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Conjunctures of Silence: Aphonias in the Prosecution of Conflict Related Sexual Violence in Sri Lanka - The Vishvamadu Case

Danushka Medawatte, Neloufer de Mel, Sandani N. Yapa Abeywardena, Ranitha Gnanaraj | Published on February 9, 2022

Project: The Potentialities and Politics of Transformation

Prosecution of conflict related sexual violence (CRSV) in Sri Lanka remains notoriously intractable. Through an analysis of the Vishvamadu case, this study examines a variety of silences and disablements across a range of articulations and practices that work against the successful prosecution of CRSV in Sri Lanka, and thereby the delivery of justice to women victim-survivors who seek redress through a formal judicial process. Drawing on a literature review of feminist scholarship on gender based sexual violence against women in contexts of armed conflict, analysis of national and international legal provisions, and in-depth interviews with stakeholders in the case, it provides an in-depth analysis of the systemic shortfalls, gaps in the law, and procedural blind spots which work against the delivery of due justice to victim-survivors of the crime. By doing so it calls attention to the multiple registers, other than the cultural, on which victim- survivors are marginalised and silenced, and based on its findings, provides recommendations on how a more transformative, consultative and participatory environment can be built towards providing victim- survivors due justice.

Key Findings

The study found that women victim-survivors of CRSV face multiple challenges, exacerbated in a context of ethnic conflict and militarisation. The manner in which sexual violence itself is recorded in complaints at police stations, and the gaps in the judicial medical examination, the guidelines followed in compiling the medical legal report, and the reporting of its findings to the court displayed inefficiencies and systemic shortfalls. The Vishvamadu case has also taken 11 years to date, indicative of the long delays in the Sri Lankan judicial process.

Key Recommendations

Based on the findings, and towards delivering due justice to victims of CRSV which also includes a transformative process, the study makes the following recommendations:

Gender Training: Mandatory and more robust training of  police officers and judicial medical officers in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and trauma to ensure gender sensitivity and the protection recommended that a police officer of whatever gender preferred by the victim-survivor be present when the complaint is made at the police station, and a person of choice be also present at the medico-legal examination.

Guiding Principles and user-friendly standard operating     procedures (SOPs) in an easily accessible format to be developed which would provide both a practical step by step set of directives to stakeholders in cases of sexual violence (victims, befrienders and human rights defenders, the police, the Judicial Medical Officer [JMOs], the prosecutors) to ensure that due process takes place and that the process  itself is in the public domain.

Law Reform: A legal definition of CRSV to be included in the substantive law, and a review of legal standards on consent and corroboration in cases of sexual violence, the recognition of the impact of trauma on witness statements particularly in the context of intimidation and militarisation, to be conducted. Existing legislation such as the Witness Protection Act which grants victim protection and recognises victim statements to be fully implemented, and best practices from elsewhere be adapted to guarantee the participatory rights of victims in court.

Image credit: The UN Sri Lanka staff gathered to commemorate the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. UN Women (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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