacts, police stations, emergency services and trusted contacts. WIN’s social media presence including its Facebook page ( and the 2six4 App have resulted in more women approaching the organisation through these modern methods too. Visit their website for more information. The WIN 24-hour Hotline is 011-4718585. 

(The WIN project on ‘Ensuring Formal Justice Sector Responsibility and Accountability’ is funded by the Asia Foundation with support from the EU, and the 2six4 App was co-funded by UNDP)

Scenes from street dramas and community awareness programs