Human Rights Watch (HRW) has this week published a ground-breaking report on the abuse of LGBTI human rights in Sri Lanka: All Five Fingers Are Not the Same: Discrimination on Grounds of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in Sri Lanka.
HRW notes that the report focuses primarily on “abuses experienced by transgender people—including arbitrary detention, mistreatment, and discrimination accessing health care, employment and housing. The report also includes examples of discrimination and abuse experienced by individuals based on actual or perceived sexual orientation, many of which are related to a lack of acceptance of gender non-conformity.”
- Gender recognition: Transgender people in Sri Lanka are rarely able to obtain a national identity card and other official documents that reflect their preferred name and gender, exposing them to constant and humiliating scrutiny about their gender identity. The regulations requiring medical diagnosis or treatment before a person can receive official recognition of their new gender status often makes it difficult for people to obtain documents that reflect their gender identity
- Criminalisation and lack of protection against discrimination: While same-sex relations for both men and women are criminalised, no laws specifically criminalise transgender or intersex people. But police have used general criminal laws to target LGBTI people. Moreover, there are no laws protecting LGBTI people against discrimination; making such discrimination legal by default
- Police sexual and physical abuse: Some LGBTI people said police had raped, threatened to rape, sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed them. Others described police officers physically assaulting them
- Barriers to HIV prevention: Transgender people and MSM (men who have sex with men) have been arrested for carrying condom
- Discrimination in employment and housing: There is discrimination in employment and housing on the grounds of actual or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation
Sexual intercourse between men in Sri Lanka has been illegal since British colonial rule imposed Section 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code in 1883. Section 365 punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” with imprisonment of up to 10 years and a fine. Section 365A punishes “any act of gross indecency” with a jail term of up to two years and a fine.
These provisions are interpreted to criminalise consensual sex between men.
In 1995 Section 365A was expanded to also criminalise sexual relations between women.
Sri Lanka is one of the 38 Commonwealth countries that criminalise same-sex behaviour.
Watch this video of Equal Ground Director, Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, discuss the challenges and successes for LGBTI rights in Sri Lanka.
Video interview by William Brougham.
A 2014 report by the Kaleidoscope Trust, in collaboration with the Sri Lankan LGBTI human rights group, Equal Ground, alleged that the police harassed and extorted money or sexual favours from LGBTI individuals with impunity – and also violently assaulted LGBTI people.
Another report, by International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), also published in 2014, concluded that LGBTI Sri Lankans suffered high levels of sexual, emotional and physical violence. Because of criminalisation, there is no legal redress and LGBTI victims of discrimination and hate crime are at risk of police abuses, including the threat to charge them on account of their sexuality or gender non-conformity.
Rosanna believes the Sri Lankan government is guilty of having pushed a hateful agenda that has negatively influenced social attitudes, particularly during President Rajapaksa’s rule.
“The general public are more accepting but politicians with their hidden agendas push this hateful attitude to the people. For example, the nationalistic Sinha Le Buddhist attitude that was prolific during Rajapaksa’s government had a hateful agenda that split the country,” she reports.
Rosanna confirms that online hate has been directed at Equal Ground. She has been personally attacked as “the chief paedophile on the island”. There have been threats and attempts to shut down Equal Ground and its website.
During the lead-up to Pride 2016 celebrations, Equal Ground faced violent threats and intimidation from the Sinha Le Buddhist nationalist movement’s Facebook groups. Fearing a threat to their security, Equal Ground’s public events had to be postponed.
Despite these dangers and difficulties, there has been some progress for LGBTI rights in Sri Lanka.
Equal Ground has been organising annual Pride events since 2005.
In June 2015, Sri Lanka voted against a Russian resolution calling for the withdrawal of partner benefits to LGBTI UN employees.
In October 2014, in a written response to the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s questions about Sri Lanka’s failure to protect LGBTI people from widespread discrimination, the Sri Lankan government claimed that LGBTI persons are constitutionally protected from discrimination; although not explicitly.
A government spokesperson said: “Article 12 of the Sri Lankan Constitution recognises non-discrimination based on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds as a Fundamental Right. This measure protects persons from stigmatisation and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identities.”
LGBTI activists like Equal Ground Director Rosanna Flamer-Caldera saw this statement as a “breakthrough”, as it was “the first time the Sri Lankan government has ever said anything like that before”.
“While this may not rain sunshine for the LGBTIQ community just yet, there is now at least, a sense of hope things will start changing in Sri Lanka and that the LGBTIQ community will be able to hold their heads a bit higher as the days go by. We urge the Government to open dialogue with the LGBTIQ community,” she added.
Equal Ground is a Colombo-based organisation seeking human and political rights for the LGBTI community in Sri Lanka. It was established by Rosanna Flamer-Caldera in 2004 with the aim of creating an all-inclusive LGBTI advocacy group and claims to be the only truly mixed organisation in Sri Lanka which includes the wider identities of the queer community as well as the support of straight allies. In 2016, the organisation celebrates its eleventh year of providing a professional LGBTI counselling service which operates in three languages.
To find out more about Equal Ground’s work, visit: www.equal-ground.org
Peter Tatchell, Director of the human rights lobby the Peter Tatchell Foundation, said:
“It is encouraging to hear that social attitudes are becoming more accepting of the LGBTI community in Sri Lanka; in large part thanks to the valiant efforts of Equal Ground. However, there is still a long way to go before equality is achieved. Sri Lanka has a duty to comply with international human rights law by repealing its draconian anti-LGBTI statutes and legislating explicit legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex status. The international community, particularly the Commonwealth, must press Sri Lanka to respect and secure equal rights for LGBTI people.”