"Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it, possibly without claiming it, she stands up for all women" - M. Angelou
A Beyonce track blares out through the supermarket sound system "So don't you ever for a second get to thinking you are irreplaceable". Nobody seems to be taking any notice of the lyrics. Women in bright saris are busy choosing the specific type of rice required for dinner, schoolgirls are excitedly getting a few sweets, and young dads are looking confusedly at the rows and rows of milk powders. I have been in Sri Lanka for nearly for a month now, and my understanding of spices has improved more than my understanding of gender imbalances.
A busy zebra crossing. Men quite openly harassing women. So I open up my Mary Poppins umbrella, and walk with the ‘stale face’. Seems to work - nobody even dares to try to look at me inappropriately. But I can't go with an umbrella everywhere, can I?! Especially when I go running. In fact, you should of seen me venturing out for a run recently! It was more of a social experiment - dressed in long sleeve T-shirt, leggings and shorts - I pounded the streets in a sweltering 35 degrees heat - raising the eyebrows of more than a few members of public. Most worrying were the 14-years old boys who began pointing and laughing at me and calling me names. From my many years of work with youth and teaching them about safe relationships and respect towards women, I know that those views reflect the stereotypical views about gender at home... Worrying...
This worrying situation has indeed been confirmed by the many colleagues from women's NGOs I have visited in the country. It is not only the high incidence of domestic violence and rape, the socio-economic non-existence of women in society (no rights to property in case of divorce etc.), and the problems facing widows in the aftermath of a long war that creates such a problem... It is also the huge rate of incest and sexual violence which occurs within the walls of many family homes. Laws and policies do exist, but not every police officer applies them, often sending victims back home to the perpetrator. No safeguarding policies in the schools, no sex education. Even if the victim reveals that she has been raped by her father or grandfather, the mother won't necessarily take action against her husband as she is scared to end up destitute if her male relative gets locked up. There are a lot of women’s shelters in the country, but not many reintegration programmes. Where will those young women end up without any support and undoubtedly bearing the blame from their family? I have heard of some even taking their own lives.
I find myself staring at a newspaper article about a woman and her baby daughter who were pushed into the sea by the child’s father. The woman survived, but tragically the baby girl didn't. All three newspapers I ended up buying just wrote the minimal information, no analytical piece, no interviews, no portrait pieces, just the bare information with the main focus of the attention still on the man who had committed the crime, and about how he was arrested in front of his family. I talked to a professor of journalism, begging him to let me come to the university to give some lectures to the students. The answer was that they are busy with exams…
"So don't you ever for a second get to thinking you are irreplaceable". Women pass by in their colourful saris. No matter how tight they wrap themselves in those beautiful pieces of fabric, it won't protect them from the violence. Because only one thing will – the desire to change the situation in their own country, in their own homes. A little talk with their daughters and sons. A knowledge of their rights. A marriage out of love and not because of poverty.
But for now I am still opening my long umbrella and walking through the streets of Colombo, looking straight into the eyes of people passing by. I am standing up for myself and her. After only one month, some strangers have started smiling, and I gently raise my brolly, protecting myself from the harsh glare of the sun.