UNLOCKED Blog 4: The stigma surrounding domestic violence and its impact on youth

05 Mar 2015

 “Sometimes when I lay in bed at night, my mind takes a stroll back to my early twenties.. to my school days.. the recollections continue till I’m 5 years old, and then it stops there. I’m seated on the bed with my little brother. We are both bawling our eyes out, because what else can a child do when they’re afraid?” What were you afraid of?  “My father,” she said. “He was hurting her, he was hurting my mother. The loud cries, the kicking, the screaming, is what I remember when I look back at my childhood”. 

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The UN Population Fund states that “around the world, as many as one in every three women have been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member; one woman in four has been abused during pregnancy.”

Research shows that more than 80 per cent of Sri Lankan women and girls are subject to domestic violence. The Sri Lanka National Human Development Report 2014 onYouth and Development: Towards a More Inclusive Future (NHDR) highlights that perpetrators of abuse in adolescents were mainly family members.

A widely held belief that domestic violence is only confined to the poor exists. However, this is far from the truth as it occurs in all socio-economic levels; irrespective of race, religion or social status. In Sri Lanka, rural cities like Anuradhapura have often been reported to have the highest rates of domestic violence - but look around you; it is also widely prevalent in cities like Colombo.

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“It made me angry, scared and helpless” she said. “I felt ashamed of my family, I felt depressed and anxious most of the time; but no one knew. Have I made peace with it? Yes. But it will always be something I will carry around with me. I didn’t know how to help her. I didn’t know how to help myself. I wish I did”

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Being exposed to violence in the domestic sphere, whether in terms of witnessing inter-parental violence or being a victim oneself, has lifelong consequences. Domestic violence poses a serious threat to the emotional, physical and social wellbeing of both the children and the victim. Parental disharmony - as highlighted in the NHDR 2014 - proved to be one of the main factors affecting the mental wellbeing of Sri Lankan adolescents.

Young people suffer the most as they experience feelings of guilt and helplessness, of not being able to change the situation. Growing up in a violent environment may also lead to isolation. The stigma attached to issues revolving around domestic violence is far too high that many refuse to talk about it. As a coping mechanism, some may even attempt suicide or turn to substance abuse.

Throughout the years, progress has been made in Sri Lanka to address violence in the domestic sphere.  The Prevention of Domestic Violence Act 2005 allowed a smooth transition of domestic violence from the private sphere to one that is now a punishable crime. The implementation of the Act is recognized as a ‘major milestone’ in addressing gender based violence.  

However, domestic violence and its impact on youth have been largely overlooked. While emphasis has specifically been given to female victims, it is not only restricted to females; young men and boys are prone to violence in the domestic sphere as well. Support services must be available not only for victims of violence, but also to young people that witness violence within their families.

 In this view, the much deeper problems underlying the root causes of violence and what could be done to prevent such problems have been disregarded. Why do people act violently towards their families? While Patriarchy plays a major role in explaining violence against women, what about those mothers that beat their children?

Despite the progress that has been made in terms of legalities, according to the UNFPA, domestic violence remains a virtually invisible phenomenon in Sri Lanka. The statistic mentioned above (that more than 80% of Sri Lankan females are subject to domestic violence) could even be higher, given that most cases go unreported as victims of violence often choose to remain silent.

Why?

Because they don’t expect support from the men or women around them; because leaving would be ‘unacceptable’ by society. Our culture is one that tolerates violence in the domestic sphere. From our younger days, we have been exposed to a society that doesn’t speak up against domestic violence.

Somehow, it has become acceptable for a man to hit a woman, or for a parent to hit a child. Some even use stereotypes to say ‘men are like that’, almost as if that justifies violence against another person.

Apart from the legal framework, shaping attitudes and perceptions is vital. Change starts with young people. Instead of perpetuating a culture of violence, why do we not teach our children to respect one another? Why do we not treat each other as equals - be it a man or a woman, violence is never the answer. When they grow up to be adults, instead of telling them to be tolerant, why don’t we teach them to rise up against violence, to stand up for themselves. That it is ok to get help; that it is nothing to be ashamed of.

She could just be bruised and battered today, but tomorrow, she could be beaten to death. We still disregard domestic violence as a ‘private matter’. We are all guilty of saying ‘it is not our concern’. But is it really not? Let’s reverse the roles here. What if it was you? What if you were constantly being beaten by a parent, spouse or relative? What if you constantly lived in fear? What if when you reached out to a friend, they turned a blind eye?

Every man, every woman and every child deserves to live in an environment free of abuse and violence.

Regardless of gender, for the sake of humanity, we should all be responsible for our actions and strive to be better, for our family, for our youth. Because, as the NHDR 2014 notes, “health and well-being are crucial for youth, both now and later as they establish a foundation for adulthood.” 

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