By Jeewan Thiyagarajah
In 2003, people at the Institute of Human Rights (IHR) due to early stages of madness complained to the Human Rights Commission of human rights violations at the only State women’s home in Sri Lanka. The HRC prepared a report with recommendations based on the complaint in 2004.
In April, 2011 the same incorrigibly mad people at IHR made submissions to the Human Rights Commission to enforce implementation of the 2004 Recommendations of the Commission with revisions applicable, allow women who are 18 and eligible for release to be free to act as adults and leave the institution, mothers within have full parenting rights, revision of legislation where needed etc.
The 2004 Recommendations requested the immediate addressing of the problems associated with detention without the proper court mandate, including no-date detainees, detainees held after their sentence, the refusal to release detainees without a guardian and the detention of women who have not committed punishable offences including resolving the discrepancy regarding the definition of vagrant in the Vagrant’s Ordinance and the Houses of Detention Ordinance, amending the Houses of Detention Ordinance to include a provision that all adult detainees should be released upon expiration of their sentence, notwithstanding that any person claims custody of the detainee, Meet with the Departments of Social Services and Judiciary and local magistrates, formalise a uniform sentencing procedure that requires judges and magistrates to specify a release date upon sentencing, that mandates detention only upon a charge or conviction of a punishable offence and that prohibits a house of detention from detaining adult women simply because they have no guardian, Convert at least part of the detention centre into a shelter for women. The relevant responsible Gurus of Sleep have done no such thing todate.
The other recommendations were: address the specific needs of children and women with mental illness, Guarantee healthy, safe and sanitary living conditions, Reinstate the rehabilitative mission of Methsevena Detention Centre. They have in whole or in part been addressed.
For close on 8 years key recommendations await implementation. When the 2011 petition was fixed for inquiry recently only two state agencies responded to the summons. The others kept away.
The Houses of Detention Ordinance and the Vagrance Ordinance regulate the entry into and exit from the facility of women. The Latter was first enacted in 1841 and revised last in 1941.Six years before Independence. It contains descriptions such as those ,’Who are deemed to be rogues and vagabounds, Who are deemed to be incorrigible rogues, Punishment of certain class of incorrigible rogues and Detention of youthful bad characters’.
We have had 3 Constitutions since 1947 in Sri Lanka. None of which would allow citizens to be described in such derogatory terms. Such Victorian phrases have no place in present day Human Rights norms either Universally or in Sri Lanka. However, we still use archaic derogatory pieces of legislation in post Independent Sri Lanka in flagrant violation of the Constitutional rights of Women.
This sorry tale of disinterest is largely due to the fact the unfortunate recipients of the discriminatory treatment are almost always poor women who have no power to protest.
It is also very unusual for a Public Interest Petition to seek implementation of what our premier Human rights Watch dog has sought from fellow State institutions. We subscribe to the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights and sign on to global instruments and loudly pronounce solidarity on women's rights. The reality though is we are extraordinarily callous when it comes to ‘poor rights’.
Recent inquiries reveal the existence of a new draft to replace the current Vagrance Ordinance. The idea of committing females without a release date, while denying them the right of being recognised as adults at 18 if free to leave are some of the preposterous crimes which need urgent rectification.
The Chief Justice, Attorney General, Secretary Ministry of Justice are women, with relevant associated agencies having women in positions of authority too, it’s time we see change now.