March 10, 2022
Good evening! Honorable Minister of Justice His Excellency Ali Sabry, Members of Parliament, policymakers, members of the media, civil society organizations, distinguished guests.
Thank you for inviting me to speak at this important and timely event. Two days ago, we celebrated International Women’s Day, a call to action to support women’s empowerment and this year, to #BreakTheBias. We all know that for societies to thrive, all people must have equal rights; the ability to exercise their own voice; and freedom from harassment, discrimination, and violence. On International Women’s Day, I also met with the 9 female Ambassadors to Sri Lanka where we shared our commitment to helping empower girls and women here.
And I’m pleased to be here today because the survey results that we are unveiling will bring us one step closer to these important goals. As part of a U.S.-supported activity, Women in Need conducted an island-wide study about violence against women and girls in Sri Lanka – specifically, violence facilitated through technology. And of course, it’s not enough to just obtain data alone. We must use it to then call for action.
This type of violence was already becoming more prevalent prior to the pandemic, but there’s no question that COVID-19 exacerbated both offline and online violence. During lockdowns, Sri Lanka (like many countries, including the United States) saw a spike in domestic violence and abuse. Offline violence increasingly seeped into online spaces.
With the pandemic changing the world we live in, violence against women and girls now exists in a broader context – on our phones, our laptops, our social media feeds, and our WhatsApp messages. This violence takes the form of hate speech, online harassment, threats, and bullying.
The survey found an increase in women and girls receiving unwanted sexually explicit material on mobile phones; receiving phone calls threatening and intimidating women and their families; and being blackmailed to perform specific actions, often with the threat of sharing intimate photos obtained without consent. In fact, the report states that nearly one in four respondents reported that someone they know has been subjected to online harassment of a sexual nature. It’s horrifying to even imagine.
At the same time, the pandemic reduced access to health services and shelters, and disrupted social and protective networks – even trips to buy food and other essentials were limited. These gaps likely resulted in an escalation of both physical and technology-facilitated violence and abuse.
Given the increase in both offline and online gender-based violence and the recent gaps in services, there is an urgent need for a holistic, multi-sectoral response to ensure systemic change that tackles these challenges. If we don’t respond, we’ll start to see a gendered digital divide, limitations on freedom of expression, and a lack of diversity in online spaces in addition to the psycho-social damage we’re already seeing.
The experts here today will tell you that the survey results offer data, critical insights, and qualitative information for policy shapers and change-makers to better understand – and develop responses to – online violence against women and girls in Sri Lanka.
Combined with other tools, this will help organizations like WIN continue to provide timely and ongoing support to victims and survivors of domestic violence and abuse.
I understand that despite restrictions in mobility, WIN staff kept their shelters open for women and children throughout the lockdowns – and that the U.S. provided care packs for victims and survivors in these shelters.
The U.S. also helped WIN to expand its 24-hour hotline capacity by adding regional call-in numbers, making it easier to access across the island. The hotline was widely promoted by the government and other service providers and received nearly 3,600 calls within just six months.
Through WIN’s amazing network, the hotline linked callers with emergency services such as food and safe shelters, as well as access to legal information about ongoing cases, alimony maintenance payments, and custody issues.
We are also helping WIN to increase its capacity to monitor, evaluate, and track its programs. This leads to an increase in organizational efficiency and effectiveness. It also leads to more data to understand the causes and impacts of gender-based violence – one more tool in the fight to reduce it.
I applaud WIN for your hard work over the past 34 years to support women and children in Sri Lanka – and for spearheading this report in collaboration with the Social Scientists Association through USAID’s Increased Demand for Engagement and Accountability, or IDEA, project.
The U.S. government will continue partnering with the Government of Sri Lanka, our colleagues at the Ministry of Justice, and grassroots organizations like WIN to support efforts to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence in Sri Lanka. I especially thank the Minister’s personal commitment to these issues. I applaud all of the champions in this room for your efforts in support of this goal.