Sexual bribery must be defined as such, within the anti-corruption framework say rights activists. They point out that unless it is specifically stated in the Bribery Act, there is the danger of it being subject to various interpretations in the courts, depriving victims the justice they deserve.
Another bone of contention is that the relevant sections of the Bribery Act only deal with the soliciting of or offering of gratification to any public officer, be it a Grama Niladhari, judicial officer, education officer, or politician etc. It does not apply to the corporate sector.
The discussion on ‘Sexual Bribery, Challenges & Solutions’ took place on November 27th at the BMICH, where three panelists shared their experiences and views on the subject. The discussion was organized by Transparency International Sri Lanka with DIG Police, Crimes & Organized Crimes Priyantha Jayakody, Executive Director, Centre for Equality and Justice Shyamala Gomez and Women’s Rights Activist Shreen Saroor as the panelists.
Shyamala Gomez points out that while punitive action can be taken against both the giver and receiver of the gratification as per the Bribery Act, , in the case of sexual bribery, where women and in some instances transgendered individuals are coerced into providing bribes in the form of sex, the Act must be more specific.
Rape, says Shreen Saroor is an act that is carried out without the consent of the victim, while soliciting sexual favours is coercion where it could be easily dismissed as a voluntary action in return for a favour. Saroor who works in the North and the East pointed out that the situation is particularly grave in those areas as most families are now headed by women. A similar situation is seen when women have to deal with Quasi Courts, which are dominated by males.
For the women in the North and the East the issue is compounded, says Saroor as it is not only government officials but para-military groups who wield power. The moment women cross the artificial boundaries set up by society, and venture out to obtain a loan, start a business, seek justice for a missing family member, they are faced with various obstacles, and sexual bribery is one of those. Sexual predators can be anyone; to start a business involving food it would by the PHI, if it’s seeking the whereabouts of a family members it could involve any member of the judiciary, or the Samurdhi officers when obtaining welfare payments. The list is endless. What’s more, soliciting of sexual favours is blithely justified as something the woman has a need for, as she is single or has a disabled spouse! Society does not help either, as often victims would be accused of having imagined being asked for sexual favours.
More often than not it is only when one woman finds the courage to speak out that activists learn about a host of other victims. In some instances the story comes out only after a woman, unable to bear the guilt and shame, commits suicide.
For Muslim women, says Saroor, the situation is worse, though society believes being fully covered provides them more security. Caught up in a patriarchal system, where they must rely on the Quasi courts for most forms of relief, be it obtaining a divorce or maintenance payment, the women are subjected to harassment by members of the court itself. She described a situation where a complaint she had sent to the judicial services commission regarding sexual bribery had been forwarded to the Quasi, without even removing the name of the victim!
In another instance when a Samurdhi officer had been found guilty of obtaining sexual favours, he had been transferred within the Jaffna district, putting women in that area in danger. This, then, means that women’s groups in those areas have to act as vigilantes, while applicable legal remedies are ignored by the authorities.
DIG Jayakody recounted a story of a school principal in the South, who ended his life when confronted by his three grown up daughters and reproached him for the shame he had brought to his family. In this case, he pointed out that the woman coerced to indulge in sexual bribery and the perpetrators family are all victims.
Despite Saroor dealing with many such cases in the North and East, she herself has handled around 35 complaints and a colleague at least 10 more in the recent past, DIG Jayakody stated that the police have not received any such complaints from those areas. Since 2010, the police have received around 13 complaints from Wayamba, Uva, Central, Western, Southern and North Central provinces, and have successfully prosecuted 9 of those. He agreed that there are lacunas in the law, which, though adequate needs to be strengthened. In the more rural areas filing a complaint becomes difficult as the various bureaucrats band together. This is true when prosecuting cases too, he stated.
Moreover, owing to the lengthy legal process, and having to face perpetrators in the courts, women themselves shy away from lodging a complaint. Often, he points out, when the case comes up in court following a long lapse, and the victim refuses to appear, the AG advises that the case be dropped.
The very many barriers that victims face, makes it extremely difficult to prosecute agrees Shyamala Gomez. Evidence gathering is problematic when the sexual solicitation takes on subtle forms, when victims feel guilty of having caved in, or in some instances where victims are asked to sign an affidavit, something they are not willing to do. The culture of impunity is still deeply embedded amongst society especially in the North and East states Saroor adding that women continue to feel fearful of going to the police. This is despite all of the police stations across the country being staffed with a children’s and women’s desk. The issue in the North and East says DIG Jayakody is that women police officers are not conversant in Tamil, and the translators are all men. That, says Saroor is a huge impediment, as the male translators attempt to interfere with the process.
While the Bribery Act does not deal specifically with the issue of sexual gratification, the DIG pointed out that there is recourse through the Penal Code which should be used to bring culprits to book. When the issue involves bribery, the police are somewhat restricted he said, as they are unable to proceed with a case until the Bribery Commission completes its investigation.
While women’s groups have begun awareness programmes in areas such as Killinochchi, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala, the police hope that deploying the 200 women officers, recruited from the North and East and currently in training would help women feel more comfortable in lodging complaints. Measures have also been taken to incorporate the issue of sexual bribery in syllabi of public officer trainings and in their codes of conduct to indicate zero tolerance, while TISL has also launched a poster campaign and a hot-line which would escalate the complaints to the Bribery Commission.
Indeed the issue is not simple; the inequalities in the law where women are still vulnerable and are at the mercy of powerful public officials, judicial officers para-military groups, drug dealers and politicians etc., the lack of a zero tolerance policy covering sexual bribery, and cultural beliefs that such acts must be suffered in silence must be addressed quickly and comprehensively. It is also imperative that positive action is taken to eliminate the culture of impunity that has pervaded our society, not only in the area of harassment of women and other vulnerable populations but in all aspects of society.