The impact of stigma on women survivors of sexual violence during and after the war in Sri Lanka has received little attention. How stigma affects women survivors and their families has rarely been documented. What are the roles and responsibilities of the different sectors involved in providing services to survivors? FOKUS WOMEN has begun to document the impact of stigma on women who have been affected by sexual violence during and after the war.
The fear of societal stigma prevents these women not only from accessing support services such as counselling and psychological services and government welfare services, but also deters them from accessing the criminal justice system and other institutions such as the Human Rights Commission (HRC) for redress. A female head of household from the North who had been asked for a sexual bribe had this to say:
‘I know I did not do the right thing and feel like a coward. We take many victims to court but when it happened to me I did not challenge it in court. I know I could have made a complaint at the HRC without going to the police, but I did not do it. I feared that everyone would know and would start to gossip. I have a grown up boy and if he hears about it, it will be bad because there are many stories about me in the community already. It is not easy to live in a community that sets such high moral standards for single women like me. A slight deviation from such moral expectations can lead to us becoming labelled as prostitutes.’
"Many of the women survivors we spoke with were concerned about the stigma faced by their children and did not want them to suffer by what these women had endured at the hands of sexual predators"
The fear of loss of honour and respect is also echoed in the voice of a military widow from the South, “it is the woman who makes the complaint who ends up getting blamed for inviting such sexual advances”. Another military widow from the South who had been asked for a sexual bribe from a Grama Niladhari said ‘I didn’t complain about him to anyone as who would believe that this charming, considerate and respectable gentleman would proposition his own relative? They would end up defaming my character for making such a despicable accusation! … I decided that silence was the best solution so I remained so’.
Many of the women survivors we spoke with were concerned about the stigma faced by their children and did not want them to suffer by what these women had endured at the hands of sexual predators. The impact of sexual violence and associated stigma on the family is seen in the words of a female head of household from the North who had been asked for a sexual bribe from a Public Health Inspector: ‘She (the counsellor) was kind and patient and helped me to overcome this feeling of hopelessness and being contaminated. I did not complain to anyone because of the fear that it would then be public and everyone would get to know. My daughter should get a good husband and my grievance should not block her getting good things in her life’.
"The stigma of sexual violence runs deep. Women from the war-affected districts are affected. It affects not only the woman survivor but also her family and its relations within the community"
The stigma of sexual violence runs deep. Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim women from the war-affected districts are all affected. It affects not only the woman survivor but also her family and the family’s relations within the community. Stigma is a social scar. It takes attitudinal change and concerted efforts at all levels and cross sector collaboration to eradicate its crippling impact on a woman that has been subjected to violence. The state must commit to ending stigma of conflict related sexual violence survivors at all levels. This commitment must come from the top. The Global Principles on Stigma that have been formulated under the United Kingdom’s Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI) are a useful tool to address stigma in countries in conflict and those recovering