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Legal crisis hindering justice for Sri Lanka’s vulnerable children?

21 February 2024 12:01 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Even though Sri Lanka has become a signatory for many child rights conventions and despite having laws in place to prosecute perpetrators the country’s citizens have time and again been compelled to protest against grave sexual abuse on children and women 

 

  • In 2022 the Police Grave Crimes Report indicates that over 1500 young girls have been raped and over 500 have been subjected to grave sexual abuse
  • At least 257 cases filed by the Special Investigations Unit of the NCPA are pending in High Court while another 423 cases are pending in various magistrate courts around the island

 

On February 13, a suspect, who proved guilty over the murder of a nine-year old girl from Atulugama, was sentenced to 27 years of rigorous imprisonment following a verdict issued by the Panadura High Court. The incident happened in May 2022 and it took around one year and nine months to issue a verdict. But it is only in a few such cases that judgements have been issued promptly. Even though Sri Lanka has become a signatory for many child rights conventions and even amidst having the laws in place to prosecute perpetrators of grave sexual abuse on children and women, many incidents continue to be reported from across the island. Critics opine that the delays in prosecuting perpetrators, the fact that they are connected to influential people, the ability to withdraw cases after paying hefty amounts of money provide them with a safe environment to continue with their sinister acts.


What the reports say

The 2021 Auditor General’s report highlighted the fact that a national policy in accordance with the Universal Charter to protect the rights of children and related legislation had not been accomplished as of August 2022. It states that a proper mechanism in place to resolve complaints filed by the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). The report states that the management was not focused on following recommendations mentioned in the 2017 report to establish a suitable mechanism to deal with complaints received from the Authority’s 1929 hotline. It further states that Rs. 1.2 million was paid to a private company to develop a database, but that the database system could not be implemented. The Authority’s action plans of 2020 and 2021 have not included resolving complaints, which is one of its main priorities. Out of the 100,592 complaints reported to the authority from 2011 to 2021, 47,136 complaints were brought forward without resolving.


The 2022 report highlights the provisions allocated for women’s and children’s affairs and a few other lesser important factors. It states that a sum of Rs. 2 million had been allocated to establish an information system to provide timely data and reports to the relevant institution, but since a large volume of data had to be fed into the system, the information system remains idle without being used. 


More cases pending to be resolved

It is also no secret that many cases pertaining to child abuse, rape, harassment and grave sexual abuse are pending to be resolved. At least 257 cases filed by the Special Investigations Unit of the NCPA are pending in High Court while another 423 cases are pending in various magistrate courts around the island. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, NCPA Chairperson Udayakumara Amarasinghe said that the Attorney General’s Department claims that there are delays in obtaining judicial medical officers’ reports, DNA reports and other technical documentation. “They say that documents provided by investigation officers sometimes have contradictions and that they have been resent for correction. However, the NCPA is in discussion with these stakeholders to expedite the cases which are pending. We are actively monitoring the law enforcement, investigations and the prosecution of cases,” said Amarasinghe. 


He further said that the police could sometimes find it difficult to apprehend a suspect owing to various reasons. “Sometimes the suspect may go into hiding, or may escape to another country, the victim’s (child) family may not want to lodge a complaint to avoid discrimination and so on. Sometimes the victims themselves come forward to withdraw cases as they want to lead a better life after marriage. They also refuse to expose themselves in courts. But we are continuously doing our best to ensure that all cases are being resolved as soon as possible. In fact, the Judicial Service Commission too had issued a circular sometime back requesting courts to expedite all pending cases,” he underscored. 


‘Even Children are Human Beings’ campaign launch 

While the situation remains grim, a handful of organisations advocating for the rights of children have launched many programmes to educate children on how they could protect themselves. Recently, the Stop Child Cruelty Trust and the Child Protection Alliance launched a new campaign for 2024 under the theme ‘Even Children are Human Beings’. The event witnessed the participation of children from care homes and children from various schools in Colombo and its suburbs. During the event, popular artistes who have also been appointed as Child Protection Ambassadors including Dinakshie Priyasad, Suranga Disasekara and Niranjani Shanmugaraja joined hands to make it a memorable day for the children. The children were taught about good touch, bad touch, what they should do in a situation where they feel someone is touching them inappropriately and many other educational activities. They also had a chance to express themselves at various open mic sessions held during the day. 


Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Founder of Stop Child Cruelty Trust Dr. Tush Wickramanayaka said that sadly only a few participants knew about good touch and bad touch. “This shows that there’s a lot of danger, unawareness and lapses in education out there. It’s so important that Sri Lanka starts introducing compulsory sexuality education into our curricula given the fact that in 2022 the Police Grave Crimes Report indicates that over 1500 young girls have been raped and over 500 have been subjected to grave sexual abuse. In addition over a 100 girls have become pregnant with another 70 odd cases of incest. Therefore it is important to educate the girl child as well as boys. We don’t talk about the boys who are getting raped. Some cases related to boys are never heard of. We always think that rape and sexual abuse happens only with a girl child,” said Dr. Wickramanayaka


In her comments, actress Dinakshie Priyasad said that as a parent she feels that it is important to educate children. “No matter how developed the country is or how developed technology is people’s minds are getting corrupted every day and it’s becoming more difficult to protect children. Therefore someone needs to speak up. Being a parent I know how challenging it is to keep an eye on my child. Therefore, I felt that it is my responsibility to be a part of this initiative to educate children and parents.


“Since We also love children we thought it’s a good initiative to be a part of. Since we have a fan base and a following we thought of using it for this cause,” said Saranga Disasekara. “So many cases of child abuse are being reported daily and it is very alarming. I think educating people and giving them options when it comes to corporal punishment is the way forward rather than allowing parents and teachers to punish children. We need to show them that they can correct a child’s behaviour with love. We also practice it with our baby and it has given us good results. This is our main reason to be a part of it. We have done a couple of informative videos as well and we have received good feedback. Children themselves have responded well. It is now a matter of getting more people on board to take the message forward. Definitely more artistes should work on these kinds of projects more often,” said Disasekara. 
“In my opinion, every adult in this society should become a child protection ambassador,” said Niranjani  Shanmugaraja. “It is not only a responsibility vested on selected individuals. I’m happy that we have been able to raise our voices for a cause of this nature. But we all should take this responsibility in a collective sense,” opined Shanmugaraja. 


When asked about using Tamil as the medium to send the message of child protection across the country she said that children cannot be differentiated based on religion, language, caste or creed. “They are a resource and a key element of prosperity. So we need to protect them irrespective of any differences. Children are like a sapling that grows into a giant tree at a later stage in life. If a sapling is not being looked after well, the tree will neither bear fruits nor provide shade. Children in today’s society are vulnerable to all forms of sexual abuse including incest, harassment and torture. There was an instance when a father was seen beating his child which was being recorded on video to be sent to the mother as means of blackmailing her. We always boast about religion, culture and philosophy etc., but if we have a sound understanding of religion and culture how is it that children are being subject to these kinds of abuse? I believe that the government should intervene to bring about lasting solutions. On the other hand there should be severe punishments imposed on perpetrators of child abuse. If punishments are not severe enough, the perpetrators can easily escape,” she affirmed. 


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