A lawyer accompanied two children and their mother to a police station in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo to lodge a complaint against their father after he had severely beaten them.
However, when they arrived at the police station on October 1, the officers present refused to record their complaint. “We were told that because it is Children's Day, the station was preparing to celebrate it,” the family's attorney, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case, told VICE World News.
According to the lawyer, they were not the only domestic abuse survivors to be turned down because of “Children's Day” celebrations. They said several others including an elderly woman who had arrived to complain of assault were also sent away.
“We told them that my client cannot live at that house anymore because there is a threat to the children. They are being abused. [The police] responded that all the high ranking officers are too busy and several dignitaries are coming, so none of the officers is available to record complaints," the lawyer said.
“The two children had been abused by another man, a friend of the father, continuously for several years. And now, there are three ongoing court cases into the matter. This incident took place when one of the family members had tested positive for COVID-19 and the entire family was quarantined at home.”
Earlier, when the abused children’s mother called the police emergency line immediately after the abuse took place, the police refused to intervene due to COVID-19 fears.
This is not the first time survivors of domestic violence – mostly women and children – have been turned away by the police who disregarded their claims. Activists say it happens often and the cause is a severe lack of resources and a pervasive mindset among the authorities who do not take domestic violence seriously.
“They are extremely under-resourced. Some stations require at least 300 officers at the rate of cases they receive but they have only 60,” lawyer and child rights activist Milani Salpitikorala told VICE World News.
“I don’t blame the ground-level officers. These are all policy level problems. And in Sri Lanka, a lot of money and resources are wasted at a policy level,” she said. “Grassroots officers of the court like myself are the only people who know about this and make noise. But no one at the policy level is going to talk about it because they have no clue.”
Early last year, when the Sri Lanka government imposed the first of its four lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the nonprofit organisation Women In Need (WIN) observed an increase in reports of domestic violence. Within just the first month of the lockdown, they received over 450 calls for help, 75 percent of which were from survivors of domestic abuse.
In June this year, police reportedly tried to dismiss a woman who complained that her sister was suffering domestic abuse from her husband. “I was told not to break up families,” the police officer on duty allegedly told the woman.
But after WIN intervened and urged the police to look into the incident, two officers were finally dispatched to the victim’s house. The victim had been forced to remain with her husband due to COVID-19 lockdowns, and the officers found her badly beaten and tied up.
In August, the senior deputy inspector general of police, Ajith Rohana, said in a TV interview that when it came to domestic violence cases, “unlike in European countries, we [Sri Lanka] have a culture, we have values and ethics. According to any circumstances, we are not going to separate the husband and wife. If it is a slight assault or abuse or threat, we will not proceed that case to court.”
The statement drew criticism across the country.
“It's the police attitude,” WIN’s programme and legal manager Mariam Wadood told VICE World News. “The moment you go to the police to make a complaint about abuse, they are like, 'Okay so what is the big deal?' This is the impression of high-ranking officers as well as those below.”
Even female officers have the same attitude towards domestic violence, she added. “I don't know whether it’s just [that] when you become a police officer and when you have that authority, it influences your perceptions.”
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