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Mind the gap: SGBV policy and the reality

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By Udari Abeyasinghe

The phrase Mind the Gap was originally used at railway stations to warn rail passengers to watch out for the space between the train door and the station platform. This warning is meant to make passengers pay attention to the gap and take precautions to avoid falling into it. In this article, I ask readers to mind the gap between policy and reality, specifically the gap between SGBV policies and the reality at our universities.

Policy facade

Developing and implementing policies and procedures are part of quality assurance processes within universities. More often than not, “newer” policies tend to sit on a website, or on paper, serving as evidence to show that the university is handling a nagging problem. As Sara Ahmed says in her book Complaint!, “Creating evidence of doing something is not the same as doing something.” SGBV policies of the UGC and the universities are a good example of policies that look good on paper.

The scope of SGBV policies at universities purportedly encompass promoting and maintaining a culture in which the dignity and equality of all persons are respected. But there is a yawning gap between the way in which a university projects itself, that of being committed to preventing harassment/violence, and the decisions and measures taken to actually further its purported goal.

Double standards

Take for example, the “hostel rule” at one university that restricts female students’ movement by imposing “late” and “early passes.” According to hostel rules, a female student must return to the hostel no later than 7.30 pm. If a student wishes to return after, she must request a late pass which will allow her to enter the hostel after 7.30 pm, but not later than 10 pm. Similarly, female hostelers at this university are permitted to leave the hostel at 6 am, but must obtain an early pass to leave between 4.45 am and 6 am. However, no such rules are in place at men’s hostels; male students are permitted to enter and leave hostels as they wish.

I have had conversations with students about how they feel about this practice, which essentially reinforces archaic gender norms that have no relevance to the present. Female students often express that it is an unnecessary burden on them because they must obtain late passes even when they attend university events or field trips. Although both male and female students are aware that the practice is “unfair,” this policy has been in place for many decades and normalised. As such, its discriminatory nature is overlooked by student unions and academics alike, despite the existence of policies on SGBV and gender equality.

Flawed logic

The rule itself is viewed to protect women students, presumably from sexual predators. So, one might argue that this rule is imposed in good faith. However, in an era when women make up the majority of university students, and are at the cusp of joining the workforce, including for jobs that require night travel, this rule is ridiculous. It contradicts the university’s pledge to offer undergraduates a stimulating and “innovative” learning environment, where student centered learning is supposedly promoted.

University rules should not discriminate based on gender. When I resided in a hostel as a temporary lecturer, there were instances when I had unplanned meetups with friends after work. Not being able to make a prior request for a late pass, I relied on my roommate to make a request on my behalf, a senseless hassle for both of us. Especially now, with the economic crisis when some students are compelled to do part-time work to be able to afford their daily expenses, why should they be burdened by these passes?

The bigger picture

This “pass” rule exemplifies the numerous formal (and at times “informal”) and largely unnoticed, institutionalised forms of discrimination that prevail within the university system. Seemingly trivial, the pass rule might elicit a response of “So what?” but these kinds of norms lay the foundation for discriminatory practices against women in the university. Suppression of women’s voices happens at multiple levels in the university. Restricting women’s freedom in the manner described above restricts their ability to take part in the university’s social and academic life, stunting their development as full-fledged members of the university. Further, it infantilises them; makes them victims of a system; and punishes them for being women.

Does restricting freedom of movement in the name of protection ensure safety? Absolutely not. The more the restrictions, fewer women will be present in university spaces after 7.30pm, making them less “women-friendly” and, in fact, less safe. If the university wishes to ensure student safety, the administration should create a safe and inclusive environment in which any form of violence is unacceptable. Students should be encouraged to use complaint procedures, including against discriminatory policies implemented by the university, without fear of reprisal. Other measures might include bystander training programmess (a bystander is a person who witnesses a problematic situation and takes steps to speak up or disrupt the situation or prevent it from escalating) or other educational programmes that instill in students a commitment to non-violence. It is also important to strengthen institutional initiatives like SGBV policies, counselling programmes and others. Active participation of women in Student Unions should be encouraged. Formal or informal women’s councils in the university will strengthen the hand of the woman student, who needs a space for free articulation of her needs and desires. Above all, discriminatory practices of the university, seriously erode into the democratic fabric of university society and needs to be challenged by all.

(Udari Abeyasinghe is attached to the Department of Oral Pathology, Faculty of Dental Sciences, University of Peradeniya)

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



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Opinion

The faithful Lankan matriarch from Negombo

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(UCAN) Every day around 7pm, octogenarian Sembuwalage Mary Hariyat faithfully recites the rosary and litany from her old prayer book with lightly frayed edges and irregular-shaped pages.She is never alone as she settles before the statues of Mother Mary and the saints at home. Among those around her are some of her growing brood of 24 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, not to mention her eight children.

“My prayer book and rosary are my weapons in times of joy and sorrow,” says the 82-year-old from the tourist village of Negombo, known as the “little Rome” of Sri Lanka because of its predominantly Catholic population.

The majority of some 150,000 Catholics in Negombo depend on fishing, just like many other coastal communities in the island nation. Despite a life hit hard by poverty, thousands of Catholic mothers like Hariyat are considered important in building up the local Church.

Hariyat never forgets to neatly arrange a small dish of raw white flowers and light an oil lamp before her prayers at home. On some days, she will burn incense sticks according to traditions passed down from generation to generation.But above all, Hariyat loves to teach the kids prayer rhythms and styles.

Her son Liyanage Samantha said: “It is our mother who taught us rhythms of all prayers. We learned every prayer from her. Now she is teaching our children and their children too,” he said. Her sons, daughters and their families credit her for teaching them how to live their Catholic faith.

“All my eight children and their children and grandchildren are devout Roman Catholics,” Hariyat proclaims with pride.

“I stay with one child for a week. That’s how I divide my time among all my eight children, week after week. If a family member is sick, I stay longer to help and serve in that house,” she says.Every word she utters hints at how grateful she is to God for everything she’s got.

“God has abundantly blessed me and all the members of my large family,” she saiys.

In February 2021, Hariyat suffered a severe heart attack and had to be hospitalized.  She says God and Mother Mary “stayed close to her during the terrible time” and if not for their blessings she would have been long gone. Like a true Sri Lankan Catholic, whenever she or a member of the family faces a problem, Hariyat takes a vow to visit national shrines on a special pilgrimage.

Most of the time it is Our Lady of Madhu, a Marian shrine located in a dense forest in Mannar district, some 220 kilometers from Negombo. The shrine is considered the holiest Catholic site on the island.Hariyat has been attending the August festival at the shrine since she was 20 years old. She even visited during the height of the Sri Lankan civil war, when the shrine was surrounded by refugee camps and shelled many times.After recovering from the heart attack, Hariyat accompanied by the family of one of her sons visited Our Lady of Madhu last June.

Her son too had recovered from a major illness even though the doctors had said he could not be cured. He could not stand or do any work and suffered unbearable pain that prevented him sleeping. Doctors said some tissue lining his spine was torn and could not be rectified.Hariyat recalled praying to Mother Mary for months to heal him. She believes that Mother Mary intervened at her request.

“My son had a major operation and the doctors wanted about 600,000 rupees (US$ 1,715) to carry out the operation. His children decided to hold a lottery to find the necessary amount,” she said. “I continued to pray to God, Mother Mary to heal him and vowed to bring my son” to Madhu and Kattara churches in Mannar diocese.

Hariyat said no operation was required and even the doctors were surprised with her son’s miraculous recovery.

“For more than fifty years, I have been going to Madhu and Kattara churches with my children. I have experienced many miracles in my life,” Hariyat said.

She remains as enthusiastic as ever about the pilgrimage to Hiniduma Calvary shrine and joins other Catholic faithful in walking around the small hill on which the shrine stands overlooking St. Anne’s Church and the Gin River quietly flowing beside it.Hariyat’s house is located in a beautiful village called Pitipana nestled between the sea and a lagoon. It is a village of fishers and except for a few families, everyone else is Catholic.

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Opinion

Evening with Julia Cameron

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We were treated to a Sri Lankan cultural feast on Sept. 9. It included old photographs, old paintings, glimpses of the old sculptures, temple paintings – together a cultural heritage most of our countrymen are ignorant or have little knowledge of. However prevalent Buddhist fervor has given some knowledge to the average Buddhist about the temple paintings that are a part of this heritage. Fortunately, the audience present at the film that evening comprised people familiar with what was on offer and continue their quest for more knowledge.

The evening was an ode to the life and times of Julia Cameron, who was born in India in 1815, but chose to make Sri Lanka her home. She lived for some time in the Isle of Wight in high society making friends with many famous persons like Lord Carlyle, Lord Tennyson and Sir John Herschel, the British astronomer, among them.

Julia, from a young age was interested in photography but it was rather late in life that she took to it seriously. Apparently encouraged by her friend Sir John (Herchel), she in her late forties went on to become one of the most famous photographers of the 19th century, best known for her soft focus photography. She is today considered one of the greatest photographers of all time. The short film screened on Sept. 9 was indeed a treat and revelation.

This was followed by another short film on the 43 Group. That included Lionel Wendt, well known to most Lankans. I don’t think he had the same international reputation that Julia Cameron did but enjoyed seeing his work again. Then came a series of pictures of paintings by our best known artists: Keyt , Ivan PIeris, Daraniyagala and Manjusri to name a few. The 43 Group had a great reputation at that time but are almost forgotten now. Its last member, June Somasunderam died a few years ago. Seeing these pictures was a pleasure, like seeing old friends. They are hardly seen today and maybe many are in private hands here and abroad.

There was also a short clip on a dance form making you aware of the many dance forms Sri Lanka has: up country, low country, ritual dances including one to drive away the devils and one to intervene between God and the supplicant in time of illness or bad times. Few people are familiar with these rituals, but they are not that many. Thanks to the Kandy Perahara, most people are familiar with the Kandyan dance form.

The creator of this lovely film didn’t forget the lowly kite which rose in splendor to the sky at the end of the film.We owe this pleasurable evening to two people whose intrepid research and study documented our cultural heritage for posterity. Thank you Ismeth Raheem and Martin Pieris.

Padmini Nanayakkara

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Opinion

PEOPLE’S FRIENDLY POLICE

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The Sri Lanka Police has come a long way from where it started having celebrated 155 years of its existence this year. I thought of adding my perception of how the police have changed from being people’s friendly force to one that has gone down in many ways.

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) having been a colony under the British gained independent status in 1948 as a Dominion. We adopted the Westminster system of government and all other good things that the British were used to at that time. Even the police force was similar to the British counterpart in that they acted impartially without interference from the politicians. The officers in charge of police stations and their subordinates would carry out their duties without fear or favour. They never curried favour with the politicians and the politicians did not interfere in their duties.

However, all these changed after 1977 and the rot set in. Thereafter, the bootlicking started. Now most of the transfers and promotions began to take place according to the whims and fancies of the political leaders. Even when it came to the appointment of the Inspector General of Police (IGP), on many an occasion, it was a person who curried favour with the political leaders who got the position.

Sometimes the persons so appointed had got the promotion over more deserving and honest officers senior to them, who refrained from stooping to low levels. While the honest police officers did a job of work according to their conscience, there were the others who stooped low to get their promotions and perks.

For a long time as I remember there were nine Superintendents of Police (SPs), one in each province, and four Deputy Inspectors Generals (DIGs). Each province had a few gazette officers – One SP and a few ASPs. I believe it was President DB Wijetunga who got the cadre of senior officers increased with a view to accommodating more favorites.

It has come to a stage now where a Senior DIG is subjected to manhandling by the people for the wrong things he had done. This has never happened earlier. This happened because the people were frustrated and angry that the police who are supposed to look after the safety of the people turned a blind eye when political goons attacked peaceful protestors.

I wonder whether we will ever get senior police officers like Mr. WB Rajaguru. When he was a DIG, he used to go to the fish market which was at Saunders Place then, in a pair of shorts to buy the requirements for his home. Usually this is a task entrusted to a police constable by such senior officers, as in the Army where the batman must attend to these matters.

I have read a few memoirs of senior police officers (who never stooped to low levels to seek promotion) after their retirement and some articles in the daily newspapers where they have indicated how the standards of the Sri Lanka police have deteriorated so badly that they seemed to be ashamed to state they were officers in the police force at one time.

At least after celebrating the 155th anniversary, we hope that there will be change in the attitudes of the police in carrying out their duties. Of course, this will depend on the political leaders who must change their ways first.

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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