On September 8, a shocking news item revealed that a nine-year old girl from Mawathagama, was reportedly severely abused by her own father. But several weeks later, the Police is still seeking public assistance to nab the suspect. Making things even more horrific is a revelation by Justice Minister Wijeyedasa Rajapakshe who once said in Parliament that 33% of lawsuits in magistrate’s courts are those connected to child abuse and rape cases. But a country that adopted the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989- which was subsequently ratified in March 1991-has failed to make a commitment to protect the rights of its children.
A social dilemma
One of the gray areas that fuel the country’s inability to curtail mounting number of child abuse cases is the lack of sex education. This is an observation made by academics who have been advocating for educational reforms ever since. But the cultural and religious norms have frowned upon the introduction of sex education to local syllabi, thereby encouraging perpetrators to continue with their crimes. The fact that children are not aware of their private body parts and the fact that they have to know that it’s NOT Ok for any known/unknown person to touch these body parts is in fact the starting point of preventing abuse. Even if this could be taught at home, in a country that is gripped by worsening poverty levels, educating your child on their body parts may not be a priority.
It is a known fact that many children become vulnerable to abuse once their parents are away. This is common among families whose mother has left for foreign employment. The child, irrespective of whether it’s a boy or a girl, ends up with the father or grandparents or even a distant relative and eventually becomes a target. Another factor that makes children vulnerable to abuse is conflicts on the home front and domestic violence. “As a result children have a tendency to develop underage relationships,” said Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Renuka Jayasundara of Sri Lanka Police’ Women and Children’s Bureau at a recently held press conference on the theme ‘Prevention of child sexual exploitation’. “But in the case of abuse or harassment, many victims or guardians are reluctant to lodge a complaint in police. Certain parties don’t like to go to courts to obtain a restraining order against the accused party. In addition to physical harassment children are affected psychologically as they are exposed to verbal abuse. On the other hand, if parents are having extra marital affairs, the child becomes a target. There are many cases where the mother’s lover has sexually harassed the child,” said DIG Jayasundara.
Certain parties don’t like to go to courts to obtain a restraining order against the accused party. In addition to physical harassment children are affected psychologically as they are exposed to verbal abuse. On the other hand, if parents are having extra marital affairs, the child becomes a target
- DIG Renuka Jayasundara of Sri Lanka Police’ Women and Children’s Bureau
Apart from reluctance to visit law enforcement authorities, most people have no clue about the provisions of the Prevention to Domestic Violence Act (No. 34 of 2005). According to the Act the aggrieved person can make an application to the Magistrate’s Court for a Protection Order and it could even be done by a parent or a guardian on behalf of a child. But even though the law may seem perfect in black and white there are lapses when it comes to implementing provisions.
DIG Jayasundara further said that children are vulnerable to online harassment as they had to opt for online learning during the pandemic. Shedding light on the importance of sex education she said that children should be aware of what is happening to their body. “There are cases of child labour where children are seen selling various items by the roadside. They too are vulnerable to abuse. But in the case it is being proved that a child is in an unsafe environment we take measures to take them under our custody through a court order,” she added.
Grave sexual abuse against girls and women
The absence of appropriate terminology to define abuse, harassment, rape and violence against girls and women compared to the vernacular have been a matter of concern for quite some time. As a result most media reports often misinterpret such incidents thereby neutralising the gravity of the incident. From a legal perspective, if a girl under 16 years of age has been abused with her consent, it is still recorded as a case of abuse against a girl. “There are instances when perpetrators obtain forced consent from girls by deliberate intoxication,” added DIG Jayasundara. “This could be with drugs, liquor or other substance. Sexual abuse against women and girls can be categorised in terms of rape, adultery, grave sexual abuse, sexual harassment and even so-called minor crimes such as posting obscenities against children. Each one of these crimes includes punishments that would exceed over 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. Even an act of provocation for sexual activities is an offense and if proven guilty, one will be sentenced for 10 years,” she underscored.
We take actions after an incident happens. But there are no preventive measures taken. Cyber surveillance too is a must as most perpetrators are now using online methods to target vulnerable children. Then there are those who don’t report on these incidents owing to various reasons. They become passive perpetrators of such incidents
- Prof. Harendra De Silva, Founder Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority
Fueling a vicious cycle
The mounting number of cases at the Attorney General’s Department, Police Women’s and Children’s Bureau and ultimately at Magistrate’s Courts speak volumes about the lapses in the legal system. Delayed prosecutions always favour perpetrators as it provides them with the opportunity to abscond or bribe the aggrieved party on terms of withdrawing the case. “Accountability is a fundamental in good governance,” opined Founder Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority, veteran Paediatrician Prof. Harendra De Silva. “The abuser becomes more powerful each time the prosecution gets delayed. Many perpetrators are linked to those in power and the law is not being enforced. As a result the entire law enforcement process has been infringed,” said Prof. De Silva
Impunity and the lack of a monitoring process to bring perpetrators before the law are two other obstacles that need to be overcome. “There’s no point in shouting for a system change if law enforcement itself has failed. The rights of a child are only confined to statute books. Right now there is reactive surveillance happening, but what needs to be in place is proactive surveillance. We take actions after an incident happens. But there are no preventive measures taken. Cyber surveillance too is a must as most perpetrators are now using online methods to target vulnerable children. Then there are those who don’t report on these incidents owing to various reasons. They become passive perpetrators of such incidents,” he said.
Prof. De Silva further said that around 20% boys and 10% girls experience some kind of abuse, violence, harassment or rape in their childhood. “Children who are vulnerable to such grave sexual abuse may themselves become perpetrators as they grow old. Therefore there’s no point in only educating children because harassment, abuse or rape happens by the hands of an adult,” explained Prof. De Silva.
Risk of developing STDs
Many children who become victims of rape, harassment, or grave sexual abuse are often exposed to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) or unplanned pregnancies. What is quite unfortunate is that in most instances these children continue to live with the culprits. “Sometimes it’s difficult to see them recover from the trauma,” said Consultant Venereologist Dr. Tilani Ratnayake. “These children have been living in unsafe environments and the opportunity to prevent them from being re-traumatised is often missed. If the child’s parents are separated, divorced or have died or if the child is living with grandparents or some other guardian, the child is often exposed to an environment of abuse. If a child lives in an environment where there are drugs, or where sex workers frequent, that too is an unsafe environment for children. Children with physical and mental disabilities too are vulnerable to abuse,” said Dr. Ratnayake.
If the child’s parents are separated, divorced or have died or if the child is living with grandparents or some other guardian, the child is often exposed to an environment of abuse. If a child lives in an environment where there are drugs, or where sex workers frequent, that too is an unsafe environment for children
- Dr. Tilani Ratnayake Consultant Venereologist
Dr. Ratnayake further said that perpetrators firstly befriend children by gifting them with phones and other kinds of gifts. “There are instances when perpetrators have shared obscene images and videos via social networks or have engaged in sexting. Therefore parents need to be more aware of children and whom they are associating with. However, a screening programme is currently underway to identify if children are safe in their living environments. But these initiatives need to be strengthened,” said Dr. Ratnayake.
The psychological trauma experienced by children is often irreversible. As a result they have low self-esteem, self-confidence and are unable to maintain inter-personal relationships. Adding her comments, Consultant Child Psychiatrist Dr. Dharshani Hettiarachchi said that children may sometimes experience sexual dysfunction as a result of repeated abuse. “They continue to be traumatised if they live with perpetrators and hence, the cycle of abuse continues,” said Dr. Hettiarachchi.
One of the main reasons for delayed prosecution is the fact that a family/guardian of a victim doesn’t lodge a complaint within 24 hours. “It is only in about 6% of cases that children are referred to the judicial medical officer within the first 24 hours following an incident,” opined Acting Consultant JMO Dr. D T De Silva. “In 99% of the cases the abuse is done by a known person. But the child is unaware of what happened. Often, the child refuses in the first instance, but eventually gets addicted to the act. But at one point the child realises that it’s wrong, but is reluctant to narrate the incident to a trustworthy adult. Many children are being abused on religious institutions as well. But these incidents are seldom exposed,” he added.
But it is surprising that many parents are only worried about certain misconceptions. “Rather than being concerned about the psychological trauma caused by the incidents, parents often ask whether the child’s virginity has been lost, or whether there would be an unplanned/underage pregnancy, risk of STDs and the fact that only male adults abuse children. But there are female perpetrators as well,” he said.
Shedding light on various approaches in which people provoke children, Professor in Forensic Medicine, Ajith Ranaweera said that perpetrators often make vulnerable children between ages 3-7 and 12-13 believe that they are going to play a small game. “But this game has conditions such as not disclosing what they are doing to anybody else. Children of this age are unaware of abuse. Between 13-14 the hormones start reacting and between 16-18 they can connect on sexual relationships. The perpetrators sometimes arouse curiosity by telling a slang word and then going onto the extent of describing it by showing videos, photos. Thereafter the perpetrator will go to the extent of showing his own body parts or provoking the child to show his/hers,” said Prof. Ranaweera.
He further said that apart from sex education, reproductive health awareness too is a must while adding that if a young couple had eloped and is seeking assistance, the most appropriate action that anybody should take is to inform the nearest police station and send them to their respective homes.