Unsafe Homes: Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 Response Must Address Violence Towards Women and Children

17 April 2020 02:59 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Facing the Consequences of ‘Lockdown’

Since March 20, islandwide curfew has been a key strategy to control the transmission of COVID-19. During this period, over 21 million people have been confined to their homes and other places of residence. Whilst the ‘lockdown’ strategy has been vital in holding back the spread of the virus in Sri Lanka and globally, it is now widely acknowledged to have profound social consequences. We have been forced to revisit the assumption implicit in the lockdown strategy that homes are safe spaces. Globally, and in Sri Lanka, it is emerging that violence in households is affecting many women and children, and this needs urgent attention within the broader COVID-19 response from governments and wider stakeholders in society.   

Violence Against Women in the Home

In a context where people are isolated in their homes, with limited access to services or social supports, underreporting and challenges to accessing assistance are even greater than usual. However, within just days of the islandwide curfew, Chief Nurse at the National Hospital Pushpa Ramyani de Zoysa had raised concerns about the increase in women admitted to the accident ward for domestic violence-related injuries, writing that, “the biggest problem above all of this is that women being attacked by their husbands while they’re at home due to the curfew.” Since then, other service providers have also reported violence against women in their homes and highlighted the challenges in responding to these. Savithri Wijesekara, Executive Director of Women In Need (WIN) told us that, “between March 16 and April 01, WIN received approximately 250 calls of which 60% related to domestic violence.” Aside from formal hotlines, members of local women’s organisations across Sri Lanka are also receiving personal calls about cases in their communities. Anuratha Rajaretnam of Suriya Women’s Development Centre, Batticaloa cautions that many women face practical challenges to call from their homes because of a lack of privacy and safety, whereas in the past they would have called from a neighbour’s or relative’s house. Colleagues in the health sector have shared anecdotal accounts of women and other family members calling general health services for advice on how to deal with violence in their homes.   

 

"Pre-COVID-19 data indicates that we are starting from a high baseline of intimate partner violence (IPV) and gender-based violence (GBV) within Sri Lankan households"


Most of the service providers primarily reference forms of physical violence, but we are also aware of less explicitly acknowledged forms of emotional abuse, financial abuse and sexual coercion that women are experiencing in the current context. Savithri Wijesekara emphasises that in the context of marital conflict or breakdown, “women depending on maintenance payments, especially those from low and middle income backgrounds” are facing difficulties in meeting basic survival needs   
Pre-COVID-19 data indicates that we are starting from a high baseline of intimate partner violence (IPV) and gender-based violence (GBV) within Sri Lankan households. Sri Lanka Police reported a daily average of 60 complaints of domestic violence in 2018. The Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) of 2016 found that nearly one in every five ‘ever-married’ women interviewed reported experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) in the previous year, with only a minority of these women seeking help from family, friends or police. The 2016 DHS are amongst the most conservative estimates of IPV in Sri Lanka, with a 2018 WHO review reporting that the estimated rates for IPV found by diverse studies across different populations and geographic areas of Sri Lanka ranged from 18-72%. Against this backdrop, and based on what we are currently hearing from service providers, the conditions of lockdown, with family members living under conditions of close proximity, considerable practical and financial stress and without access to social supports have put many women at risk of violence at the hands of spouses or other members of their households. Women across Sri Lanka are currently experiencing violence and are unable to access adequate services for protection or redress.   

Violence Against Children 

The challenges of living in restricted space, dealing with financial hardships or other stressors of an uncertain situation increase the risk that some parents and adults will subject children in their households to cruelty or even abuse. In an interview on April 10, the Chairperson of National Child Protection Authority, Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana reported an increase in complaints the NCPA received, saying that 127 of the 307 complaints received from the March 16 to April 9 related to child cruelty. Officers at district level have described parents who are unable to cope with their children in the context of lockdown or working from home using violence as a means of exerting control. They have also described knock-on effects of conflict and tension between adults resulting in greater aggression towards children. Many children who were in voluntary homes or orphanages have been sent back to families or relatives, and there are concerns that for a proportion of these children this may, in fact, place them back in situations of potential violence or neglect from which they had been originally removed. We have also come across examples of mothers who are stranded without means to get back to their homes, resulting in their children facing neglect and risks of physical abuse. Milani Salpitikorale, Attorney-at-Law and child rights activist, told us that, “in the past few weeks, I have got many complaints of children facing neglect and physical abuse including a complaint of attempted rape”. There are presently many similar accounts from community-workers to whom concerned adults are reaching out   

Responding to Violence in the context of COVID-19 

Even prior to COVID-19, there were gaps in community-level services for and behavioural change interventions on gender-based violence. In the context of curfew and constrained functioning of non-essential services there is even less support available. Existing national hotline services have been rapidly strengthened and publicised, including some at district-level, and local women’s organisations are improvising systems for relaying calls to their office phones to staff members in their houses. Whilst these forms of support are valuable to women facing violence, those responding to these calls have limited options to offer in terms of recourse to the law or services. Under curfew, women are constrained in being able to relocate (often with children) to their parents or relatives’ homes for safety or to de-escalate violent situations. Similarly, there are mixed reports from across the island about the willingness of police to respond to complaints and how they intercede. In some instances, there are examples of local police improvising stop-gap-measures pending formal inquiries, such as separating the perpetrator from the victim, for instance by sending a husband to his mother’s house for the duration of the curfew. As indicated by Pushpa de Zoyza, even women seeking treatment for injuries are reluctant to make formal complaints because they don’t want their husbands arrested - for a range of reasons not uncommon in the context of intimate partner violence, but also because of the uncertainty of the current context. Another reason given for women being unwilling to make complaints at this time was the fear that they (not the perpetrator) would be removed from their homes and placed in quarantine. There have been positive efforts to provide public messages via electronic and social media to promote mutual understanding and cooperative relationships between spouses, but it is not clear what kind of impact we can expect from these - particularly with hard-to-reach groups.   

 

"The challenges of living in restricted space, dealing with financial hardships or other stressors of an uncertain situation increase the risk that some parents and adults will subject children in their households to cruelty or even abuse"


In relation to children, whilst the NCPA and other child protection services are receiving complaints via the established national hotlines and direct phone calls to field officers, responding to these at household level has been challenging in the current context. Child protection staff at district level have described difficulties in responding because of disruption of the regular systems for a multi-sectoral response. Whilst police in some areas have been responding to cases, it is clear that in others they are not. Malini Salpitikorale shared that, “to some of the complaints I have forwarded to the police, I am told that action will only be possible after the 20th (of April). Police efforts are fully on COVID-19, but we need to ensure we respond to violence as well. If the government has recognised rice and parrippu as an essential service, then protecting women and children should also be an essential service.” Other child protection service providers have been constrained in their ability to move about during curfew, not only to respond to cases but also to carry out routine prevention and monitoring work at community-level, in children’s homes and with at-risk families. The fear of infection and lack of guidance and personal protective equipment has also been a barrier to mobilisation. There has been helpful messaging online and on mainstream media around positive parenting strategies for caregivers, and it is important to monitor how this is reaching families at risk and effecting behavioural change.   


Given the unprecedented islandwide measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it is not surprising that services to respond to violence were not prioritised in the initial weeks. However, it is now vital that the government, other service providers and the media address the need for protection of people at risk of violence, through both prevention measures and ensuring timely and effective responses to cases of violence. Below are key actions proposed or recently initiated by service providers that require support from the highest levels of the COVID-19 response mechanism.   

General Recommendations on Prevention and Response to Violence in Homes

  • Presidential Task Force on Essential Services to prioritise addressing violence in homes and deem relevant state services to be essential services during the COVID-19 response (see below for specific recommendations in relation to staggered deployment of relevant cadres for GBV and child protection, in the context of limiting numbers of staff with permission to move during curfew). Directives should indicate that staff relevant to these services should not be utilised for general functions such as relief distribution at district or divisional levels, unless this is explicitly integrated with a social protection function.   
  • Government and donors to ensure adequate financing for activities to respond to gender-based violence and child protection.   
  • Government, media and other stakeholders to enhance public messaging on TV, Radio and social media around practical prevention actions for GBV and child protection, and how to access services and support. These must appropriately target women and men, including bystanders (family and neighbours), on what they can do to mitigate risk factors, de-escalate conflicts and react appropriately. Approaches must be evidence-informed and messaging must also counter harmful social norms and attitudes.   
  • Inspector General of Police to issue a directive to all police stations that addressing GBV and violence against children is a priority for immediate response during the COVID-19 outbreak. Mobilise technical experts to develop guidance for police officers on how to respond to violence in the home during COVID-19 curfew and social distancing conditions, including options for immediate mitigation of harm. Monitor and analyse data from police stations to inform development of responses.   
  • Specialist institutions to develop training for responders in the police, health sector, women and child services and personnel working in communities or via helplines (including those for general health and information) on responding to GBV and child-protection during COVID-19 including provision of basic support (including psychosocial support) and information on harm reduction and response.   
  • Health sector, Women and Child Affairs, Police, District & Divisional Secretaries and partners to publicise GBV and child protection helplines and strengthen coordination in all districts, including inter-sectoral phone-based referral for support and case management. Ensure strong links between national helplines and district level systems. Monitor and analyse data from helplines and casework to inform development of responses.   
  • Presidential Task Force on Essential Services to direct public and private sector providers delivering relief to integrate standard messaging on violence prevention and accessing services (ie. flyer distribution, vehicle posters, messaging with sanitary napkins packages) to vulnerable families and women.   
  • Presidential Task Force on Essential Services to put in place measures to enforce court orders of maintenance payments, and provide emergency relief directly where maintenance providers are unable to pay due to being daily wage earners affected by COVID-19 prevention measures. Also, prioritise low-income families under economic pressure for food and financial relief to reduce household level stress that could increase risks of violence.   
  • Specialist institutions to convene technical committee (inclusive of both national and district-level practitioners) to prepare guidance for post-curfew responses and support.

 

"We have also come across examples of mothers who are stranded without means to get back to their homes, resulting in their children facing neglect and risks of physical abuse"

 

Specific Gender-Based Violence Recommendations

  • Health sector to mobilise existing grassroots healthcare staff (Public Health Midwives, Public Health Nursing Sisters) to access hard-to-reach and high-risk households with prevention messages and practical information on accessing services and support.   
  • Health sector to prioritise Mithuru Piyasa services and health services (OPDs, medical wards and pharmacies) as points of information provision and referral for services.   
  • District secretaries and specialised organisations to ensure the operation and where necessary establishment of shelters for the most serious cases of GBV, where there are no community-based alternatives or where the perpetrator cannot be removed.   
  • Ministry of Women and Child Affairs to mobilise Women Development Officers (WDOs) to support district-level helplines and remote household-level support and referral work, with Presidential Task Force authorisation for movement during curfews when appropriate.   

Specific Child Protection Recommendations

  • National Child Protection Authority to mobilize District and Divisional-level Child Protection Officers and Psychosocial Officers, with Presidential Task Force approval for movement during curfew, to conduct prevention activities and respond to reported cases. Specialist institutions to support training for adapting response to COVID-19-specific approaches. Departments of Probation and Child Care Services to also mobilize Probation Officers and Child Rights Promotion Officers for the above functions when deemed feasible by the Presidential Task Force.   
  • Police to immediately inform NCPA officers and Probation Officers of complaints directly received as well as of actions taken on complaints referred to them, to facilitate monitoring and follow-up with the relevant households.   
  • National Child Protection Authority, Departments of Probation and Child Care Services and specialist institutions to develop interim protocols and guidance to ensure child victims remain in safe and nurturing care arrangements, ideally in their own homes, during COVID-19. Responses should focus on risk mitigation and removal of perpetrators in situations of serious violence.   
  • District-level focal point organisations identified by the Presidential Task Force to coordinate with Probation Officers to visit childrens’ homes and de-institutionalized children to monitor and mitigate risks of violence and neglect.   
  • Presidential Task Force on Essential Services to prioritise and provide transport for parents stranded away from their homes to return to care for children with appropriate health precautions.   


Ermiza Tegal is an Attorney-at-Law with a practice focussed on family law and domestic violence. Ananda Galappatti is a medical anthropologist and practitioner in the field of mental health and psychosocial support. This article is written in their individual professional capacities.

  Comments - 1

  • Anoma Jayawardena Wednesday, 10 June 2020 11:59 AM

    Very important document Thanks


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