Violence, perpetrated against a man or a woman is a crime.

In February this year, the University of Kelaniya hosted a gender festival; the third in a series to promote gender equity and equality.

The first two were held at the Eastern University and the University of Peradeniya, in May and November last year respectively.  Sponsored by the Centre for Equity and Equality of the Ministry of Higher Education, the festival at the Kelaniya University was organized by its Centre for Gender Studies.

Involving all the universities, the festivals host programs that help raise awareness on gender equality and equity.

So, why universities?

It all began when a study sponsored by CARE International in 2013 titled,  “Why masculinities matter, Attitudes, practices and gender-based violence”,recommended that it was equally important to work with males,“as individuals, members of family units, their surrounding communities and societies to deconstruct what it is to be ‘masculine’ from a positive perspective by promoting respect for gender diversity among youth and positive fatherhood/parenting,” even while supporting women and girls in reducing violence perpetrated against them.

Equality for all, irrespective of sexual preferences.
Equality for all, irrespective of sexual preferences.

Conducted by Professor Niloufer de Mel of the University of Colombo, Pradeep Pieris, Social Scientist Association and Shyamala Gomez, Fokus Women Sri Lanka,   the study involved 1658 men and 653  women between the ages of 18-49 from Colombo, Hambantota, Batticaloa and NuwaraEliya Districts.

The findings of this study and several others carried out before that,(some involving only higher education institutions) propelled the University Grants Commission and the Federation of University Teachers Association along with CARE International to conduct a series of consultations involving university professionals to come up with ways to create and enhance awareness and prevention strategies for sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) on campuses.

Their report, “Sexual & Gender- Based Violence, Strategies for Universities” which also recommends prioritizing policy implementation, setting up institutional and administrative mechanisms, and introducing inclusive and innovative programs, curricula etc. states that the consultative workshops on prevention of SGBV were held,“Given that Sri Lankan universities can be identified as specific sites of gender inequality in which SGBV takes place (especially with license in the case of ragging).’

The CARE International report found that 67% of men who admitted to sexual violence did so because they had a sense of sexual entitlement. Twenty per cent wanted to relieve their boredom or have fun, 16% did so out of anger, while 10% were motivated by alcohol.

The study also found that, “35% of men with tertiary education self-reported perpetrating physical and/or sexual violence against partners while 9% of men with tertiary education self- reported the perpetration of sexual violence against non-partners.”

As disturbing is the sense of impunity. The study reported, “Seventy-six percent stated that they experienced no consequences at all. Ninety-three percent of perpetrators reported there was no punishment from family and friends for the violence committed by them, while 97% of the sample did not experience any violent backlash from anyone supporting the victim. Significantly, only 7% of perpetrators had experienced legal consequences (arrested with charges dropped, or arrested with court case or jailed). While only 18% were afraid of being found out, 69% reported not feeling guilty at all.”

The report also found that sexual violence was not limited to women. “Four percent of the men reported experiencing homophobic violence and 4% had been sexually assaulted by a man”, while “three percent of males in the male sample reported that they were sometimes forced to have sexual or physical relations with a community leader or schoolboy before the age of 18.’

Rather disquieting too is that amongst the male respondents 28% reported sexual abuse in their childhood, while 39% and 44%stated they had experienced physical and emotional abuse respectively, as children.

The report added that it was 1.6 to 2 times more likely that men who faced such abusive situations would be violent towards their partners.

What more need be said!
What more need be said!

The program to raise awareness and discourage gender based violence at the universities is two-pronged, says Senior Professor, Community Medicine at Sri Jayewardenepura University, and the Co-Chair of the Standing Committee on Gender Equity and Equality of the University Grants Commission Professor Kumudu Wijewardena. There is training of staff and students, and the use of performing arts and visuals to get the message across.

The medium of visual art was used first under the guidance of Dr. S Jeyashankar, Director, Swamy Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies, Eastern University, to portray and dispel myths and issues around gender.  Similar presentations were conducted at Kelaniya and Peradeniya later.

The gender festivals take the form of short films, drama, dance, discussions and workshops on gender stereotyping, and is open to university students and staff.  At Kelaniya, the sessions were also open to school children.

As the report put together by University staff points out, SGBV is not confined to violence against women, but can include inter-gender and intragender-based sexual and gender-based violence (involving men against boys, senior students against women freshers during ragging, marital rape and cliteredectomies).”

All new entrants and probationary lecturers are now required to undergo gender sensitivity training, says Professor Wijewardene, stating that the UGC Chairman and members consider the need to provide safety mechanisms for students and staff extremely important.Every University is required to have its own Gender Policy and Gender Cell and is responsible for creating a safe environment for students and staff.

Awareness training began with the Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Registrars and Bursars, says Professor Wijewardene.  The training for all staff and students include, identifying and preventing issues around gender and sexual harassment as well as leadership training.   The UGC also introduced an on-line complaints system last year, as well as secure phone lines, where those facing any form of harassment or intimidation could seek help.

It is commendable that university authorities are taking the lead on ensuring that these institutions do not remain just places of higher learning, but where both students and staff feel secure. Anyone found violating the safety regulations, will face disciplinary measures which include warnings to sacking according to Professor Wijewardene.

Ninety-three per cent of those who admitted to committing violence said they faced no punishment from family or friends.
Ninety-three per cent of those who admitted to committing violence said they faced no punishment from family or friends.

In a country where a larger portion of activity has focussed on the safety of women and supports for victims, it is heartening that men too are now being drawn into the conversation.  While it is important to uphold the safety of all those who are vulnerable, understanding the mind and experiences of the aggressors are equally important if sexual gender-based violence is to be prevented.

The gender festivals, training and complaints mechanisms introduced at our institutions of higher learning is an indication that sexual gender-based violence, an issue that is all too often swept under the carpet must be dealt with firmly and in the open. It will provide security to undergraduates who often face sexual harassment as part of ragging.  Indeed, it will provide the tools for all staff and students to identify discriminatory attitudes and stand against violent behaviour.

As most of the country’s future leaders pass through these hallowed halls of learning, the training and awareness should make them Agents of Change and lead to a change of attitude amongst their peers and society as a whole. It is hoped that this exposure will result in no more stereotyping of gender roles, or sexual aggression against both men and women.


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