This is the second post in a series examining gender-based online violence in Sri Lanka, featuring WITNESS ally Groundviews—a civic media organisation based in Sri Lanka. Read part 1 here.

Cyber-Violence against LBT Community 

Section 365 and 365a of the Sri Lankan Penal Code criminalises same-sex relations, remnants from the country’s colonial past. Homophobia remains rampant, with police harassment and violence meted out against lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) individuals going unaccounted for. Slang words in local languages tend to still be used against LBT persons as insults, particularly at men who are perceived as feminine or weak. 

The recently published Groundviews research report, that was mentioned in Part 1 of this blog post, details that the situation is no different for women and LBT constituencies online. Findings by researchers Raisa Wickrematunge of Groundviews and Sachini Perera of Ghosha, who specifically focused on Facebook, indicate the “normalisation of sexist commentary, escalating to and including violence against women and LBT communities, both online and offline.” Among other trends, “a clear pattern of speech that was sexist, or objectified, harassed or otherwise targeted women and members of the LBT community” were identified. The non-consensual dissemination of intimate photos and videos was another unsettling trend found in the lead-up to the study, with whole pages allocated to such content, or alternatively, linked to the same on third-party websites. 

Digital community spaces serve as important tools for Sri Lankan women and the LBT community, to allow them to meet other members and to express themselves freely. However, the different vulnerabilities experienced by LBT individuals are not taken into consideration by many digital platforms. Facebook continues to maintain their real name policy to ensure that those who use hate speech face consequences. This policy is not preventing the creation of fake accounts, but impacts members of the LBT community who need to maintain anonymity so that they can be safe online. 

According to Raisa, there have been times where Groundviews was approached by members of Sri Lanka’s LBT community looking for support. In certain instances, Groundviews would put them in touch with a local organisation that provides legal support for cyber-violence and exploitation. Their research report details trends such as sexism and misogynistic commentary, the non-consensual dissemination of intimate images or video, anonymity of the perpetrators, and people perpetuating sexist stereotypes while ‘defending’ women. 

Members of the LBT community often face surveillance at a family or community level, which bleeds into online spaces too. One member in a focus group discussion shared with Raisa that a dating platform they used would automatically block a person who repeatedly sent messages, if they weren’t responded to over time. A feature such as this on other platforms is what community members would like to see,  where creating secondary profiles on platforms so that they could be ‘out’ online has been the defense mechanism. Reporting cyber-violence to the Central Investigations Department (CID) is understood as a fruitless endeavour, because it is widely accepted that being homosexual is illegal in Sri Lanka. The LBT community continue to use digital spaces with caution as mistrust of local authorities continue to be the prevailing sentiment.

“Attempts to report violations to Facebook are sometimes met with the response that they do not violate Community Standards. This has particularly been the case in the past, when the content is in Sinhala or Tamil.” (p. 17 of report)

From a tech perspective, social media platforms often have to make difficult judgment calls on what content to allow. Given the recent eruption of events leading to a cascade of attacks against minority communities in Sri Lanka, it is in the interest of platforms like Facebook to listen to their users particularly when they aren’t being protected by their platform. An open letter to CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, by 13 Sri Lankan civil society organisations last year resulted in a response from Facebook, “promising to increase content reviewers and work with Government and civil society to curb hate speech and better understand the local context.” But much still remains to be done.

Cyber Attacks against Women Journalists and Activists 

There were multiple cases of cyber-violence reported, not just in Colombo, but also in north-eastern Sri Lanka recently. Activists have mentioned how leaking young girls’ personal photos online was a common phenomenon in the east, leading to suicides in many instances. Tamil journalist, Thulasi Muttulingam, based in the north, was the target of hate after she discussed a law banning the sale of alcohol to women in taverns. A friend of the journalist on Facebook made an inflammatory remark about how they perceive women as weaker than men and therefore, they should not be allowed to consume alcohol. When Thulasi responded to the commentary and subsequently removed him from her Facebook, he then posted screenshots of the argument, labelling her a ‘drunken Tamil woman’ for standing up to the ban. (p. 35 of report).

The researchers’ interview with Dilrukshi Handunnetti, a consultant editor, also highlighted other forms of online harassment experienced by women journalists. These included being labelled a traitor for writing articles focusing on the ethnic question, and those questioning her career choice, in what can only be described as “deep-rooted sexism”.

A recent example of an attack against a woman journalist by a senior politician who rejected her views about car-free Sundays in the capital.

The report also lists disturbing instances of the kinds of vitriol unleashed against women activists, such as in the case of Juwairiya in the eastern city of Puttalam, where “neighbours and relatives keep husbands ‘updated’ of wives’ movements through messaging apps, often without the women’s knowledge. Men who divorce their wives continue to harass their ex-wives through WhatsApp” (p. 35 of report). For Madhavi, after she publicly condemned a government officer accused of multiple incidents of rape, phone calls from unknown persons eventually resulted in the caller cursing her in abusive language. Ananthi, an activist in Batticaloa, says women are threatened with the leaking of (what they term as) ‘incriminating’ photos if the woman doesn’t have sexual intercourse with the harasser’s friends. There is no trust expressed in law enforcement. Shaming and victim-blaming are what most activists are accustomed to (p.35 of report).

Video Documentation: Helps or Hinders?

Comments on Facebook pages operated by mainstream media outlets are often not moderated even when they contain hateful speech. The comments on video footage of a press conference held by activist Sandhya Eknaligoda hosted on mainstream media outlet Hiru News include rape threats, threats of death by stoning, and numerous comments objectifying her.

Many online hate groups are becoming more conversant with digital spaces and have already begun to circumvent the rules in order to continue their behaviour. From posting links to leaked sex videos on other websites, to using platforms like WhatsApp, which are encrypted, and simply switching from a public Facebook page to a profile, or just by changing their name, online hate speech continues without being subjected to rigorous scrutiny. 

At other times, video has also led to negative pushback, such as in the case of a person identifying as androgynous. When interviewed by Raisa about the prejudice that the LBT community face, they mentioned that they were receiving pressure from their family and risked being thrown out of their home. The family member had discovered a video on YouTube, and as such the video had to be deleted. Being on camera lends a certain immediacy and is proof of identity, which is why some people are often right to not be interviewed on camera in order to protect what limited freedom they have.

Next Steps

There is little research done on technology-related violence against women in Sri Lanka, although interest and engagement from civil society is increasing. In conjunction with this research project, the Centre for Policy Alternatives has developed a trilingual wiki dedicated to digital security. The online portal includes material on encryption, safe passwords, password managers, instant messaging, and Facebook privacy. The aim is to provide resources around digital security to those interested in accessing them. Some of these resources include:

– The 2six4 app, available in the Google Playstore, made by Women in Need, a local women’s organisation helps deal with sexual and GBV, and aims to make it easier to seek counselling, make police reports and more. 

Bakamoono.lk is an initiative by Grassrooted Trust, which focuses specifically on providing legal support, counselling, workshops, education and awareness on gender identity, relationships and on HIV, using articles, memes as well as resources on next steps to take if a child is subjected to cyber exploitation and violence, and how to report cases.

– A trilingual handbook, ‘Getting Online’, developed by Women and Media Collective, a local women’s NGO, provides a quick overview on how to get online and use email, start a blog and use social media, including tips on protecting privacy.

Download the full research report here
Download the executive summary and recommendations here.

For WITNESS resources on sexual and gender-based violence, see:

Meghana Bahar is WITNESS’ Communications & Engagement Consultant for the Asia-Pacific region. She is a gender and media specialist, with over 19 years of experience in transnational women’s and human rights movements.

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