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Child abuse in SriL lanka: is reform enough?

14 December 2020 02:32 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • CYPO plays a vital role such as protection of children, setting up juvenile courts and monitoring systems etc.
  • Children need to be taught the importance of emotional intelligence and how to be good citizens
  •  8515 cases reported via our hotline in 2019, currently around 4500 cases being investigated
  • Importance afforded to mental health is insufficient and it should be improved

A 15-year-old girl was burnt when she was 5 and sexually abused when she was 12 by his stepfather. Her case was filed in 2018, but it’s still in its early stages. Sexually abused since she was 12; for a period of four years, by her biological father. This drove this 16-year-old girl to attempt to end her life seven times. Hearing stories such as these have unfortunately become a norm in our country. This year started with 54 cases of child abuse being reported within the first 15 days. The extensive time taken to hear a case and the re-victimization within the system, failure in implementing the law and the absence of a policy are proofs that the country lacks an effective child protection framework. “Statistically, there hasn’t been much of an increase, but more cases are now being reported. There was definitely an increase in cases during the curfew period. Our organization has been bombarded with cases since February this year,” said Attorney- at- law, Milani Salpitakorale, founder of Child Protection Force. She also observed that this was due to more people willing to come forward and report, especially those from conservative backgrounds. However, she noted that there were shortcomings in the legal system on child abuse cases. 

Shortcomings in legal system 

Sri Lanka has enacted legislation for the protection of the rights and welfare of children. Of them, the Children and Young Persons Ordinance (CYPO) is of particular importance. “The CYPO, although not amended recently, still covers a number of vital areas, including the care and protection of children, the prohibition of publication of certain matters and setting up juvenile courts and monitoring systems,” Salpitikorala said, adding that while the country has good law that sets up the necessary systems, it falls short in terms of the implementation and the general lack of awareness - even within the legal framework. “Implementation is our biggest issue and should be the first step to change the existing structure.”


Existing legislation pertaining to children could impose different age restrictions, which can, in implementation limits the effectiveness of the law. The Adoption of Children Ordinance defines a child should be under 14 years, whereas CYPO says under 16. The age of adulthood is 18 and the age of consent is 16. “These are practical administrative issues. There are numerous cases where families adopt children when they are young without proper identification. They later approach us for help. But we can’t initiate the adoption process in the District Court because the child is then older than 14 years. We need an organized system to issue birth certificates to the children when they are adopted and a proper registration process for orphans,” Salpitikorala said.

 

"Statistically, there hasn’t been much of an increase, but more cases are now being reported. There was definitely an increase in cases during the curfew period"

"Our system is not child-centric and doesn’t protect the interest of the child. The process of making an initial report is tedious and unclear and they are often at the mercy of government officials 1"

Milani Salpitakorale, Founder - Child Protection Force


She also noted that perpetrators of child abuse are allowed bail under the Criminal Procedure Code. “Bail is granted when no one opposes it. In most cases, the police appear on behalf of the child. If they don’t object to it, bail is granted as per the law. The offence should be made non-bailable to limit the chances of further abuse being committed,” she stressed. The only two non-bailable offences under the law are murder and the possession of heroin (drugs); both are known to ruin a person’s life. Likewise, rape can destroy not only the child’s life but also the family. 


One of the biggest issues the legal system faces is the inordinate time taken for a case to be completed; a case of child abuse can take up to 15 years. “The current system allows perpetrators to continue abusing children when released on bail. The extensive time can be very taxing on the child and severely impacting her life. Human rights cases are heard and decided within three months, likewise, a similar system must be introduced to handle child right issues,” stated Salpitikorala.  
Sri Lanka is a party to the Convention on the Rights of Child, which imposes reporting obligations. “The reports which are sent don’t give the right picture. If we are honest and report the issues which we are struggling with, we can obtain help. But unfortunately the reports would rather cover up, than admit,” she revealed.

Systemic re-victimization

Victims of child abuse are often subject to re-victimization within systems that are set up to protect them, even within the probationary homes. Salpitikorala noted that how children are required to give statements on multiple occasions - from the police station to the courtroom - ensuring that they relive their worst moments. “Our system is not child-centric and doesn’t protect the interest of the child. The process of making an initial report is tedious and unclear and they are often at the mercy of government officials. We need to adopt good practices from other countries and create a system that protects the future of this country,” she said, adding that it’s imperative that the child has proper legal support to physically represent his/her interests in the court.   

 

"As the child grows up and her understanding and cognitive ability develops, without proper psychological care, the child can face a delayed trigger causing psychological distress in their adolescent or 
adult years"

"The importance afforded to mental health is insufficient and it should be improved. A continuing lack of sensitivity could lead to irreparable damage"

Uttara Illangakoon, 
Consultant Psychologist - Child Protection Force 


“We haven’t achieved everything that we initially planned for, because initiating changes within the current system is something like trying to push iron girders. But we are taking small steps forward by way of cases and healing children and identifying areas that need redress. When the government realizes that children are our biggest assets and our future - that’s when we will make substantial progress.” Salpitikorala stated. The state has a responsibility to empower grassroots-level government officers and ensure coordination between national, district and divisional levels to combat these issues.


And for this, Salpitakorala recognized education is a key component in bringing about changes. “Through education we can empower the child and the community. The education system shouldn’t solely concentrate on teaching alphabets; they need to be taught the importance of emotional intelligence and how to be good citizens, and the rest will fall into place.”


Providing children with psychological support after a traumatic experience is crucial to ensure their recovery. With less cognitive and emotional capacity than an adult, a child can be more susceptible to the consequences of abuse. In conversation with Uttara Ilangakoon, Consultant Psychologist at the Child Protection Force stated that a common opinion in society when a young child gets abused is that the child would not remember the incident or would forget it in a few days as the child is unable to understand the issue. “However, as the child grows up and her understanding and cognitive ability develops, without proper psychological care, the child can face a delayed trigger causing psychological distress in their adolescent or adult years,” she said explaining that the child can develop mental health difficulties, substance abuse or fall into crime and might even have unhealthy sexual behaviours. She also stated that the emotional stability of a child is vital to the holistic growth of the child. 


The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) and the state hospitals provide psychiatric support to the abused, however psychological support or counselling is not provided by the hospitals and it’s up to the child and family to request or search for psychologists. In certain cases, the psychiatrist works in collaboration with private organizations such as the Child Protection Force to provide the child with the psychological support. “The importance afforded to mental health is insufficient and it should be improved. A continuing lack of sensitivity could lead to irreparable damage,” remarked Ilangakoon.

Dealing with complaints

The National Child Protection Policy was approved by the Parliament in October 2019 and it aims to effectively coordinate among all organizations and actors working towards the welfare of the children. NCPA Chairperson Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana stated that NCPA is currently developing a 5-year action plan based on the policy in collaboration with 14 Ministries and various NGOs. “The NCPA’s objective on this 5-year action plan is to create awareness on protecting children, prevent violence against children and provide support to survivors of violence,” stated Prof. Vidanapathirana. NCPA is also committed in monitoring the criminal justice system and temporary and long term institutionalization. He also shared that they are planning to monitor child development centres, student hostels and early child development centres using 350 child protection officers in 31 divisional secretariats. “This would be done via objective questionnaires that would rate the institutions and our officers would monitor to ensure these institutions are applicable for that rating,” he said. He also stated that 14,022 School Child Protection Committees would be set up in Grama Niladhari Divisions to ensure every child completes 13 years of 
compulsory education. 

 

"NCPA’s objective on this 5-year action plan is to create awareness on protecting children, prevent violence against children and provide support to survivors of violence,"

Currently there is no significant increase in cases. Last year, we had around 8515 cases reported via our hotline, but currently we have only around 4500 cases reported through our hotline"

NCPA Chairperson Prof. Vidanapathirana


Commenting on the recent report released by the AG Department, he said that the issues pointed out in the report had occurred in the tenures of the former NCPA chairpersons and he was trying his best to overcome the issues. “We are to advertise and fill up the vacant NCPA posts before the end of this year. Most Board positions have also been made permanent. The people who were eligible for transfers were transferred and we have also increased the salary of the officers, which was not increased for a long time,” he said. He also noted that when he took over as the NCPA Chairman in January 2020, there had been about 18,000 pending cases and during his tenure, he had managed to close around 14,000 of those. Meanwhile, around 2000 cases are still under investigation. “Currently there is no significant increase in cases. Last year, we had around 8515 cases reported via our hotline, but currently we have only around 4500 cases reported through our 
hotline,” he said. 


Prof. Vidanapathirana also explained how cases are currently being investigated. “Once they complain via the 1929 hotline, a reference number is provided to them and using that reference number, they can track the status of the case, after about 2-3 weeks. All these complaints are updated on the Complaint Update Management System (CUMS). The status of the case is updated by the Child Protection officials, Police officers attached to the Child Protection Office and the progress is visible to the higher management. Therefore, it is now very easy for us to follow up on the cases and for the complainant to know the status of the case at any time.” He also stated that according to a government circular, when a complaint is lodged with the police, they have to inform the NCPA about the case within 24 hours. 


After the complaint is lodged with the NCPA, the child protection officers would visit the child and assess the situation. “This is done through a Child Protection Form, and accordingly, the case would be transferred to the suitable department and the child would also be directed as per the case,” he said.
While the NCPA is aiming to increase its efficiency in dealing with child abuse cases, the legal system must be reformed. With all actors and organizations being efficient and effective along with a reformed legal system and education system, activists in the field believe that child abuse can 
be minimized. 

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