There doesn’t seem to be a political will to change things for the LGBTIQ community: Rosanna Flamer-Caldera
By Naveed Rozais
Sri Lanka’s relationship with women is complicated. Yes, we were the first country in the world to elect a female Prime Minister over 60 years ago, but despite this, we still have a long, long way to go with women’s rights and issues.
A few weeks ago, the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) of Sri Lanka released the findings of its 2019 Women’s Wellbeing Survey (WWS), a first-of-its-kind, dedicated national survey on violence against women and girls.
Some of the troubling statistics the WWS reported were that one in four (24.9%) women in Sri Lanka has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner or a non-partner. Meanwhile, two in every five women (39.8%) have suffered physical, sexual, emotional, and/or economic violence and/or controlling behaviours by a partner. Even with non-partners, perpetrators are most often family members known to the victims, rather than strangers.
The WWS, while very timely, does, however, have some gaps. It does not specifically look at instances of violence against women who are in same-sex relationships or who identify as a part of the Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LBTQ) community.
This past week saw the conclusion of the global domestic violence awareness movement “16 Days of Activism”. From an LBTQ perspective, EQUAL GROUND, Sri Lanka’s leading advocate for political and human rights for LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer/Questioning) individuals in Sri Lanka, has held a campaign highlighting domestic violence within the LBTQ space and encouraging allies to support and stand up for the LGBTIQ community.
To learn more about the issues LBTQ women face with Gender-Based Violence (GBV), The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke with EQUAL GROUND Executive Director Rosanna Flamer-Caldera.
What are the key issues LBTQ women face that are not directly addressed in the WWS?
To set the stage as to what is happening with LBTQ women, and the LGBTIQ community, we must look at when the laws were amended in 1995. The word male was replaced by person in Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code, therefore criminalising adult same-sex activity between women. In spite of this British law being there for over 137 years, successive governments have failed to decriminalise same-sex relationships and give the LBGTIQ community the rights and freedoms they deserve.
Women in Sri Lanka are far more marginalised, to begin with, and being an LBTQ woman piles on reasons and stigmas for their rights and person to be violated. When it comes to any kind of intervention too, LBTQ women’s rights are often ignored, even by mainstream and civil societies fighting for women’s rights. They’re always left out of the discourse and have to fight to get their foot in the door.
The WWS certainly doesn’t cover LBTQ women as much as it should, particularly with patriarchal attitudes and the culture of forced marriages (for many different reasons). This, along with the fact that women aren’t given the same opportunities as men when it comes to education, the workplace, and so on, means that it takes a lot of courage to speak about abuse, and women who speak out are more the exception than the rule.
There is the myth that abuse doesn’t take place between same-sex partners, especially women. What are your thoughts?
Well, to start with, it’s a myth. There are complex issues within same-sex relationships. One issue is finding partners to begin with. Unlike straight couples, same-sex couples find it more difficult to get into relationships and have relationships because of the taboo that surrounds it and the law that erroneously deem people “criminal” for who they love. I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t say for sure, but this can be a reason why people sometimes cling to “hopeless” or abusive relationships and don’t get out of them.
I personally believe that self-esteem plays a huge role in why a woman stays in an abusive relationship. Sometimes it’s also about resources and cultural attitudes that a woman “belongs” to the man she marries, and he has the right to do whatever he wants with her.
Sri Lanka has been very remiss with putting forward legislation that protects our women. They have let things slide to a degree where it is now the norm rather than the exception to be abused in a relationship. This needs to stop and shouldn’t be accepted at any level. Our politicians don’t consider this to be a grave matter, and they perpetuate that same need to put down women to make themselves feel more important. Women themselves sometimes perpetuate this patriarchy. This needs to stop, and women should play a bigger role in pushing for these changes and making abuse at any level unacceptable.
The far-reaching consequences of GBV on women’s physical, mental, and economic health (their ability to stay employed and similar) have been documented in the WWS. How does this apply in the LBTQ context? Are these consequences felt less or more?
They’re significantly more, especially economically. First and foremost, finding employment is a huge difficulty for LBTQ women. Once they find employment, they’re most often not openly LBTQ at their workplace and have to hide their true selves from their workmates. When you start with that disadvantage, saying you need time off because you’re being violated by your same-sex partner takes exceptional strength and courage. Most people will keep it hidden and have no recourse because everything needs to be hidden all the time.
Heterosexual women have a greater opportunity to talk about their abuse and ask for help. LBTQ women find that extremely daunting because it’s an extreme vulnerability on their part, and this exacerbates the issue.
LBTQ women and lesbian, bisexual women, in particular, face the added burden of being women in a patriarchal country that doesn’t accept them and their sexual identities. They themselves often struggle with internalised homophobia, which is something all LGBTIQ people face when coming to terms with their sexualities. They’re grappling with this and the fact that now someone might know that they’re “like this”. They feel that there is no recourse for them, even if they report their abuse.
Can education play a role?
I believe that education needs to start not only within families but in school at a very young age; people should be taught to be accepting of differences. Sex education is also very important, and something we fail to have in our school system. There is a big need for more holistic education rather than just focusing on algebra, history, and civics. Children need to be taught to be environmentally conscious and to get along with different people and embrace rather than reject diversity.
This is how learning happens in schools in Scandinavia and various other countries that have come far in helping citizens understand what is good for their country and themselves. Being conscious and sensitive to the needs of the animal kingdom, nature, and LBGTIQ issues should all be taught in the classroom. Most of the bullying of LGBTIQ persons takes place in schools, unfortunately. Consequently, the bullies grow up to bully others once they have left school as well, and the LGBTIQ community faces this constantly.
How can we help LBTQ women speak up about their abuse?
An unfortunate issue is that LBTQ women are so afraid to reach out. LBTQ women face the added burden of being “criminalised”. Both they and the Police don’t fully understand how the law works. They may have a case brought against them for gross indecency, and even though the case might get thrown out of court, they still have to deal with the trauma of being identified and taken to court, deal with what people say about them, and undergo unfair treatment from the Police while in custody, like forced anal and vaginal examinations for example.
Even when heterosexual women report abuse, the first thing the Police do is try to put the couple back together. They’re very male centric and tend to blame the woman as opposed to taking her side. Even though there are Women and Children’s Desks at police stations, those manning these desks are biased. It’s no wonder LGBTIQ people and women both don’t trust the Police.
Getting people to talk is not easy; there are many reasons why they don’t open up. One of the biggest impediments is the law that criminalises same-sex adult relationships mixed with the fact that there is no education that shows that what they’re experiencing is in fact abuse and that they can report it.
Sexual abuse and GBV have been mainstreamed so much in this country that people think it’s just normal to do this. We need to speak up and change the system. Even the media is at fault here in how they report. Most often when you hear about a rape or similar, you immediately hear what the woman was wearing or that she was walking somewhere she shouldn’t have. Victim shaming is a huge issue and if we are to change the way things are done, we have to start from the very basics.
Our judicial system has failed, and you can’t expect people to get the courage to speak up when we’re bashing our heads against an obstinate judicial and government system that really cannot be bothered making changes that will benefit the citizens of this country. The whole system is about making men feel comfortable and there is nothing currently in anyone’s political or judicial agenda to make sure women and children are safe.
There doesn’t seem to be a political will to change things for the LGBTIQ community or for women and other marginalised communities in this country, which is shameful, because we are the ones voting these people in, but they do very little for us. Marginalised communities need to think very deeply about voting. Politicians come in by promising various things but not following through. The political scene needs to change and the only way it can change is for people to hold politicians accountable.
EQUAL GROUND runs the only helpline for LBTQ women with expert counsellors who can counsel over the phone, on Skype, WhatsApp, or other platforms. There are many different scenarios surrounding abuse and why it takes place. If you identify as a part of the LGBTIQ community and are being abused and are looking for support or just a sympathetic ear, please contact EQUAL GROUND on +94 114 334 279.