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High child abuse cases: Authorities accused of failing children

High child abuse cases: Authorities accused of failing children

05 Nov 2023 | By Skandha Gunasekara

  • Three new bills being formulated to address high number of abuse cases 

Following a shocking revelation that 160 minors had been sexually abused in September alone, child protection advocates have called for the effective enforcement of laws while alleging that authorities have repeatedly failed in their duties, to the extent of bordering on State-sponsored child abuse. 

In response to the alarming rise in the number of child abuse cases in Sri Lanka, the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs is set to introduce three new bills aimed at supporting the victims of child abuse. These bills are designed to provide timely financial support from the Government to help victims and their families. 

State Minister of Women and Child Affairs Geetha Kumarasinghe explained the key provisions of these bills:

  1. Financial support for victims and their children: One of the bills will focus on providing financial assistance to girls who become pregnant due to child abuse. This assistance is intended to help them care for themselves and their children.
  2. Aid for legal action: The second bill will seek to provide financial aid to child abuse victims and their families to pursue legal action against the perpetrators. This financial support is aimed at ensuring that justice is served. Many victims lack the financial means to access the legal system.
  3. Support for abandoned babies: The third bill is still under discussion, but is expected to include provisions for the Government to support babies born as a result of rape or abuse who have been abandoned by their mothers.

State Minister Kumarasinghe emphasised on the urgency of addressing the issue of child abuse, stating that she had already spoken with Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and would be meeting with President and Cabinet Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to discuss legal reforms to expedite court cases related to the rape and abuse of minors.

“I have already spoken with the Justice Minister and I will be meeting the President this coming week to urge him to take action on these issues,” she said.

Kumarasinghe revealed that more than 160 minors had been sexually abused in September, of whom 22 had become pregnant as a result. 

Challenge in implementing laws 

Meanwhile, Stop Child Cruelty Trust Chairperson and Child Protection Alliance Co-Convenor Dr. Tush Wickramanayaka raised critical concerns about child abuse in Sri Lanka, emphasising that while the country had effective laws in place, the implementation of these laws remained a significant challenge. 

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Dr. Wickramanayaka discussed several pressing issues and called for comprehensive measures to combat child abuse.

Dr. Wickramanayaka highlighted a significant problem with the efficiency of the legal system. She noted that, on average, it took at least seven years until the case was heard in court from the time a complaint was made. Even after a case is heard, the conviction rate for cases of rape and grave sexual abuse is alarmingly low.

“The issue in our country is that although we have effective laws, their implementation is a problem. On average, from the time a complaint is made to a relevant authority such as the Police, until the case is heard in court, it takes at least seven years. Once it is heard, often when it comes to cases of rape and grave sexual abuse, at present we only get one conviction per year, although thousands of cases are reported. You can see that there is a gross inefficiency within the system itself.”

Dr. Wickramanayaka emphasised on the importance of providing children with age-appropriate sexuality education as a preventive measure against child abuse. She believes that education is a critical aspect of tackling the issue.

“A bill saying that they are going to give money to victims is a red herring. This country doesn’t even have money at the moment to pay electricity bills. This isn’t going to work. Firstly, if you want to stop sexual abuse in any country, you have to give the children age-appropriate sexuality education. That is the first thing the Minister should do.” 

Dr. Wickramanayaka also called for greater accountability among officials responsible for handling child abuse cases and shared examples of cases where officials’ inefficiency had prolonged the suffering of child victims. In particular, she pointed to issues within the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses and the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). She highlighted the need to expedite cases and called for transparency in the handling of these cases.

“One chairman has been there for almost five years. In one of the cases he took on when he was appointed to the position even prior to the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime, he failed to submit documents relevant to a legal case to the court hearing it. According to him, this was because one of the members of the committee of inquiry they had appointed for the purpose had not signed the document and thus they had been unable to submit it. 

“Just because he was unable to get his committee member to sign a document, the abused child had to suffer for four-and-a-half years as the case could not proceed. It is the same with the NCPA, because he keeps saying that he cannot take action. 

“We filed an RTI to find out how many cases they are handling, what the outcome has been, and the number of convictions in the last 10 years for any type of cases – sexual, physical, or mental abuse of children. The NCPA responded that the information we were requesting was not under its custody or control. Basically, it used a clause in the RTI Act to deny us access to the information. 

“We have now appealed that, because how can one of the most powerful if not the most powerful authority in the country say it doesn’t have this data? How do we expect it to even track down the victims to give compensation?”

Upholding the rights of child victims

Dr. Wickramanayaka referenced the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which Sri Lanka has ratified, and emphasised that delaying access to justice for child victims constituted secondary abuse. She asserted that officials responsible for these delays could be seen as being complicit in State-sponsored child abuse.

She stressed on the importance of establishing a sex offenders list to monitor individuals convicted of sexual crimes. She pointed out an alarming case where a monk convicted of child abuse in England was now serving as the head of a pirivena here and being in contact with children – a direct violation of his sentencing conditions. Dr. Wickramanayaka called for stricter monitoring and enforcement in such cases.

There is a monk who was convicted in England of child abuse and served his jail term there who has now returned to Sri Lanka. He is now the head of a pirivena in Gampaha and working with children again in Sri Lanka, when the verdict stated that he must not spend any time with any children, knowingly or unknowingly, and that he must not take on any responsibilities which see him directly in contact with children under the age of 16. If he is under any circumstances in contact with a child under 16, then a parent must be there. All of these were not subjected to where he lived. We informed the NCPA about this but it has not done anything, saying that the Buddhist clergy must take action.”

These concerns and recommendations highlight the pressing need for a comprehensive approach to combat child abuse in Sri Lanka. It is crucial to ensure that laws are not only in place but also effectively enforced to protect the rights and well-being of child victims and prevent further instances of abuse.

NCPA ‘aware’

NCPA Chairman Udayakumara Amarasinghe acknowledged the concerns about individuals convicted of child abuse abroad returning to positions of authority in Sri Lanka.

“We are aware of this monk and the fact that he was convicted of child abuse in another country, served his jail term, returned to Sri Lanka, and is now serving as the head of a pirivena where he is in contact with the children. We are also aware that several civil society organisations have written to the President about this. The NCPA has sought the advice of the Attorney General in this regard as well as discussed the matter with our Legal Division. What we have been informed is that we don’t have the leeway to take action against an individual who had served his sentence abroad and then returned to Sri Lanka.” 

He stated that the NCPA was working on amending legislation to address this issue, preventing such individuals from coming into contact with children upon serving their sentences.

“That doesn’t mean we have dropped this issue. We have also been made aware of a similar situation in Sri Lanka where a monk who was jailed for crimes related to a child and had been pardoned is now once again in a position where he is in contact with children. So the NCPA is not looking at this as just a few incidents but as a larger problem and how this kind of issue can be prevented. We began discussions two months ago about amending legislation to address this issue and we have also appointed a committee for this purpose. The crux of the legislation will be to prevent indivduals who have been convicted of child abuse from coming into contact with children upon serving their sentence.”

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