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Vulnerable adolescents or victims of abuse?

9 September 2020 02:14 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Arrest of couples in Anuradhapura : Did the authorities blunder?

  • Parents should be aware of adolescent hormonal changes 
  • Couples not ‘arrested’ but warned
  • No clear picture on ‘improper behaviour’
  • Child abuse cases high among girls between 12-15 years 


On September 6 as many as 100 adolescent couples in Anuradhapura were taken in for questioning on the accusation of engaging in ‘improper behaviour’. The students were residents from Mahawilachchiya, Thanthirimale, Eppawala, Nochchiyagama and Galenbindunuwewa. Although it raised eyebrows among many a reader, several questions need to be answered. What sort of improper behaviour did they engage in? Are they consenting couples? What is the law to ‘arrest’ or gather adolescent couples and humiliate them in public? And what are the consequences on their psychological developments?   
The Daily Mirror therefore reviews the incident, issues pertaining to legal age of consent and hormonal changes in adolescents.   

Not ‘arrested’ but warned

Although the media reported that the couples were arrested, the Anuradhapura Police said that they were only taken in for questioning and that they were warned. “We can’t arrest anyone without a court order. But these couples have told parents that they were attending classes, but have come to meet their partners. Most tuition classes are being conducted in the town area,” a law enforcement officer of the Anuradhapura Police said.   
Inappropriate behaviour by definition means conduct that is unwarranted and is reasonably interpreted to be demeaning or offensive. However, the Daily Mirror wasn’t given a clear picture about what sort of improper behaviours they engaged in, but the ages of these couples had been between 16-19 years. The children were handed over to the parents. The Police had also requested from the parents to advice their children against such behaviours.   

The legal issues

Speaking on the existing issues pertaining to age of consent, Milani Salpitikorala, attorney-at-law and founder of Child Protection Force said that the biggest issue is the fact that the age of adulthood is 18 years of age. “Any person who engages with anyone below the age of 16 (with or without consent) amounts to statutory rape. However between the ages from 16-18 if with consent, this does not amount to statutory rape. This is a problem due to the standard age of adulthood.” said Salpitikorala.   

Also there is a concern with Section 363 (e) of the Penal Code of Sri Lanka (through the Amendment Act No. 22 of 1995) – rape is constituted. It states that with or without consent when she is under sixteen years of age, unless the woman is his wife who is over twelve years of age and is not judicially separated from the man”. This section indirectly legalizes child rape and it is quite disturbing.”  

She further said that it is rather absurd to arrest two people just because they were holding hands. “There is the Vagrants Ordinance however. A Vagrant is a person found asking for alms or any person not being physically able to earn, or being unwilling to work for, his own livelihood and having no visible means of subsistence. Sec. 365A of the Penal Code also explains Unnatural Offences or gross indecency. However none of these amount to holding hands in the public.”  

Speaking on alternative ways in which the state could intervene to curb statutory rape, Wasana Kannangara, Legal Officer at Child Protection Force said that it is important to have strict laws with regard to the age of adulthood and age of consent. “The state can enable its grassroot level child sector workers like the Probation Officers, the District Child Development Officers, NCPOs etc. because these are the people who engage with the children first hand, they know things that happen within families. If these officers are empowered and enabled to work more efficiently then there will be a huge curb in the statistics.” said Kannangara.   
Salpitikorala also feels that the judiciary needs to be more sensitized towards the child. “Always take into consideration the psychological impact on the child. When the accused is granted bail there is a chance of threatening or causing more damage to any other child.” said Salpitikorala.   



Parents should be more responsible

Echoing her sentiments Director of Women’s and Children Bureau Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Bimshani Jasingharachchi said that cases of abuse are high among girls between 12-15 years of age. “The rate of abuse cases among boys is also high. There are many tuition classes in Anuradhapura town and students come from faraway places to attend these classes. But they would lie to their parents and come here. So by the time the classes are over they go back home, but by that time the abuse has taken place. Therefore parents have a bigger role here. It is also a known fact that in most instances the perpetrators are known to the victim.” said SSP Jasingharachchi.  
Speaking about legal enforcement SSP Jasingharachchi said that if abuse has taken place with regard to a girl who is 16 years of age we wait till the girl is 18 years. “If they want to marry then there will be no case, but if they don’t want to then we will open a case at the Attorney General’s Department. If a child is going on the wrong track then parents should be the first people to know. Therefore they have to educate their children and make them aware of the hormonal changes that they go through.” said SSP Jasingharachchi.   

Such behaviours are normal

According to the American Psychological Association, adolescence is described as the period of human development that starts with puberty (10–12 years of age) and ends with physiological maturity (approximately 19 years of age), although the exact age span varies across individuals. Therefore, psychologically speaking, these behaviours are normal. “Those between ages 10-19 are called young adults and they experience many adolescent hormonal changes,” explained Dr. Ramani Ratnaweera, Consultant Psychiatrist, Karapitiya Teaching Hospital. “This is when males start producing male sex hormones and it’s the same in females. Therefore they gain weight, grow in height and secondary sexual characteristics emerge. Such sexual simulations also influence the way they think. During this period children have to study and these hormonal changes could be very distressing. As a result they become irritable, they have a lot of peer pressure and get into relationships with the opposite sex. So it’s a part of their normal behaviour.” said Dr. Ratnaweera.   
“But when they enter into these relationships they don’t study, they disobey and lie to parents and find excuses to meet their boyfriends,” she warned.   
“Therefore parents should be sitting down with them and making them realise that its part of their developmental changes in a step by step process. But on the contrary what we see parents doing is put strict rules and punish their children.” said Dr. Ratnaweera.   

According to Dr. Ratnaweera such a harsh take on this matter can have its consequences. “As a result the children will continue to hold onto their relationships against all odds. Parents will do all sorts of things to break the relationship. They will stop children from going to school, stop tuition classes, take them to a faraway place, takeaway their mobile phones and so on. But still the young couple will continue with their relationships. So the more the parents get agitated, the more the young couples will oppose such moves. Since parents have put rules and so on, children want someone who can talk to them nicely. So they are attracted to someone from the opposite sex. In this situation parents become enemies. But parents should sit with their children and explain why priority should be given to studies and that they should get into a stable relationship when they mature in their thinking. But with the hormonal changes teenagers can’t control their emotions and cross their 
boundaries.” explained Dr. Ratnaweera.   

When asked if parents are open-minded to talk about these matters with their children Dr. Ratnaweera said that as per various public health education initiatives that are being conducted, parents are allowed to give a certain understanding on sex education. “They can teach their children about the consequences of having relationships at a young age, where someone can touch and not touch and so on. The school has a bigger role to play here, but unfortunately teachers are reluctant to teach this lesson. But with regard to this particular incident it mostly involves children from rural areas. Perhaps their parents may not have had an adequate level of education to explain these matters to their children and would therefore see their children as wrongdoers and punish them.” the doctor concluded.   

What about dignity?

When asked if it was the most appropriate action that would have been taken by the Police, Harendra De Silva, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics at University of Colombo and founder Chairman of National Child Protection Authority said that even an accused murderer has his dignity. “Therefore dignity is an important aspect of law. These children are accused. They are not even guilty,” said Prof. De Silva.   
He further said that the legal age of consent for sex is 16 while the age of consent for marriage is 18. “We were able to raise it from 12 to 16, but not to 18. But different interpretations have been given to this law by the Attorney General’s department especially in the North Central Province where there’s a tendency for underage marriages. However giving consent is a very important aspect of maturity” he said   

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