The presentation of this narrative is based on a female student who is visually impaired and classified as partially blind. She is the oldest child in her family and has a brother who also has a visual impairment. Her father is visually impaired and completely blind. Through her courage and efforts in education, she was admitted to one of the major state universities in Sri Lanka and was selected to study sociology. She is very active in class and works as an activist for disability rights. With her consent, I believed as an educator that sharing her story during Covid 19 would be eye opening for us as social workers and educators. I will call the case Gayani from now on.
Although Sri Lanka has a National Policy on Disability to promote rights of people with disability, there are huge gaps existing at the level of enforcement. On the other hand, conceptualization of disability in Sri Lankan Culture is based on charity perspective. This conceptualization leads to differ people as able and disable bodies encouraging people with disabilities by simply providing survival needs such as food, clothing and shelter. This neglects the civil rights of people with disabilities as human being.
When it comes to the higher education sector, arguably, it seems that the readiness to incorporate students with disabilities to the higher education institutes is very limited; so is the actual build environment and accessibility as whole. . Only few government universities have opened the quota system for students with disabilities for their student intakes. University of Colombo in Sri Lanka is one of those and Faculty of Arts where I teach recruits students with disabilities. Nevertheless, the University still needs more scrutiny on needs of students with disabilities as the students quota does not represent even one fourth of the total student population of the faculty. Thus, all measurements basically support the non-disabled people and leave disabled aside.
The nature of Gayani's domestic violence experience.
This student usually sees me because she is a social work student under me, and she usually discusses with me her educational goals and some of the problems she has in her life. As a social work educator, I try to point out her strengths in order to find solutions that will lead her to achieve her goals. Due to the Covid 19 pandemic, the lockdown of countries was evident and participation in online education was also part of the daily lives of many. During this time of lockdown, Gayani called me and informed me that she is not able to attend the online lectures as she is facing some glitches. She further explained to me that her brother behaves violently due to his mental disability. She also explained to me that he started beating her and her parents without any reason. Gayani was down mentally as she was unable to concentrate on her education on one hand and her life and that of her parents were in danger on the other. When we realized that her home was no longer safe, we tried to find a place where Gayani could stay temporarily. However, due to travel restrictions and social distancing, this attempt was also hindered. She had first filed a complaint with the police station in her neighborhood, to which there was no positive response. Then she had informed the mental health department of the government hospital in her area, but nothing was done there either, as it was a time when covid was spreading in the country and hospital staff were not busy with home visits. Gayani was completely overwhelmed with the situation and she needed psychosocial support. I tried to connect Gayani with a Non-Governmental Organization called Women In Need (WIN) and direct her to their counseling center, but this failed as the organization also had so many cases to deal with during the Covid. Anyway, Gayani was in regular contact with me and told me about the situation in her house. Gayani then explained to me why she did not want to come home during the student holidays and how she felt safe in the university hostel.
About four months the lockdown lasted, and when the country reopened and she thought the spread of Covid 19 was completely under control, Gayani moved to a private boarding school near the university. Although the university was not open for on-site education, the administration had decided to open dormitories for those who needed to stay and continue their online education.
This allowed Gayani to escape the domestic violence she was experiencing at home. The unsafe situation at home had a direct impact on her educational flow and she is now trying to remedy this from the university's hostel. Anyway, her favorite place which she considered as her second home has become unsafe for her as there are no other students in the hostel and sometimes only she and the matron are in the hostel. She now feels lonely in the dorm. Moreover, since the dining halls in the dorm are still closed, she has to buy food from outside. Due to the spread of the second wave of Covid 19, the country is not yet fully functional and many food shops are closed. Therefore, Gayani now faces many difficulties in getting food. Due to all these factors, three months ago she again decides to leave the hostel and move to her own apartment which is also not safe for her. So she continues to be exposed to physical and psychological disturbances. It is hard to say that she is not traumatized by what happens during the lock-in and even after the lock-in.
The concept of violence is always associated with fear, stress, harm, and the feeling that there should be zero tolerance for any form of violence. The trauma associated with violence is particularly affected because recurrent patterns of violence are directly and indirectly linked to the psychological state of trauma. The 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women was the first to establish an internationally agreed definition of violence in relation to women's experiences. Violence was defined as:
'any act that causes or is likely to cause physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in the public or private sphere'.
Domestic violence is not just when a husband beats his wife. It extends to the many forms and further, Sylvia Walby notes that the family as one of the social institutions, as everyone knows, is conventionally considered central to women's lives and to the determination of gender inequality. Covid 19 leveled the scenarios that domestic violence can occur in different degrees. When it comes to education, educational conversion is not enough to fulfill the term paper. There should be a well thought out and scrutinized mechanism to address the issues that students may face when they have to stay at home without the educational environment that they have previously experienced. As Judith Herman writes, when people become embroiled with traumatic situations, that is, the betrayal of important relationships, it damages the survivor's faith and sense of community. Trauma is an experience so extreme, so far removed from the mundane, that the tools of the mundane can never quite reach it. The traumatic experience can no longer be removed from the person's biography, but depends enormously on the place it occupies within it. It is possible for one's future life to be determined by it, one can be destroyed, or one can live with it, for better or worse, in a different way than before, though damaged, not broken, defeated, ruined." (as Jan Philipp Reemtsma cited in Kappler, 2012).
On the other hand, as feminist researchers are now finding out, people with disabilities, especially women, are subjected to more violence than the non-disabled women. In Gayani's case, she faced many problems in online lectures because the online pedagogical methods were not redesigned to accommodate people with visual impairments. Thus, she struggled with the violence she experienced at home while losing the support she usually received from her peers at university. This situation really dragged her down psychologically.
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Kappler, K. V. (2012). Living with paradoxes: Victims of sexual violence and their conduct of everyday life. Germany: VS Verlag Fur Sozialwissenchaften.
Walby, S. (1990). Theorizing Patriarchy. Oxford: Basic Blackwell.