r Ministry of Defence - Sri Lanka

Escalation of Domestic Violence against Girls and Women in SL

September 16, 2023

by Kalpani Gunathilaka

Published on Ceylon Today on 08th September 2023.


Source: Women’s Wellbeing Survey, 2019, DCS

The widespread infringement on the human rights of Girls and Women through acts of violence stands as a prominent issue globally. This problem transcends societal, financial, and geographical divisions. Such acts of violence compromise the well-being, respect, safety, and independence of those affected, yet they persist amidst a prevailing atmosphere of unspoken concealment. There have been accounts of a rise in domestic violence in Sri Lanka in the recent past, attributed to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and an unparalleled economic downturn.

National security is often invoked to safeguard against various threats, encompassing defence against both internal and external attacks and infiltration. The duty of upholding this security falls upon the defence and security forces. The issue of domestic violence has surfaced due to the competition for political power and economic resources, resulting in adverse consequences for the overall peace and security of the nation. While physical and financial insecurities exacerbate domestic violence, the presence of such violence further magnifies these insecurities. Consequently, it is imperative to seek remedies for this problem that poses a significant threat to national security.

Present status of domestic violence in local and global context

Domestic violence specifically, represents significant public health issues and a breach of women’s fundamental human rights. Domestic abuse, in other words, intimate partner violence is commentated by the United Nations as “a pattern of behaviour in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.” In addition, domestic violence is defined in Sri Lanka Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 of 2005 as “an act which constitutes an offence specified in Schedule I; any emotional abuse, committed or caused by a relevant person within the environment of the home or outside and arising out of the personal relationship between the aggrieved person and the relevant person”.

It negatively affects women’s mental, physical, sexual and reproductive health and in certain contexts, it may increase the risk of HIV infection. Domestic violence encompasses a wide range of actions, such as physical, emotional, sexual, economic, or psychological, and threats of actions controlled by another individual. These actions include behaviours that terrorise, frighten, manipulate, degrade, oppress or maltreat, injure, blame, or wound someone. Domestic violence can affect anyone, irrespective of age, gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, faith, education level or socioeconomic background. It can occur in various types of relationships, including couples who are living together, married or dating.

According to data from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2021, approximately one out of every three women (30%) worldwide encountered instances of physical or sexual violence from either a partner or non-partner in their lifetime.

Additionally, an estimated one out of every seven women had encountered physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner within the last 12 months.

The Women’s Wellbeing Survey in 2019 conducted by the Department of Statistics is the recent source for obtaining data on violence against Sri Lankan women and girls. Accordingly, Sri Lankan women subjected to physical violence by their partners during their lifetime are more than double (17.4%) compared to violence from anyone else (7.2%). Similarly, the occurrence of sexual violence from partners (6.2%) is also higher than sexual violence from non-partners (4.1%). These data reveal that Violence perpetrated by partners is comparatively high in the context of Sri Lanka.

While it falls below the global average (30%), approximately one out of every five (20.4%) women who have ever been in a partnership have encountered physical and/or sexual violence from their intimate partners during their lifetime. Controlling behaviours are the form of partner violence that is reported the most frequently in Sri Lanka as psychological violence is the blend of controlling behaviours and emotional violence. Furthermore, the survey has revealed that physical violence by a partner is relatively higher in the estate sector rather than in urban and rural sectors as well and women aged 45-50 during their lifetime and 25-34 during the last 12 months are the most abused through physical violence by their partner.

How the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis affect domestic violence

The economic prospects of Sri Lanka have been significantly compromised by the Covid-19 pandemic, worsening an already difficult macroeconomic landscape characterised by sluggish growth rates and substantial fiscal strains. Due to this economic downturn of the country, poverty and unemployment largely increased and thereby most of the vulnerable families fell into so many financial issues. It exacerbated domestic tension and escalated domestic violence in Sri Lankan families. Reporting higher unemployment rates, mainly due to the adverse economic consequences of the pandemic in Sri Lanka, the country has witnessed a loss of over half a million jobs in the employment sector between 2021 and 2022. This circumstance creates a range of stressors, including financial strain, social stigma, and various other factors. Such stressful situations contribute to an increase in domestic violence.

Additionally, due to female unemployment, their reliance on spouses or partners further exacerbates the issue. This financial dependence often creates challenges for women in leaving their abusers, leaving them more vulnerable to domestic violence, particularly in the context of lockdown measures. Although economic recession, poverty and unemployment do not cause the creation of domestic violence, these factors may surge the risk of domestic violence. Renishka Fernando has declared in the Sunday Times on 28 November 2021 that the number of daily complaints surged to 100-200 after the outbreak of Covid-19, with over 70% of the grievances related to domestic violence, and 15% involving rape, family disputes and cyber-violence. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a surge in documented instances of sexual and gender-based violence as a result of lockdowns and limitations on travel.

According to the findings of the Women’s Wellbeing Survey in 2019, there is a consistent correlation between a low household socioeconomic status, specifically poverty, and elevated occurrences of partner violence. It means women with the stress of poverty or low financial background suffer a lot of violence from their partners. Furthermore, compared to women with low-level household assets, women with middle and higher levels of household assets had a relatively lower risk for partner violence.

However, some are of the view that domestic violence is not directly linked with the effects of family economic background. There is no doubt that domestic violence is happening in all the families who are rich, poor, educated or uneducated. There are several reasons for domestic violence. It differs from one family to another. Although rich families are well with financial backgrounds, they may have other issues like addiction to drugs and mental issues etc. but, the majority of poor families suffer from domestic violence due to their financial difficulties, lack of education and other pressures from society or relatives.

Other factors affecting the escalation of domestic violence

Demographic attributes, prior incidents of violence, attitudes towards spousal abuse (woman), behaviours of woman’s partner, socioeconomic background, household wealth, number of children, woman’s social capital and residential sector in which the individuals are situated are taken into consideration as the possible factors that increase the risk of experiencing physical or sexual violence.

Women’s Wellbeing Survey in 2019 has exposed that young age and ‘young at marriage’ is considered as the age where there is a higher risk of violence for women due to their relative inexperience and low relationship power in that age. And, women who rely on their partner for financial support face an increased likelihood of experiencing partner violence. Higher levels of education and employment among women should be connected to a decreased risk of current partner violence. However, it is important to note that certain aspects of women’s empowerment, such as economic independence and ownership of assets, have been shown to offer protection in some contexts. Another factor affecting domestic violence is the alcohol consumption of the partner. If a woman’s partner uses drugs, the risk of reporting domestic violence is over twice compared to the women whose partners have never used drugs. Social isolation has a strong relationship with partner violence while women’s family and social networks are negatively associated. Residential status also shows a significant influence on the occurrence of domestic violence. Compared to the women who are living in urban areas, women living in rural and estate areas are at a higher risk for domestic violence.

Existing measures to curb domestic violence in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, the legal structure addressing the prevention and punishment of domestic violence primarily relies on several key laws. These include the Code of Criminal Procedure Act No. 15 of 1979, the Penal Code Ordinance No. 2 of 1883, and the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act No. 34 of 2005. To aid in the coordination and oversight of efforts against abuse and violence, the Sri Lanka Police has the main responsibility to act against domestic violence and the National Child Protection Authority, established by Act No. 50 of 1998, plays crucial roles, particularly concerning the safeguarding of children. According to Section 23 of the Domestic Violence Act, domestic violence encompasses the infliction of emotional or physical harm by a spouse, former spouse, or partner with whom one cohabits. Section 2 outlines the provision that allows the affected party to seek a Protection Order from a Magistrate’s Court in response to such mistreatment. However, looking back at the year 2020, it becomes evident that women faced significant barriers in reporting such violence due to being confined to their homes during the lockdown, making it nearly impossible for them to seek help.

Another measure is establishing a National Policy Framework and Action Plan to address Sexual and Gender-based Violence. This was designed by the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs in association with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to tackle Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) in 2016. The Plan aims to create a society in Sri Lanka where women and children can live without violence, emphasising zero tolerance for SGBV. Notably, this comprehensive Plan was developed through a multi-sectoral approach involving key Ministries from nine sectors.

Conclusion and the way forward

There are a number of reasons for domestic violence such as demographic attributes, prior incidents of violence, attitudes towards spousal abuse (woman), behaviours of woman’s partner, socioeconomic background, household wealth, number of children, woman’s social capital and residential sector etc. Nevertheless, numerous studies indicate that the recent surge in domestic violence against women and girls is closely linked to the economic crisis. Those who are financially vulnerable among women have borne the brunt of this increase. Violence against women can be prevented if all parties work responsibly for it. The healthcare sector has a crucial responsibility to offer comprehensive healthcare services for protecting women who have faced violence, serving as a gateway to connect them with additional support services they may require.

The Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR) conducted a research study in 2019 with the collaboration of the National Police Commission and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) regarding gender equality in Sri Lanka Police. They revealed that an approved cadre of 11,263 female officers exists, but at present, only 8,878 women officers are actively serving. And it is 11.7% of the total cadre. Furthermore, they identified that women Police officers play a crucial role in enhancing the police response to violence against women and they are indispensable in addressing challenges like domestic violence, human trafficking, and other enduring issues that predominantly impact women and children. Hence, it is needed to appoint sufficient female Police officers in every Police station, particularly in rural regions. Sometimes, women are reluctant to report domestic violence cases to male Police officers

Hence, it is vital to increase female Police officers, especially in rural areas as most of the cases are in the rural areas. Additionally, there is a need for further development of awareness among Police officers regarding providing advice and taking appropriate actions when responding to reports of domestic violence, to prevent its recurrence in the future. There is a requirement for the establishment of a systematic and official monitoring mechanism for all families identified as vulnerable. Moreover, additional financial resources should be allocated to support both governmental and non-governmental organisations in their efforts to prevent domestic violence.

As well as Employment opportunities should be created and provided to the women who depend on their partners for financial support. Furthermore, enhancing educational prospects for girls represents a significant stride in the broader perspective. Bridging the gender disparity in education provides women with increased economic autonomy and reduces their susceptibility to male influence and control. Implementing these measures will safeguard Sri Lankan girls and women from domestic violence and contribute to improving the social standing and reputation of the country as well.

About the Author: After the 2019 Women’s Wellbeing Survey published by the DCS, there is no further survey conducted to identify the present status of domestic violence in Sri Lanka. However, cases of domestic violence are increasing day-by-day due to several various reasons. Therefore, it becomes necessary to conduct a comprehensive survey to collect data on domestic violence in Sri Lanka and to take prompt remedial action. To prevent domestic violence that occurs due to the economic and financial issues of the country and directly impacts households, a speedy recovery of the Sri Lankan economy is vital to provide relief to vulnerable families.

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* Mrs. Kalpani Gunathilaka is a Research Assistant at the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS), the premier think-tank on National Security established under the Ministry of Defence. The opinion expressed is her own and not necessarily reflective of the institute or the Ministry of Defence.



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