Sakhi Speaks at the U.S. National Conference For UNIFEM

On June 12, 2010, Sakhi’s Executive Director, Tiloma Jayasinghe, presented at U.S. National Conference for United Nations Development Fund For Women (UNIFEM) on a panel entitled “Ending Violence Against Women Through Legal Instruments and Cultural Change”.  At the core of this presentation was raising awareness of our rights as women to ask for broad protections entitled to every human being in both the local and international contexts. Simply stated, gender violence is a human rights violation and as Sakhis, it is crucial that we voice this truth. Many of you attended the conference and heard Tiloma speak, but for the rest, we thought you would enjoy Tiloma’s words in this newsletter in a format that recreates the presentation.


My name is Tiloma Jayasinghe and I’m the Executive Director of Sakhi for South Asian Women.  Sakhi is an NGO that works to eliminate violence against women by focusing on providing direct service, economic empowerment, community organizing and policy advocacy on behalf of and for survivors of domestic violence.  Most of the women we work with are low income and recent immigrants from the South Asian Diaspora.
I am going to frame my discussion about violence against women by characterizing it as more than just crimes against women. The violence is a form of discrimination against women and ultimately a human rights violation.  When we consider this, then our conception of what the problem is and its causes and solutions will be more comprehensive and holistic, rather than just bandages in a restricted context.
I’m a lawyer by trade and I went into law to protect the health and human rights of women and girls.  I do believe that the legal system does have an important role to combat violence against women. There are some countries that don’t have a specific law on violence against women.  When I was at the United Nations, what I loved most was our Technical assistance work.  We brought parliamentarians and other key decision makers from civil society and government ministries together to learn about developing a comprehensive law combating violence against women. We also included experts who had done the same in their own countries so that we could assist those countries.  If there isn’t a law preventing child marriage, or condemning marital rape, then there is no accountability,  and no recognition of the wrong.  There is also no ability to gain restitution for the victim.

Image: Created on Many Eyes (http://manyeyes.com) copyright IBM

On the international level, there are multiparty treaties, such as CEDAW, which is considered an international bill of rights of women.  However, none of its articles specifically condemns violence against women, although that has been made clear in later Committee rulings and GA resolutions clarifying the matter.  There are also regional instruments – such as the Inter-American Rights of Man Declaration, which condemns violence.  National laws, such as VAWA in the United States provide support and remedies for victims of violence, including the right of a woman to self-petition for immigration status so that she is not dependent upon her abuser for legal status in this country.  And at the state level there are civil and criminal remedies that a woman who has experienced violence can take advantage of – criminal or civil orders of protection, divorce, civil rights of action against third parties for their failure to protect among other remedies.

Photo: UNIFEM “Not a Minute More, Ending Violence against Women”

So even if we have all these options available to us, why do we still experience such high rates of violence against women?  Because the law is not enough.  Because an order of protection provides no protection against a bullet.  It is, in the end, only a piece of paper.  Because even when you have a law on the books, if the social cost is too high for a woman to avail herself of the protections of that law, it is meaningless.  Because enforcement (or lack thereof) is a huge problem that needs to be addressed on a global level.  Because sometimes those who are supposed to protect you either perpetrate further violence or turn a blind eye to the situation.

Do you remember the attacks on women in pubs in Mangalore last year?  Women were targeted for being in pubs where they could be seen with unmarried men.  Women were beaten, their hair pulled and thrown on the ground.  Terrible.  To worsen the situation, not even one woman was able to come forward to press charges or to file a police complaint.   Ironically, India is a country that has a law on violence against women.  These acts were committed in broad daylight, with numerous witnesses.  Why didn’t these women feel safe enough to come forward?  Why have those who were identified subject to harassing phone calls and threats?

Photo: Breakthrough – www.bellbajao.org

Responding to violence requires that we take a class, race, culture, socio-economic, and political perspective to the work that we do.  We need to ensure that women are not vulnerable to imbalances of power by ensuring that they have access to resources, supports, and opportunities that level the playing field.  This means ensuring women’s economic empowerment.  It means changing culture at the community level by members of the community themselves, and improving women’s political participation levels and decision-making power.  It also means engaging men and boys, and ensuring that girls are also taken into account.  And yes, one organization can take this on – one woman can take this on.

At Sakhi is not just address the violence that is occurring right now in a woman’s life through our crisis intervention work, but we work to prevent violence against women through our economic justice program, providing courses on:

– financial literacy

– individual development accounts (IDAs) to promote savings

– computer training

– ESL

– scholarships for education and microenterprise effots

We also engage in community outreach because we understand that even if we have the best, most comprehensive law on the books, if a woman fears retribution from her community, or shame, or ostracism, she will not come forward.  And if a community provides no accountability for the perpetrator then he can act with impunity.  When a woman comes through our doors she has not just overcome her own internal barriers (which could include being raised to view her husband as her god, or simply to believe that she is not a good and obedient woman by voicing her concerns) but also barriers introduced by her community (which can be summed up in phrases like “we don’t have that (domestic violence) in our community” or “publicly talking about abuse causes shame” or the insidious,  “you must have done something to deserve the abusive treatment you are receiving”).
What can we do to eliminate violence against women?  Yes, we need the law on our side, but the law is only one tool.  Violence against women is not simply comprised of specific crimes against women.  Rather, it is a human rights violation. The interconnections between the various factors responsible for domestic violence – whether gender dynamics of power, or culture or economics – require an interconnected and holistic response from organizations like Sakhi and in fact, from all of us.