In the words of Kaushalya Hapuarachchi: “To ensure legal action, we must ensure safety of the survivors of violence and witnesses”
Interviewed by Sakina Aliakbar
Kaushalya Hapuarachchi is Deputy Director of the Sri Lanka Government’s Legal Aid Commission; she has worked there since 1978. The commission’s 84 offices nationwide provide legal services free of charge to people who can’t afford them. In October 2021 Hapuarachchi attended a series of “multi-party dialogues” that UN Women hosted as part of its project, funded by the Government of Japan, on Implementing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda in Sri Lanka.
We … have a host of cultural barriers that prevent women from seeking help. For example, victims of violence are often threatened not to go to court and are subject to extreme physical and psychological abuse. Women also find legal battles as a ‘hassle’ to their daily lives, because they have to juggle multiple responsibilities at home and work. Especially when their husbands don’t support with childcare and household work.
Equal access to justice is a constitutionally guaranteed right in Sri Lanka and in cases involving women’s rights issues, efficacy of access to justice is due to inequalities inherent in the system.
In instances where women are exposed to extreme danger or violence, the Commission has the power to contact the police and request to provide protection under the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 04 of 2015, but clients are almost always pressured into dropping the case.
One way we can evade this problem … is by providing them with a safe space, such as a shelter or home where perpetrators do not have access to them or their children. Not having such spaces would mean that women are forced to endure violence and abuse at home.
If we are to ensure successful completion of legal action, we must ensure safety of the survivors of violence and witnesses. Therefore, there is a need to strengthen and establish more shelters for survivors of violence. In addition, progressive and empathetic mindsets can influence how survivors are perceived. When they are not ostracized by communities, they will have a stronger support system.
The multiparty dialogues held as part of UN Women’s project was a valuable learning curve for me. It helped me use international frameworks and in putting my ideas and observations forward from my field of work. Through these dialogues, I was able to educate others on the complexity of women’s issues, taking into account their location, religion, race or socioeconomic standing. As a result of these intersectional inequalities, women can face upending obstacles and consequent abuse. We must be aware and mindful of how to evaluate and solve each situation on a case-by-case basis, instead of adopting a one-size-fits-all approach.
On a more positive note, I see great value in the Law Commission (the Government agency that recommends legal reforms). There is more representation of women with the inclusion of former prosecutors and judges in the commission. This is encouraging, as I truly believe in women working for and with other women. When dealing with such cases, clients also tend to feel more comfortable with other women.”