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Legal system, particularly police and lawyers exploit SL sex workers: Study



One of the main injustices meted out to commercial sex workers is that they are forced to take police officers as either non-paying clients or discount hunters, says a recent study.

The First ever national study, “Status of Sex Workers in Sri Lanka 2022 – 2023”, launched at the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialog in Colombo last week says that every single sex worker who participated in the study had spoken of violence perpetrated upon them by the police.

“They spoke of arbitrary detention; sexual violence on the street and in police stations often by multiple officers of the law; an established system of sexual bribery; being forced to take police officers as clients for no money or less than the normal amounts; and trans sex workers being thrown in male holding cells thus making them vulnerable to further sexual violence. One trans sex worker spoke of a group of policemen who stopped her on the road, forced her to undress and bathe in drain water on the side of the road. She spoke of the sheer horror and humiliation of this especially as passers-by watched her.

“Generally all workers cis-gendered and trans, acknowledge that they try to avoid the police at all costs as they see them as the group of people who pose the biggest threat to their physical safety. The best case scenario is where workers state that they do not get any trouble from police as they have ‘come to an understanding’ with them – which means that they trade sex, in return for the police ensuring not harassing them or perpetrating violence upon them. These arrangements are barely even recognised as abusive by workers, understandably so given how normalised such abuse of power is. While police are also an important client base for workers they are the 45 most unsafe as they enjoy the most impunity in all aspects, including if they pay for the services or not. Workers are caught in a bind where they feel they can ensure their safety if police are among their clientele while fully knowing that there is no professional safety in having them as clients.

Workers are well aware of the systemic nature of the violence meted out to them as being connected to them being discriminated against on the basis of their profession. Given this awareness, the same 1/3rd of the sample answered that they changed their place of work, sought help from other sex workers or from community based organisations/NGOs. An equal number also said they did not respond in any way. Of the 92 respondents to this question, two persons said that they approached the police to file a complaint. As will become clear in the section on violence, the plight meted out to the workers by multiple actors including clients, hotel owners, family members etc. is rather severe. However, they do not have any trust in law enforcement that they will even recognise them as victims of violence, leave alone fulfilling their duties of undertaking enquiries to ensure that justice is done. When asked why they did not file a complaint with the police, even fewer wanted to answer the question out of fear even though this was a peer run, completely anonymous survey. That alone is an indication of the deep fears in the community with regards to the police. Half of the 55 respondents who answered the question stated that they feared that their profession will be exposed to the police and then by extension to society at large. A substantial number said that previous experiences had taught them that they will not receive assistance from the police and an equal number said they feared a backlash from the police. A small number worried about losing clients and thus their livelihood; did not have NIC which is required to file a complaint or thought the process was too cumbersome for them to pursue in their already otherwise stressful life circumstances.

Most workers we spoke with, close to 40%, said that they think sex work is neither illegal nor legal in Sri Lanka i. e., it has an unclear and in between status. 35% believed that sex work is not illegal in Sri Lanka while 20% believed that it is. This shows clearly that workers are aware of the ambiguous treatment of the act of providing sexual services for money within Sri Lankan law. While other acts such as soliciting and brothel keeping are more clearly criminalised, this specific act is not explicitly criminalised. Further, soliciting, even though criminalised, is often extremely difficult to prove which has led to a host of extra-legal practices in lower courts in Sri Lanka that victimise sex workers. 56% of the workers we interviewed had not been arrested due to sex work while a very close 44% were. Thus, it is amply clear that in spite of the vagueness of the law almost half of the workers in our sample were targeted and arrested. It is important to note here that when taken along with our data that workers experience sustained harassment and violence of different kinds from law enforcement personnel, lack of arrest does not mean lack of harassment or violence. In a sense, the situation is only made direr by the fact that the violence and harassment is being perpetrated outside of the rule of law, thus making it unrecorded, unnoticed and thus enabling it to exist with full impunity. The remainder of this section on the impact of the law on sex workers will focus on those workers who have faced concerns mediated by formal entanglements with the law i.e. 44% of our respondents. The other issues caused by law enforcement officials, beyond formal legal processes, will be covered in other parts of the report such as the sections on violence and workplace safety. As a socio-economically and culturally marginalized community, sex workers should be entitled to legal services that are free or are at a nominal cost. The inadequacy of such services in general in Sri Lanka, combined with the prevailing social stigma with regards to sex work has meant that 99% of the workers we spoke with answered no when we asked if they had received free legal services. Many of them, our researchers report, were not aware that free legal services existed for anyone anywhere. They had never come across the concept before. This means that upon arrest all workers pay lawyers in their respective areas who pay no heed to their socio-economic status and charge them, often more than the full fee, due to the social stigma against sex workers. This often pushes workers further into debt cycles that they were already living with. A comparable number of workers who were arrested, 31% and 25% were arrested under the Vagrancy Ordinance2 or are not aware of the nature of the case against them respectively.

As the Vagrancy Ordinance is the most commonly used statute against sex workers, it is reasonable to conclude that the 25% too were arrested under this law. 18% of those arrested were arrested under the Brothels Ordinance, 13% in drug related offences and 5% in Quarantine related laws during COVID. The effect of being arrested under this law isn’t just about what is in the letter of the law, but more about how this law is (mis)used among lawyers and police with the full knowledge of Judges. The common practice is to ask workers to plead guilty and pay a nominal fine. This way the police do not have to bear the burden of proving the often unprovable offences of soliciting and ‘vagrancy’ more generally, which does not have a clear legal definition. As a result, close to 50% of the workers who were arrested, especially under the Vagrancy Ordinance were asked to plead guilty. ALL of them were asked to do so by either the Police or by their lawyer. Of all those who had to face a court case 85% said that they have never not pleaded guilty. This then means that a large number of workers are bearing the burden of having a criminal record to their name not because they have committed any crime or because such alleged crime was proved as per proper legal procedures, but simply because they were told, instructed or threatened by lawyers and police to plead guilty. Of those who have faced legal battles 40% of sex workers who were convicted on various crimes have been in prison for a period ranging from 7 days to 3 years. Among them, the majority have been in prison between 14 days to 6 months. 70% of the workers who reported as having been arrested in this study, said that they were sent for STI tests.

Overall, there exists a climate of assumed criminality with regard to sex work in Sri Lanka although that is not the letter of the law. Law enforcement officials and members of the legal community, including lawyers and judges are actively supporting practices of imposing criminality on sex workers when they are already burdened with eking out a living for themselves and their families. This further reiterates the already made calls to remove the Vagrancy Ordinance from the law books5 as the vagueness of this law has made it a weapon in the hands of the legal community and law enforcement who use it to exploit and unleash legally sanctioned violence upon already severely oppressed sex workers. Other laws such as the Brothels Ordinance is not meant to be used against sex workers and yet it almost always is. Drug related offences are often pinned on sex workers by the police to show exaggerated numbers of drug cases they have ‘caught’ within any given time period.

While there are multiple instances of brutal violence that come up in sex workers’ life stories, it is important to understand the persistence of different forms of violence- not just blatant physical or sexual violence- in their lives. The persistence of violence throughout their lives is the clearest evidence of such violence being systemic. Thus this section will take the life cycle approach and add to that the two foundational forms of systemic violence that lay at the core of all other violence – that which is perpetrated by law enforcement and social stigma. The framework for violence used here is that violence isn’t restricted to individual incidents that sex workers endure, the brutality of which is not to be minimised, but that a condition of violence of different kinds is a default state in the lives of sex workers. The following section is based on some quantitative data but largely relies on workers’ testimonies at the Experts Panel.

The other significant way by which the police enact violence upon sex workers is by constantly letting clients, hotel owners and others in the service go scot free when they exploit and/or perpetrate violence against sex workers. Numerous workers speak of how police let clients, hotel owners and others go during raids while they are arrested and harassed by the police. Further, the police are not even approached when others in the business perpetuate violence against workers as they know the police will not address such violence and protect them. On top of this, police routinely arrest workers on false charges such as those related to drugs. Workers are easy targets for the police to use to fill up their quota of arrests under numerous laws. When workers survive the illegal and extralegal violence from the police and reach the doors of the court, they face more exploitation by lawyers. Most workers who mentioned having dealt with court cases in their testimonies have no clarity on what the process of the case was or in some instances, under which law they were even arrested. They pay money to these lawyers who prolong their cases instead of expediting them. Judges who are aware of these practices turn a blind eye to them thus participating in this exploitation. As a result, the judicial system, which should ideally be a relief for them from the violence and impunity they witness with the police, simply continues such systemic discrimination, exploitation and violence.

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Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?



By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!

While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.

What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.

Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.

Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.

In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.

If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.

In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.

(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Selective targeting not law’s purpose



By Jehan Perera

The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.

Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.

But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.


The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.

Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.

In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.


The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.

The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.

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Girl power… to light up our scene



Manthra: Pop, rock and Sinhala songs

We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!

The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.

Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.

It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.

Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).

Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).

Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.

They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).

Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.

The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.

Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.

Hiruni Fernando: Founder and leader of Manthra

She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.

“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”

With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.

“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.

Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!

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