The author (top left) with the youth leaders from the gender and educational empowerment program Tea Leaf
Vision in Maskeliya, Sri Lanka
Ruvani Fonseka December 1, 2017
November 25th marked the International
Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and start of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence Campaign.
Globally, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their
lifetime, and researchers and advocates are working together to address this
pressing issue. One major pathway to reducing gender-based violence (GBV) is
through youth-focused preventive measures that interrupt the transmission of
inequitable gender norms across generations. In this blog, I will detail the
research I did in Sri Lanka on early factors that could lead to gender-based
violence, as well as the work we are currently doing at GEH on rape prevention education in California.
To prevent violence, we must first know how to predict its likelihood. In
2015, I analyzed data from the UN Multicountry Study on Men and Violence in Asia
and the Pacific to study the relationship between Adverse Childhood Experiences
(ACEs) and intimate partner violence (IPV) perpetration by Sri Lankan men.
Analyzing the data collected by CARE Sri Lanka from over 1200 men, I found
the following links between ACEs and intimate partner violence
perpetration in adulthood:
- A high number of ACEs (ACE score) was linked to a higher
likelihood of perpetrating IPV in adulthood, similar to findings from the U.S.
As the ACE score increased, so did the likelihood of perpetrating IPV
- Men who had witnessed abuse of their mother in childhood
were nearly twice as likely to perpetrate physical IPV as men who had
not witnessed such violence
- Childhood sexual abuse was linked to a more than two-times
increase in the likelihood of perpetrating IPV
Overall, I found that the relationship between high ACEs and an increase in
the likelihood of perpetrating IPV existed in Sri Lanka, as it does in the
United States. However, knowing these numbers did not help to explain WHY
childhood experiences could change one's likelihood of perpetrating violence. We
still needed to understand the nature of this relationship if we wanted to
design effective interventions to address it.
A Broader Picture
The CARE study of GBV in Sri Lanka also uncovered very high levels of
gender-inequitable attitudes (shown to be related to GBV), with over half of men and women
supporting gender-inequitable household roles, equating masculinity with
violence, and agreeing with the statement "some women ask to be raped by the way
they dress and behave." In 2016, I conducted Fullbright research
in Sri Lanka on gender norms among Sri Lankan young adults, with the goal of
better understanding possible points of intervention in childhood and
adolescence to support gender-equitable attitudes and prevent GBV perpetration
My interviews with over 30 young adults ages 19 to 29 revealed a wide
variety of perspectives and experiences of gender, but a few common themes
emerged. Both men and women recognized limits placed on girls' mobility
and social interactions after puberty, sharing stories like the
"Because I was a boy, I went [alone] to Kandy and Colombo, but if I were
a girl, I would need
someone with me." (male, 19-24 years old*)
"Whenever I ask, my brother won't give me his motorcycle, He says 'you
are a girl, you will get
injured.'" (female, 19-24)
"Girls can't go out and work after 6 o'clock. People might say bad things
about them -- they are
scared of what others might say." (male,
My research also suggests that important authority figures, such as
parents and school officials, are key to shaping young Sri Lankans'
gender norms, as exemplified by the following quotes:
"Only my father makes decisions, and he doesn't discuss them with my
mother. She might make
better decisions, but she doesn't get the
chance." (male, 25-30)
"[In school], girls really can't talk to boys and they don't have
freedom." (female, 25-30)
"The family tells girls 'you have to be very careful.' Because if a girl
loses her virginity, that will be a
problem." (male, 25-30)
Training and supporting parents and school officials to be more
gender-equitable in their interactions with children could in turn help those
children have a more gender equal and GBV-free adulthood. One organization
working towards this is Think
Equal, which is currently pilot-testing an empathy and equality curriculum
with preschool teachers across 15 countries, including Sri Lanka.
From Colombo to California
I am now in my first year of the Joint doctoral program in Public
Health at UCSD and San Diego State University, working under the mentorship of
GEH's Director of Research, Professor Jay Silverman. At GEH, I am helping
Professor Silverman research what works to prevent sexual violence in
California, where over a million women have suffered sexual assault, usually
before turning 18. Together with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), and funded by
the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are working to
develop a state-wide evaluation of California's Rape Prevention and Education (RPE) programs implemented
across 33 of 60 rape crisis centers in the state. One example program is MyStrength, a
social norms campaign administered by the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CALCASA) that
seeks to encourage young men ages 14 to 18 to speak out against sexual violence.
Working with the RPE programs and CDPH, we are developing a program
evaluation toolkit to help programs across California implement rigorous
evaluations and gather data to understand the successes and challenges that
programs experience when conducting sexual violence prevention programming. We
aim to empower these programs to collect and share their own results, and to
compare their results with statewide data sources on sexual violence. Through a
combination of research and advocacy, we are collaborating to develop a
foundation of evidence of best practices to prevent sexual violence in
What can we do to prevent gender-based violence?
Across the world, researchers and advocates are searching for ways to end
GBV. In addition to supporting survivors and rehabilitating perpetrators, we
need to think creatively and analytically about the best ways to prevent GBV
from continuing in younger generations. When we can help empower young people to
live gender-equitable lives, we are one step closer to a GBV-free world.
- De Mel, N., Peiris, P., & Gomez, S. (2013). Broadening Gender: why
Masculinities Matter: Attitudes, Practices and Gender-based Violence in Four
Districts in Sri Lanka. Care International.
- Dube, S. R., Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Edwards, V. J., & Williamson,
D. F. (2002). Exposure to abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction among adults
who witnessed intimate partner violence as children: implications for health and
social services. Violence and victims, 17(1), 3.
- Fonseka, R. W., Minnis, A. M., & Gomez, A. M. (2015). Impact of adverse
childhood experiences on intimate partner violence perpetration among Sri Lankan
men. PLoS one, 10(8), e0136321.
- Fulu, E., Jewkes, R., Roselli, T., & Garcia-Moreno, C. (2013).
Prevalence of and factors associated with male perpetration of intimate partner
violence: findings from the UN Multi-country Cross-sectional Study on Men and
Violence in Asia and the Pacific. The lancet global health, 1(4), e187-e207.
* ages given in ranges to protect participant identity