Women’s shelters in Sri Lanka support survivors of gender-based violence

“In our society, there is a belief that domestic violence should be kept behind closed doors and not discussed openly”, says Anoja Makawita, a social worker and counsellor with the Sri Lankan group Women in Need (WIN).

“Violence within families has far-reaching consequences, and it is women and girls who suffer the most”, she said. “It is not just an issue within individual households; it has an impact on entire communities.”

Makawita was part of the group that founded WIN in 1987, and the organization has worked ever since to provide survivors of gender-based violence with legal aid, counseling, and even housing support.

Women’s shelters in Sri Lanka support survivors of gender-based violence

The AKASA safe house is seen in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, on 17 August 2023.
The AKASA safe house is seen in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, on 17 August 2023. Photo: UN Women/Ravindra Rohana

One in five Sri Lankan women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner according to a 2019 survey. Nearly half of the women who experienced sexual violence by a partner did not seek formal help due to shame, embarrassment, fear of being blamed or not being believed, or thinking the violence was normal or not serious enough to seek help.

UN Women’s Empowering Women in Crisis project, funded by the government of Japan, has provided relief and support to 11 women’s shelters throughout Sri Lanka, including those run by WIN.

“Helping these women reintegrate into society is however one of the most challenging aspects of our work”, Makawita said, noting that many women who escape domestic violence are unable to return to their old home or afford to rent a new one. WIN works with such women to connect with other organizations and find housing for up to six months, during which time they can seek employment. 

WIN is not the only organization in Sri Lanka devoted to helping survivors of gender-based violence. In the country’s North Central province, the Association for Women with Disabilities, or AKASA, operates as a network of self-help groups dedicated to creating opportunities and empowering women to live with dignity and independence.

The organization’s safe house in the town of Thalawa specializes in helping women and girls with disabilities who have faced abuse.

AKASA Chairperson N.G. Kamalawathie described the case of a 21-year-old woman who suffers from a disability in her spine. She identified her as Lilanthi, a pseudonym, and told how she found peace at AKASA after many years of struggle. 

After being abused by her mother’s husband and his friend as a child, Lilanthi went to the police. Authorities arrested her abusers, and then placed Lilanthi in an orphanage. She was forced to leave that facility at 18, but could not find a stable home—until she finally found AKASA.

“I am so happy to see the women in this house improving day-by-day, working towards a sense of normalcy in life, and we always support them with whatever guidance they need”, Kamalawathie said.

Another organization, the Jaffna Social Action Centre (JSAC), supports women and children in Sri Lanka’s Northern province. Run by Nadarajah Sukirtharaj, JSAC has developed a host of programming for survivors of violence. 

“When we first started JSAC, our community was largely unaware of the significance of safe houses for survivors of violence”, Sukirtharaj said. “To address this, we initiated several awareness programmes and even established women’s groups in villages to spread the word. We have seen a shift in perception since then.”

JSAC has similarly received support through the Empowering Women in Crisis project.

“I must express my deep appreciation for the invaluable support provided by UN Women”, said Sukirtharaj. Founded in 2003, JSAC now operates across eight districts in Sri Lanka.

Makawita, of WIN, echoed Sukirtharaj’s message. 

“Although we provide legal and counseling support, we often need assistance in helping these women find jobs or providing self-employment opportunities”, she said. “I want to express my deep gratitude to UN Women for their invaluable support, especially during times of economic hardship.”