It’s thought that more than 60 per cent of women in Sri Lanka will experience domestic abuse. Corinne Redfern meets the women trying to escape…
Over the course of 12 years, Deepa got used to packing up her belongings into thin plastic carrier bags and moving house. It happened every few months: With her daughter, Dilini, and her eldest son, Dilhara, running to keep pace behind her, she’d balance her youngest child on her hip, and walk quickly down the street to their new home; head down the whole way as the neighbours stood on their front steps and stared. ‘After the first three or four times, I knew when it was coming,’ she recalls. ‘By the time the landlord knocked on our door and said we had to leave, I’d already be half packed up.’ He’d have heard her pleas for mercy the night before, she explains. ‘He didn’t want there to be a murder on his property.’
A new report released in October this year estimates that 60 per cent of women in Sri Lanka will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lifetimes. For some, the violence appears bound to the country’s increasing levels of male alcoholism – drinking-related issues are more than twice as common in Sri Lanka than across the rest of South Asia. For others, it’s linked to drugs (recent countrywide figures suggest there are over 45,000 regular users of heroin), or the ever-steadily rising rates of unemployment. For Deepa, the cause doesn’t matter – there’s no way of justifying what happened to her. ‘The things that my husband did to me…’ she pauses. ‘They’re unforgiveable, and I know that. But it took me more than a decade to leave him. I felt so alone.’ He would regularly rape her, she later clarifies, while their three children were in the same room.
In a post-civil war society that continues to place women on a lower tier to men, violence is taken for granted – thuds shaking partition walls; a scrape of skin and cloth against a concrete floor, sobs muffled with the palm of a hand. It is, says Roshan Wijemanne, Chief Operations Officer for local charity Community Conern, an everyday part of everyday life. ‘Women are still at the very bottom of Sri Lanka’s social hierarchy,’ she explains. ‘The problem is twofold. On the one hand, there isn’t enough support for them in the first place. On the other, even if there was more support, they couldn’t ask for it. They do not have a voice.’
Even their screams are out of their control. It’s a common practice in Sri Lanka, Roshan says, for husbands to strip their wives before they beat them – so that the woman will be shamed into remaining silent throughout the assault. The deep-seated cultural implications of being seen naked are enough to choke even the most desperate cry for help. ‘I was eight months pregnant when my husband raped me and forced me to me take off my clothes and sit outside the house where everyone would see me,’ says Deepa. ‘That night he took everything away from me. He stripped me of all my dignity. I had nothing left of myself.’
Deepa lives in Colombo – a cosmopolitan coastal city of over six hundred thousand. With floating markets interspersed alongside imposingly archaic architecture and opulent five star hotels – not to mention the dare-you-to-crop-me-into-a-tiny-square sunsets – Sri Lanka’s capital has landed itself firmly in the middle of the newly tarmacked track. Last year the tourist industry raked in over $2.2 billion in revenue from elephant-trouser wearing backpackers and no-expense-spared honeymooners alike. But for all its rooftop cocktail bars, Uber drivers and beach parties, the country still only has one shelter offering long-term accommodation for the thousands of women and children in need of escape from domestic abuse. And most people haven’t even heard of it.
Called Heavena, the shelter operates on a level of such unfortunately necessary semi-secrecy, staff members must walk the length of two streets before catching their tuktuks home – lest a driver inadvertently pass their location to a vengeful husband or violent ex. Even up close, there aren’t any signs to betray the sprawling bungalow’s purpose. Peer over the high iron gates, and your eyes are met with a maze of washing lines – bright like bunting – and children’s voices rise as they spin dizzying circles around a palm near the front door. But while the shelter’s privacy is paramount to the women’s safety, the lack of awareness surrounding its presence is problematic. After all, if you don’t know help exists, it’s even harder to find it when you need it. ‘I never imagined there was anywhere like this where I could go,’ says Selma*, 23, who has been at Heavena since the first of September. ‘When my husband started beating me when I was 15, I asked my mother-in-law for help. She lived in the room next door, so she could hear me yelling whenever he tied me up and raped me. She just told me to stop resisting – that fighting back would make the problem worse. And that if I was quiet, it would be easier for everyone.’
Roshan is silent as Selma speaks. ‘We focus on independence and empowerment – teaching women who have experienced long-term abuse to live on their own, away from their husbands – but we do have to work on a very small scale,’ she explains later – adding that while Community Concern is responsible for the administration of the shelter, there’s currently only one live-in staff member, or ‘matron’, who provides 24/7 support to the 12 or so women who stay on site. ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have the funds to expand to help more than a dozen women or so at a time. But what we can do is help those women to the best of our abilities – to provide them with the necessary psychological support, medical care and education to help them get back on their feet. Then we have to hope that they can tell other women within their communities about their experiences. It’s slow progress, and it’s not enough. But for these women, its still something.’
‘He’d never hit my stomach – just my face, over and over and over again’
Chathu, 36, mother to Benisha Gimhani, five years old
‘I’ve tried to block out a lot of my past. Remembering my childhood doesn’t make me happy, and I’ve managed to forget most of it. I wish I could do the same for my adult life, but that stuff is harder to make go away.
I’ve had two husbands, and they both beat me. My first was when I was only 16. I needed to escape my parents, so I agreed to marry him without thinking. We went to the registry office and lied about my age, then I moved in with his family. Four months later I was pregnant. But by the time I’d had two sons, my husband had started assaulting me so violently that in the end I had no choice but to run away. If I stayed, I would have died. I kissed my sons’ foreheads as they slept, and I fled. I’ve never seen either of them since. I just have to hope that they have a better life without me.
A few years later I married again, and for a few months, everything was lovely. But then I fell pregnant, and my new husband suddenly started beating me as well. He was a scary, frightening man, and this time, I didn’t have any fight left in me. He’d hit me in front of friends and family members, but nobody ever intervened because they were scared too. It would be better for everyone if I just got used to it, they’d tell me quietly; he’d tire eventually. But I felt so hopeless that I wanted to die, and one day I took an overdose of painkillers. When he found me, unconscious but alive, he beat me for four days straight. I was still pregnant, but he was very clever; he’d never hit my stomach – just my face and my head, again and again and again. I gave birth to our daughter and he seemed to get angrier. One day he hit me while Benisha was awake, and something deep kicked in inside of me. Picking up a knife with one hand, I grabbed her and ran for the door. We fled into the jungle together and hid there all night, praying he wouldn’t find us.
In the end, the police sent us to Heavena because they didn’t know how else to help us. They dropped me off outside, and I felt scared – I didn’t know what to expect. Then I saw that there were lots of mothers and babies playing together, looking happy and relaxed, and it dawned on me, ‘I can do this’. They let us stay for about six months, and I learned English, computer science and cooking. I’d never even been to school before, but suddenly at 32 years old, I was studying everything I needed to have a better life, without a husband. The matron helped to find me a job looking after children at the local school, and Benisha and I moved to our own little home – just the two of us, away from any men.
It’s been about three years since we left Heavena, and I never plan to marry again. I never thought that women could be on their own, but now I know that I’m capable of anything – and I want Benisha to be independent and self-sufficient too. I don’t worry about her any more. The other day, her teacher called me to say that she was working at the standard of a child three years older than her, and I was so proud that I cried. When I look at her, I know everything is going to be alright. I know she’s going to be safe.’
‘I hope I never scream like that again’
Selma*, 23, mother to Samindu, seven months old
‘When I was 12 years old, I fell in love with a boy six years older than me. He was tall, and funny, and kind. We’d walk along the beach together holding hands – we only ever held hands – and he bought me a mobile phone so we could call each other at night. I used to make my cousin lie to my parents about meeting me so that I could sneak out of our house in the evenings and find somewhere to speak to him out of earshot. He wanted to marry me, and I wanted to marry him too.
When my parents found out, they forbid me from ever seeing him again. My mother was scared that I’d get pregnant, so she locked me in the house and wouldn’t let me leave. Then she told me I had to marry a 28 year old instead – even though I was only 14. It’s illegal to get married under 18 in Sri Lanka, but they bribed the registrar and he turned a blind eye. They forced me to go and live with him and his family – locking me in the bedroom with my new husband so I couldn’t escape until we’d consummated the marriage. After that, I tried to kill myself by drinking kerosene oil, but it just made me sick and I was rushed to hospital.
I’d given birth to three children – two boys, and one little girl – before my husband started hitting me. He’d started smoking crack and coming home drunk after work, and he’d just treat me like a little puppet; smacking me against the wall or tying me up and assaulting me. When I discovered he was having an affair, he dragged me out of the house by my hair and beat me so hard that his mother realised what was going on and hid my children so they couldn’t see. But even after that – even though I thought he would kill me – I couldn’t seem to leave. It was like I’d had all my control taken away from me. I didn’t know who I was any more.
Exactly 12 days after I gave birth to our fourth child – Samindu – my husband started beating me again. He threw me onto the floor in the middle of the kitchen, when his eyes latched onto our baby, who was sleeping in the corner. He picked up a knife and held it against the fire, then lunged at our son – burning and branding his tiny arms. I’ve never screamed like that before in my life. I hope I never scream like that again. I guess he knew what would hurt me most. That day, I ran.
I’ve been at Heavena since the start of September. With their support, I reported my husband to the police, and now I’m taking him to court in January – although I don’t know what will happen to him. My three other children are still with my parents-in-law, and I don’t know if they’ll ever be allowed to live with me again. All I can do is try to make sure Samindu grows up to feel proud of me. I feel sure I’ve let my other children down.’