Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape and domestic violence, but enforcement of the law was inconsistent. The law does not criminalize rape of men but does criminalize “grave sexual abuse.” The prescribed penalties for rape are seven to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of at least 200,000 rupees ($1,000). For domestic violence, a victim can obtain a protection order for one year and request a maintenance allowance. The law prohibits spousal rape only if the spouses are legally separated.
Women’s organizations reported police and judiciary responses to rape and domestic violence incidents and cases were inadequate. The police Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Women and Children conducted awareness programs in schools and at the grassroots level to encourage women to file complaints. Police continued to establish women’s units in police stations. Services to assist survivors of rape and domestic violence, such as crisis centers, legal aid, and counseling, were scarce nationwide due to a lack of support.
According to the local NGO Women’s Development Foundation, cybersex crimes against women and children increased 300 percent following the onset of COVID-19. Local organizations widely said the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic and government lockdowns contributed to the vulnerability of at-risk groups and resulted in an increase in cybersex crimes, including online sex trafficking. Some organizations attributed the steep increase to the return of urban workers to rural areas and the increase in social media and smart phone usage while at home. Reports of gender-based violence rose substantially during the pandemic, with reports of survivors often being trapped indoors with their perpetrators.
In April rural women facing exorbitant interest rates from unregulated lenders held protests calling for the abolition of microfinance loans. Several microfinance institutions were reported to have hired village watchdogs to recover loans, and reports of demands for sexual favors in exchange for repayment were common. According to the Asian Development Bank, the incidence of violence against women remained high in rural and estate sectors.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law does not prohibit FGM/C for women and girls. Some of the country’s Muslims historically practiced FGM/C, but it was not a part of public discourse until recent years, when media articles drew attention to the practice. There were no recent statistics on the prevalence of FGM/C in the country, although it was not believed to be common. A 2018 Ministry of Health circular banned medical practitioners from carrying out FGM/C, but since the practice was usually carried out by traditional practitioners known as Ostha Maamis, activists said the prohibition had little effect. Several civil society groups led mostly by Muslim women continued to campaign against FGM/C.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is a criminal offense carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Sexual harassment was common and was a particularly widespread problem in public transport.
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health. They have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. No significant legal, social, or cultural barriers adversely affected access to skilled health care workers in attendance during pregnancy and childbirth or contraception. According to organizations working on reproductive rights, sexual and reproductive health services, in both the public and private sectors, were heavily curtailed during COVID-19 lockdowns except for deliveries and pregnancy-related services. Most pharmacies remained open during lockdowns and many contraceptives remained accessible.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence; however, NGOs reported police were often unaware of resources available, limiting referrals.
Discrimination: Women have equal rights to men under civil and criminal law, although societal discrimination existed throughout the country. Adjudication of questions related to family law, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, varied according to the customary law of each ethnic or religious group, resulting in discrimination. The National Police Commission increased the contribution of women in the police service by increasing the number of female officers at each post.
Both local and Indian-origin Tamils maintained that they suffered long-standing, systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, housing, health services, language laws, and procedures for naturalization of noncitizens. Throughout the country, but especially in the north and east, Tamils reported security forces regularly monitored and harassed members of their community, especially activists, journalists, and NGO staff and former or suspected former LTTE members.
According to an October Amnesty International report, the Muslim community has experienced consistent discrimination, harassment, and violence since 2013. The government failed to prosecute individuals and groups involved in vandalizing mosques, Muslim-owned businesses, and homes after the May 2019 riots that followed the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. As of October 14, according to civil society groups, more than 300 individuals (almost all Muslim) remained in detention in alleged connection with the Easter Sunday attacks (see section 1.d.).
On February 25, the government reversed the mandatory cremation policy for all COVID-19 victims, which had been in effect since March 2020. The policy violated Muslim religious tenants and the religious preferences of some Christians and Buddhists. International organizations reported the government used the COVID-19 pandemic to “stoke communal tensions” as well as to limit religious freedom. Some extremist Buddhist monks and other extremist groups continued to use hate speech on social media with impunity.
On October 26, President Rajapaksa appointed a 13-member presidential task force to implement his “One Country, One Law” campaign pledge and named general secretary of the Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena and Buddhist monk Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thero as chairman. The presidential task force initially included four Muslims but no Tamils or Christians. On November 6, the president limited the mandate of the task force to presenting proposals for a framework of the “One Country, One Law” concept. He also appointed three Tamil members, replacing two of the original members (one Sinhalese and one Muslim) who had resigned. As of December 7, the task force had held public consultations in the northern and eastern provinces. Civil society, opposition politicians, and representatives of ethnic and religious minority groups criticized the announcement of the task force and the appointment of Gnanasara as chairman, noting fears that the task force would “eventually turn towards targeting minorities.”
See sections 1-5 for incidents affecting racial and ethnic minority groups, and section 2.c. for issues impacting religious minority groups.
The country’s indigenous people, known as Veddas, reportedly numbered fewer than 1,000. Some preferred to maintain their traditional way of life, and the law generally protected them, although some faced land encroachment issues. They freely participated in political and economic life without legal restrictions, but some did not have legal documents.
Birth Registration: Children obtain citizenship from their parents.
Child Abuse: There was growing public concern regarding the high incidence of violence, including sexual violence, against children in the family and community, as well as incidents of online violence and bullying.
Despite successful efforts to reform the penal code, the basic criminal law, and other laws on child abuse, cruelty to children and their exploitation in trafficking and child labor persisted. Penalties vary based on the type and degree of child abuse, but trials tended to drag on for years.
Most child abuse complaints were received by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) via a toll-free 24-hour hotline. Teachers, school principals, and religious instructors reportedly sexually abused children. Civil society organizations working on children’s issues asserted children had insufficient mechanisms to report domestic violence or abuse safely. Although police stations were supposed to have an officer dedicated to handling abuse complaints from women and children, the government did not consistently implement this practice nationwide. The police’s Children and Women Bureau played a major role in investigating abuse cases, but depending on the severity of the case, some fall under the jurisdiction of the magistrates’ courts as outlined in the criminal procedure code. In these instances police file a formal complaint sheet and begin a judicial medical process. The attorney general files indictments for child abuse cases exclusively in high courts.
The NCPA reported no decrease in the number of child abuse cases throughout the pandemic and associated travel restrictions and lockdowns. The NCPA received nearly 4,000 complaints of child abuse and received information from 48,000 telephone calls from January to June 30. The Cabinet of Ministers granted approval to install video-recording units at hospitals throughout the nine provinces. The only evidence reporting unit for children was at the NCPA office in Colombo.
On February 12, the Supreme Court ruled that corporal punishment in schools was unlawful, after considering a petition filed by a 15-year-old who sustained permanent damage to his hearing when a teacher hit him across the ear in 2017. The court included both physical and mental harm in its definition of corporal punishment, which it deemed cruel and degrading, and referenced the country’s international commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the penal code and Education Ministry circulars in its decision, which was hailed as a landmark ruling by civil society.
See section 7.c. for other examples.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: Civil law sets the minimum legal age for marriage at 18 for both men and women, although girls may marry at age 16 with parental consent. According to the penal code, sexual intercourse with a girl younger than 16, with or without her consent, amounts to statutory rape. The provision, however, does not apply to married Muslim girls older than 12. The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, which applies only to Muslims, permits the marriage of girls as young as 12 with the consent of the bride’s father, other male relatives, or a quazi (a judge who interprets and administers Islamic law).
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the sale of children, offering or procuring a child for child sex trafficking, and practices related to child pornography, but authorities did not always enforce the law. The minimum age for consensual sex is 16.
On June 7, police arrested a 35-year-old suspect for procuring and trafficking a 15-year-old girl in Mount Lavinia, a suburb south of Colombo. The suspect allegedly “sold” the child online to third parties for a period of three months, utilizing websites linked to a “cyber shack” in Mount Lavinia. By July 23, police had arrested more than 41 individuals, including the victim’s mother, on child sex trafficking, child abuse, statutory rape, and other charges. A few suspects were released on bail. Police arrested the owner of the website and, according to the local office of Save the Children, the NCPA was closely supporting the child victim, who was receiving professional medical care and academic tutoring.
Displaced Children: IDP welfare centers and relocation sites exposed children to the same difficult conditions as adult IDPs and returnees in these areas.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish population was very small. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Various laws forbid discrimination against any person with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities in employment, education, air travel, other public transportation, and access to health care. In practice, however, discrimination occurred in employment, education, and provision of state services, including public transportation. Children with disabilities attended school at a lower rate than other persons. There were regulations on accessibility, but accommodation for access to buildings and public transportation for persons with disabilities was rare. Election assistance to persons with disabilities was limited in some instances due to conflicting COVID-19 social distancing regulations. Disability rights groups alleged the government had shown no interest in taking steps to implement further protections for persons with disabilities.
There are legal provisions for assisted voting of persons with disabilities. Anyone with a partial or full visual or physical disability may their ballot with the assistance of a person of their choice or the senior presiding officer if they are unable to be accompanied by an assistant. According to the Asian Network for Free Elections, most polling stations had steps for which wheelchair-bound voters required assistance.
Persons who provided HIV prevention services and groups at high risk of infection reportedly suffered discrimination. In addition, hospital officials reportedly publicized the HIV-positive status of their patients and occasionally refused to provide health care to HIV-positive persons.
The number of HIV-infected male patients between the ages of 19 and 25 appeared on the rise in the country, according to the National Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD)/AIDS Control Program of the Ministry of Health. The ministry reported in March that there were 4,073 HIV-positive patients in the country, but only 2,000 HIV-positive patients were registered with the National STD/AIDS Control Program and were receiving antiretroviral treatment.
According to the National STD/AIDS Control Program, as of August the country vaccinated most of its HIV-positive population older than age 30 against COVID-19. The program reported a decrease in the number of those getting tested for HIV over the past year and that it introduced an online self-assessment process through its website.
The law criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. Those convicted of engaging in same-sex sexual activity in private or public face 10 years’ imprisonment. Although prosecutions were rare, human rights organizations reported police used the threat of arrest to assault, harass, and sexually and monetarily extort lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons. Antidiscrimination laws do not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Transgender persons continued to face societal discrimination, including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and discrimination accessing employment, housing, and health care.
On March 1, on United Nations “Zero Discrimination Day,” the president tweeted, “Today is #ZeroDiscriminationDay. As the president of Sri Lanka, I am determined to secure everybody’s right to live life with dignity regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, physical appearance, and beliefs.” The president’s message was welcomed by many on social media, even as some pointed to a section of the penal code that criminalizes same-sex relations. Some human rights activists thanked the president, indicating he became the first head of state in the country to openly acknowledge the rights of LGBTQI+ citizens. Other advocates said in March that the LGBTQI+ community faced discrimination daily due to the country’s legal landscape and social stigmas. Human rights activists noted a pervasive culture of impunity among police heightened the risk of abuse for all marginalized groups including the LGBTQI+ community.
On August 3, cabinet cospokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told press LGBTQI+ rights are not constitutionally recognized but discussions continued, and that he was not aware of police actions against LGBTQI+ persons.
The Colombo chief magistrate dismissed charges against three men for homosexuality after the AGD informed police it would not pursue the case. One of the men, a Swedish national, had filed a complaint with the HRCSL stating that police officers subjected him to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.