By her own admission, the ‘nameless’ young woman, who was brutally beaten in public by a police sergeant at Ratnapura, is a sex worker. The assault was luckily filmed by a bystander with a camera phone. As a result, the police had no choice but to interdict the sergeant responsible. Otherwise, this ‘incident’ would in all probability have been forgotten as many other ‘incidents’ which ruffle the fabric of Sri Lankan society.
The Ratnapura case invites comparison with what happened at Wariyapola last month, when another young woman struck back at a sexual offender and it was video-filmed resulting in the girl getting arrested. The media took up her case and she has subsequently sued the police.
Interestingly, her profession was never revealed. In the Ratnapura case, however, the victim was brave enough to confess that she was a sex worker. In other words, the victim at Wariyapola is respectable by common assumption (even though we don’t know what her job is) and the one at Ratnapura is not (because we know what her job is). This is the reason why her name has been withheld in media reports on the case and the pseudonym ‘Batti’ used instead.
The results are plain to see. It was the electronic media which first broke this story, going online with a video of the assault and a video interview with the victim. While the Daily Mirror reported it prominently, only one other national daily reported it and that was at the bottom of an inside page. The idea may be that this kind of thing is a sex worker’s karma, in the same way, perhaps, that it is a journalist’s karma to get assaulted or be among the disappeared from time to time. It’s an occupational hazard you have to face.
It was reported on Friday that she had filed a fundamental rights case against the police demanding Rs.50 million as compensation. This is entirely due to the efforts of a brave young lawyer (a male) who took up her cause. It hardly went noticed or reported that her mother too was arrested on charges of prostitution. She and her family face a bleak future of intimidation and harassment unless public support is forthcoming. Though she was publicly seen being beaten with a steel cable, the woman had not been officially subjected to a medical examination.
Among those who expressed their opinions, as published in this newspaper on October 1, there were just three recognisable public figures, and only one woman. UNP parliamentarian Thalatha Athukorala made a strong protest. The two men were human rights activists and lawyers Sudarshana Gunawardana and J.C. Weliamuna. None of the women’s organisational figures, lawyers or activists who rushed to defend the Wariyapola victim was there for this woman. That’s why the reverberations of this brutal assault go beyond a mere police action. Its roots lie embedded in our thinking. Men seek sex workers in the dark and shun them after the transaction. Women fear them because sex workers are seen as a threat, luring the men away from the marital bed.
But both women in these two cases look roughly the same age. Both are Sinhalese. Both wore similar clothing (jeans and blouses or t-shirts). If anything, the Wariyapola victim’s clothes were more ‘revealing.’
"If her tormentor was ‘offended’ by her clothing, what offended the police sergeant at Ratnapura? It wasn’t her clothes. The victim claims that the policeman demanded sex – not just once, but thrice"
If her tormentor was ‘offended’ by her clothing, what offended the police sergeant at Ratnapura? It wasn’t her clothes. The victim claims that the policeman demanded sex – not just once, but thrice. Without commenting directly on that, because that would be prejudicial to any court case (if this ever goes that far), I’d say that in general terms the police are known to treat sex workers with the same outrage and contempt they reserve for pickpockets and sex offenders. Sex workers are in fact seen as sex offenders offering their bodies -- normally sanctified by traditional culture as pure and accessible only within marriage -- for money.
Never mind the traditional view. Being women, female sex workers often have to strike deals outside of the law with the police as a means of survival.
None of this, of course, can be proven. But there are many things under the sun which are true even if one may lack the proof, scientific or otherwise. For example, the average person may never be able to prove that the earth rotates around the sun, or the theory of relativity, because he or she doesn’t have the mathematical skills to prove it on paper. It’s the same with political corruption or abuses by the police.
Even if one had the skills or the proof, it could be dangerous to one’s health. I recall another ‘incident’ when three sex workers were allegedly gang raped by a group of policemen in the Kolonnawa cemetery in the 1990s. But nothing was ever proven (if camera phones had existed at the time, there may at least have been a nominal investigation).
But there is no public outcry because the public see sex workers as a cultural and moral aberration, just as the police do. If we think further along these lines, it is rather puzzling why there has been no public outcry against the illegal execution of criminals and suspects by the police. It is because many people think it’s a really good way to deal with crime and are in favour. We really need to hold a public opinion poll to find out what percentage is in favour, but the fact that no one has even thought of conducting a poll on this subject speaks volumes for the Sri Lankan mindset at this time. Of course, if a majority finds to be in favour, that doesn’t mean it’s a good thing and we should applaud. I remember a YouTube video from Sudan. It shows two policemen whipping a young woman in a parking lot. Her crime was to wear jeans underneath the black robe required by religion.
This wasn’t filmed from a hiding place as it was done at Ratnapura. One policeman in fact smiles at the camera because it’s official and legal. My fear is that we are only a few steps away from that whipping in Sudan because the sergeant at Ratnapura didn’t worry about repercussions as he whipped his victim with a wire. That we can at least get him interdicted (however temporary that might be) because of a video taken on the sly means that we are still hanging on to civilization and that too by a thread. There isn’t really much of a difference between Sudan and Sri Lanka as far as official thinking is concerned and how the law is interpreted.
I have seen policemen in Colombo kicking sex workers after rounding them up. That was thirty years ago, when everybody was supposed to be more law-abiding and decent. Some things don’t change, or they change for the worse.
"Among those who expressed their opinions, as published in this newspaper on October 1, there were just three recognisable public figures, and only one woman. UNP parliamentarian Thalatha Athukorala made a strong protest"
The three-wheeler drivers of Ratnapura who staged a protest on behalf of the accused policeman tell us another ugly truth. Sex workers and their clients hire three wheelers. The police use them, too, usually without paying any hire. But it’s the policeman these patriots are defending, not the victim, because the policeman is empowered but the sex worker is not, though the three-wheeler drivers need them both in not so different ways.