From conflict zones, police divisions, and religious institutions, to schools, and the home, rape is a prevalent, and often unpunished, occurrence in Sri Lanka. In the first fifteen days of this year, over a hundred incidents of rape, serious sexual abuse and child abuse were reported.
But because the act of rape is defined to different degrees and with different “legitimate” actors in the laws of different countries, the definitional variations reflect confusing and evolving cultural understandings of what actually constitutes rape.
Some definitions are extensive, including the use of body parts or objects for the penetration (no matter how slight) of another individual without their consent, whereas other laws are more narrow, dictating that only women can be raped by men, and only when the vagina is penetrated by the penis.
Coupled with an ineffective legal system that often re-traumatizes victims and deters many from reporting offences and seeking psychosocial help, there are a number of attitudes prevalent in Sri Lankan society – even held by key officials involved in different processes of exploring and prosecuting (or not) rape cases – that prevent victims from seeking support and justice.
These barriers enable perpetrators to act with impunity – without being recognized as rapists, and without having to deal with the consequences and sense of accountability that should, and otherwise, would, be dealt to them.
Here are three specific, widely-prevalent myths that contribute to the pervasiveness of unpunished rape in Sri Lankan society.
“She Did/Said Something To Deserve It”
Fear of, and concern over, the dangers that can befall girls and women at the hands of men and boys is a common and widespread one. Indika Dayarathna – an independent trainer working for Men’s Engagement in the Prevention of Gender-Based Violence (GBV), explained to Roar Media that one of the most crucial social myths in Sri Lanka that needs addressing is the myth that women and girls are submissive and passive by nature, and therefore must be protected, and/or take the necessary precautions to protect themselves against boys and men, whose sexual appetites are voracious and “naturally so”.
Dayarathna noted that this need for protection was a prominent feature of training sessions that he conducted to raise awareness about GBV, and it was one raised and sustained by both men and women. He explained that such an attitude can be insidious, masking the root causes of rape (as well as other forms of sexual harassment) under the veneer of the “courageous protector male who keeps his women safe.”
The focus on keeping women safe, which often requires that they dress conservatively, behave modestly, do not speak out of turn, and limit their mobility to “safe places” at “safe times”, is problematic as it detracts from the fact that it is the perpetrators of violence who should bear the responsibility for altering their attitudes and behaviours. Victim-blaming is worryingly pervasive in Sri Lankan society, and is often reflected in comments such as, “she’s asking for it” or “she deserved it” whenever individuals do face sexual harassment or harm, putting the onus on them to keep themselves safe.
“It is important that we focus on engaging boys, and examining with them the larger patriarchal structures, gender norms, and stereotypes that condone sexually abusive behaviour. This behaviour is often considered, and celebrated as, ‘masculine’ rather than being condemned” Dayarathna said. He explained that the focus of men’s engagement in GBV prevention is “having men talk to men about men” to further their understanding on issues related to GBV. The aim is that they accept that gender-based violence is a widespread social problem, acknowledge that it is often men and boys who perpetrate it, and actively seek solutions, increasing their action and intervention against it.
“Only Girls (or Women) Can be Raped”
The rape of boys, men, and transgender individuals is prevalent in Sri Lanka, yet remains underreported and relatively poorly discussed. There exist research reports on cases of male rape in conflict settings, post-conflict settings, and detention centres, and those on the rape of transgender individuals, specifically transgender women, in the context of sex work in Sri Lanka, yet there exists relatively little on the rape of male children.
A number of legal clauses create additional barriers to these individuals seeking redress when they become victims of rape. The definition of rape in Sri Lanka wholly excludes males as victims and women as perpetrators, and section e) dealing with Statutory Rape, which states that “A man is said to commit “rape” who has sexual intercourse with a woman...with or without her consent when she is under sixteen years of age[...]” excludes boys from the category of potential victims.
Homosexuality is also criminalized under Sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code (considering same-sex relations as going “against the order of nature” and as “act[s] of gross indecency”) and transgender men and women, and individuals who cross-dress, are subject to arrest through Section 399 of the Penal Code, which penalizes those “cheating by personation.” Furthermore, sex workers are criminalized by The Vagrants Ordinance, which criminalizes “every common prostitute wandering in the public street or highway, or in any place of public resort, and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner.”
These laws reflect and reinforce attitudes that erase boys, men, transgender women, and sex workers (regardless of their gender identity) as potential and real victims of rape and other forms of sexual assault.
Thushara Manoj, an activist working in the field of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) explains how in his career, he has come across multiple cases of rape against young boys.
“One of the individuals I met was raped as a child in grade 9 by his uncle,” explained Manoj, describing how, now in his late 20s, the victim has suffered severe psychological trauma and is struggling to sustain a physically intimate relationship with his fiancé as a result of this.
“He did not feel he could open up about his experience to anybody. He was wracked with shame.” After months of speaking with Manoj, he finally disclosed his traumatic experience, following which, Manoj referred him to a psychiatrist.
“In my experience, I have worked with young men who, as boys in school, displayed ‘feminine’ characteristics, and were subject to rape by older students – many who were in positions of power, like prefects.”
Manoj describes how whereas a girl will have to face the consequences of having ‘lost her virginity’ and thus becoming unfit for marriage following rape, the fact that boys don’t have to deal with proving their virginity means that there isn’t as much focus on their sexual experiences. This results in a situation where less attention is paid to sexual abuse, and makes invisible the fact that boys too can be victims of rape.
Many young boys and girls are also often subjected to the process of grooming, when perpetrators are family members or older individuals known to them. Manoj describes this process as “giving a child chocolate, giving them toys, playing with them, and gradually gaining their trust until the perpetrator finally builds their way up to rape them.” In this way, rape is not always a brutal, physically violent activity – a situation that can often leave victims confused as to their victim status.
Furthermore, oftentimes, young boys feel ashamed as it has been instilled in them that boys should fight back; be strong, punch, hit, bite, resist - not be raped – whereas girls, who are supposedly passive by nature, are not expected to be able to do this and are therefore believed to be the only ones susceptible to being raped.
Considering these social norms, boys can be extremely hesitant to report what has happened to them, and even when they do report – to parents or others – this fact can often be kept a secret for fear of the shame and embarrassment it will bring the family.
“It’s Not Rape If They’re Married/Together”
Dayarathna notes that in his experience, a common and recurrent idea about marriage is that “the husband has a right [to sex] and the wife has a responsibility [to give it to him]”.
The belief that what happens between a couple is a private matter, not to be meddled with by the state or anybody outside the relationship, is reflected in Sri Lanka’s legal stance towards marital rape.
Marital rape is also legally acknowledged only in cases where a couple has been “judicially separated,” denying any woman who has unofficially separated from her husband and is living, perhaps with relatives, the safety that is otherwise supposedly afforded to those who are judicially separated.
Sharanya Sekaram, an independent consultant working in the field of GBV prevention, describes how Sri Lanka’s archaic law pertaining to marital rape comes from the historical reality that women and wives were considered property. “If you own property, it’s your right to do with it what you want, ” she said.
Sekaram continues, “this law and social norm also has a lot to do with women and their sexuality. There’s this idea that ‘men need sex’ and that women are ‘submissive’ and exist to ‘give’, so this sense of male entitlement coupled with the lack of cultural acceptance of female sexual expression and agency results in problematic laws that enable toxic, abusive marriages.”
It is important to acknowledge that rape can happen to anyone, regardless of their sex, their gender identity, or their sexual orientation; regardless of their age, their marital status, their location, or their status in society.
Rape myths are dangerous and pervasive, preventing victims and rapists from being recognized as such, and preventing the effective implementation and enforcement of law in cases where they are.
Rape often leaves victims with life-long trauma, and is a major public health concern as well as a violation of multiple human rights.
Promoting education for young people on topics related to gender, sexuality, and sex would ensure a solid educational foundation in issues that are important throughout a person’s lifecycle. Without effective educational programs, there is little hope that rape culture and gender inequality will ever be transformed for the better.
“We need to be having more discussions on consent and boundaries” comments Manoj, “on what constitutes rape and why – and to be creating safe spaces, socially, and effective mechanisms legally, where perpetrators are punished and victims are able to come forward and seek justice and support.”