Silent no more! We should react Beyond anger and outrage…

What is happening in Sri Lanka is frightening. But more horrific is the fact that such incidents continue to occur in higher levels if we remain a country of onlookers.

Are we really a nation of onlookers? I ask this question not because we don’t do anything to set things right which we know are wrong but because we remain so preoccupied with our theatric countenance that we seldom realise we could have done better than just keep fighting our war for justice on the media and social platforms.

Take the case of rape incidents. Each time a rape is reported, our civil society reacts with anger and outrage, which unfortunately dies down after a couple of weeks and is forgotten, until the next time. The question to ask: what is the inflexion point? At what stage do we say collectively and in one voice: Let’s stop it!

Early this year a middle-aged woman was allegedly gang-raped by four men at a taxi stand when she had lost her way in the suburb of Mirihana and had asked for directions. In 2011 a 24 year-old Russian languages graduate was allegedly beaten and raped at a hotel in Tangalle. Quite recently, a 12-year-old girl was said to have been sexually abused by a member of the Maharagama Municipal Council.

These are among hundreds of such cases reported from across the country. According to the Police, rape cases have seen a sharp rise over the years. In 1990 only 365 rape cases had been reported to police while the number in 1995 was 542. In 2007, it has arisen to 1397. This number increased to over1800 last year. However, these statistics are based on complaints made to the police only.  According to human rights activists the actual figure would be much higher than police statistics.
What is happening in Sri Lanka is frightening. But more horrific is the fact that such incidents continue to occur in higher levels if we remain a country of onlookers. We have to do every bit to expose the incompetency of the Government Institutions and officials and the people in power and drag them out of their comfort zone to answer uncomfortable questions.

But, other than the outrage, what else do we do?  We talk for hours on TV debates, organise a rally and social network non-stop during the incidents. We keep on exhibiting our dissatisfaction on the state of affairs and our paralysed security apparatus. We disgrace politicians who are sitting pretty under the soothing cover of their AAA security and dare them to come out of their cocoons and be accountable.

That itself is not enough. What we desperately need are people who can respond by forcing the law into serious action, helping victims and raising a loud voice at the culprit. Culprits should not be feeling that they can get away with rape either in public or private. For a country with twenty million people, we should not be a meek bunch–– swelling with false pride, stuck in racial prejudices and religious fanaticism and having no value to human dignity at all. It is really pathetic.

In the past few months, I have spoken with dozens of people, consisting of a reasonable wide spectrum of society, about the increasing rape situation in Sri Lanka. The responses have produced three main reactions. The first is to demand more stringent punishment for rape, such as hanging. One even suggested chemical castration. The second type seeks to protect women paternalistically by forcing them to dress ‘soberly’, running special buses, installing more CCTV cameras. Some even suggested that we train them in fighting back. The third reaction comes from officials, politicians and spiritual leaders. They blame the victim by accusing her of having crossed ‘red-lines’ such as not going out at night.  Some of them contend that rapes only occur in westernised, urban areas.  .

All three responses fail to address the core issue. Rape, I believe, is about male power, aggression, violence and domination, and a desire to humiliate a woman by violating her bodily integrity. It has nothing to do with sex or sexual attraction – or else, five-year-olds, as well as 23-year-old and 72-year-old women wouldn’t be raped regardless of their looks, attire or relationship with the aggressor. It has nothing to do with what women wear. It has nothing to do with whether it is day or night. It has everything to do with what we teach our males and how we raise them and what values they grow up with. A serious examination and revamping of male attitudes is what the so-called responsible leaders should be focusing on.

Rape in Sri Lanka isn’t an individual issue, but a social and political pathology – a part of pervasive gender violence. The demand for draconian penalties for rape lies in the belief that these would deter it. It is a call for revenge, not justice. Preventing rape is tied to transforming the dominant forms of masculinity that celebrate men’s sexual conquest of women into healthy forms of masculinity that respects women and value men taking action to prevent men’s violence against women.  

Capital punishment will not improve the situation since all of that is after the fact. If it were a panacea, the 26 death penalty states of the U.S. would have that country’s lowest murder rates. The opposite is true.

Many solutions have been offered by the independent thinkers to minimise the rape rates. Some of these include: (1) the setting up of fast track courts to ensure speedy trials; (2) The imposition of maximum, exemplary sentence; (3)  Fast clearance of all pending cases involving crimes against women; (4)  Immediate training and sensitisation of police force to crimes against women, including domestic violence, molestation and sexual assault ; (5) Consultations with the Ministry of Education to see how best to address the issue of sensitising boys through the school curriculum; (6)  National-level, open consultations involving civil society and other stake-holders on how best to tackle the growing misogyny and hostility against women as well as rising crimes against them.

At a time when women are increasingly claiming their rightful share and asserting their autonomy and independence, the rising crimes against them are conducted with absolute impunity by criminals who have no fear of the law.  Lack of gender justice, lack of fear of the law, police and judicial apathy, failure of governance and shrinking public spaces is a matter of grave concern, not just for women but for every citizen of this country.

Onlookers and bystanders, too, need to make a difference.  The bystander approach recognises that anyone (and indeed everyone) can be part of the solution.  Let’s figure out how to find ways to create a culture where it is expected that people will interrupt not only situations of violence and abuse, but also intervene in situations that contribute to the environment that makes rape acceptable.

Outrage, anyway, is fine. It is a good beginning. So is better policing and prosecuting. So would be better reporting of the crime of rape. But for better prevention to happen, the economic and social power of women would have to improve. The whole of the Sri Lankan culture including the economic and social condition of women must change.

Rape cases have several dimensions, social, criminal, psychological and gender discrimination. Can it be treated as a law and order problem alone? Certainly not. Even if it is, do we have enough sensitivity and expertise in our police mechanism to deal with such cases in a proper manner? That is the 64 million Rupee question we have to ask ourselves.

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