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Seven Questions to Consider When Promoting Gender Justice in Sri Lanka

June 6, 2018

By Ramani Jayasundere and Evangeline de Silva

In October 2016, The Asia Foundation’s Sri Lanka office began a project to make that country’s formal justice system more responsive to victims of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Seventeen months later, and after five decades of working with security and justice institutions and promoting women’s rights in Sri Lanka, here are our insights on working with the formal justice sector in a South Asian context.

SGBV against women and girls is a hidden issue in Sri Lanka—only a fraction of incidents are officially reported—but anecdotal evidence and media reports suggest rising rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and rape, including statutory and gang rape, around the country. Anecdotal information from the community level shows that most cases remain unreported. Among the barriers to reporting are an insensitive justice system, impunity and suspended sentences for perpetrators, long delays for survivors who seek justice, and a lack of sensitivity and tact among service providers. When SGBV is reported, there are other obstacles to justice for survivors: judges, lawyers, prosecutors, and court staff who don’t grasp the concepts of “gender equality” and “gender justice” or understand the impact of violence against women; a lengthy approval process for formal legal proceedings; and inadequate support services for SGBV survivors.

We have found it invaluable, when planning and implementing gender and justice work to address problems such as these, to reflect on the following seven questions.

  1. What are the current laws and policies that promote gender justice?
    Sri Lanka has produced various national policy documents to address the disadvantages and discrimination that women encounter in the formal justice system. A thorough review of existing laws, policies, action plans, and empirical studies that identify the need to ensure gender justice for women is useful, not only to monitor and document their implementation, but also to justify a push for state accountability and provide grounds for project interventions.
  2. How does your work connect to wider global development goals?
    It is useful to look at how your work links to global development goals that the state has already endorsed. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has raised gender justice as an issue in Sri Lanka, which presents an opportunity to expand efforts promoting justice for women who experience violence. Linking to the global development agenda can also bolster the legitimacy of small-scale development initiatives.
  3. What trusted local organizations are working on these issues?
    Sri Lanka has several local women’s organizations that have been working on the ground for several decades. Partnering on gender-justice projects with local organizations and their networks can be mutually beneficial. International organizations have much to learn from the hands-on experience of trusted, local providers of SGBV services, while local groups can use the resources of an international partner to make their voices heard at a national policy level, connect with other stakeholders, and increase the impact of their advocacy.
  4. Who else should you be working with?
    When working on gender-justice projects, it is important to work with champions from the sector and to have advisors from the gender and justice sectors on the project team. One useful strategy is a “stakeholder mapping” to identify stakeholders with related interests at various levels of the public and private sectors. These may include individuals from government ministries, bar associations, training institutes for judges and lawyers, legal-aid providers, and even private companies that include women’s issues in their social-responsibility portfolios.
  5. Have you found the good amidst the bad and the ugly?
    When investigating the formal justice sector, it is important to catalogue positive practices and experiences. Gathering evidence of failings and bad practices no doubt helps to identify needed improvements, but it can give the appearance of a fault-finding mission. A conscious search for current best practices in the formal justice sector will bring to light problems that the sector itself has identified, highlight strategies that work, and put stakeholders at ease that the investigation is searching for solutions rather than assigning blame.
  6. How should you look at content development and messaging?
    Some of the core messages of gender-justice and women’s empowerment projects are similar to what feminists, women’s rights activists, and development practitioners have been saying for several decades. It is important to acknowledge and embrace this legacy, but it is also important to devise new and creative formulations of these messages that speak to current perceptions and resonate with target audiences. And while the lived experience of SGBV victims must be part of the message to policymakers and those in authority, it is also important to share news of positive change and developments with the community and civil society organizations to sustain their faith in the formal justice process.
  7. Are exploratory programming and funding available?
    In gender and development work, quirks of context and unanticipated consequences often rear their heads after plans have been set in motion and project work is underway. It is vital to provide for flexibility in research methodology, project management, and budgeting so that the project can adapt to the unexpected and be improved by the encounter.

Once you have reflected on these questions, ask yourself if your expectations are realistic and if you are patient enough to wait for the change you so desire! In Sri Lanka, with its male-dominated, hierarchical justice system, change can be frustratingly slow. Desired outcomes may emerge only gradually and remain invisible during the life of the project. You may have to remind yourself that doing gender and development work with the formal justice sector, or any other sector for that matter, takes time. We understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, but we hope our experience can benefit other development organizations undertaking gender and justice work. We look forward to being in Washington, DC, and New York next week, at the Gender 360 Summit (cosponsored by The Asia Foundation) and the Interaction Forum, to share these lessons.

Ramani Jayasundere, who will be presenting next week at the Gender 360 Summit in Washington, DC, and the Interaction Forum in New York, is The Asia Foundation’s director of justice and gender in Sri Lanka, and Evangeline de Silva is senior program officer. They can be reached at ramani.jayasundere@asiafoundation.org and evangeline.desilva@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Sri Lanka
Related programs: Empower Women, Law and Justice
Related topics: Access to Justice, Gender-Based Violence

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