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Child abuse and exploitation: Are we doing enough?

By Yumiko Perera

Child abuse in any form or the exploitation of children is a blatant violation of human rights, and despite the laws and policies in place to safeguard children, we often hear disheartening news in this regard, and the reports and the statistics are alarming.

The rapid rise of digital technology globally over the past few decades and switch to digital since the onset of the pandemic have introduced new forms of online harm, while also exacerbating the abuse and exploitation of children offline, heightening the need for newer and better policies.

The exploitation and abuse of minors is undoubtedly a public health problem that poses significant consequences for the health and development of minors, and Sri Lanka still has a long way to go to safeguard its children. 

The Sunday Morning reached out to several individuals to understand their perspectives on the matter.

We don’t take the matter seriously

Mevan Perera, 27, undergraduate

We, as a country, don’t take things like sexual abuse as seriously as we should. Children are especially vulnerable and tend to fall prey to perpetrators easily. When it comes down to the question of whether we are doing enough to address child abuse and underage exploitation of children, the simple answer is no. 

For starters, I believe that Sri Lanka needs a registry of sex offenders, similar to what you can find in the US, especially when it comes to safeguarding children. The law enforcement agencies are doing such a poor job in tackling issues like this; recently, an incident was reported where a policeman had made sexual advances towards a minor at the police station itself. When that is the reality of our country, there is little to no hope left.

Not doing enough to address child abuse

T.I. Jamaldeen, 61, management consultant

I don’t think the authorities are doing enough to address child abuse or the exploitation of underage children. The heads of government institutions are political stooges and know next to nothing about the subject. Child abuse and exploitation of underage children are deep-rooted social issues that require urgent attention, and so I feel it’s essential for qualified and experienced professionals to be appointed to the relevant institutions to take the initiative using global best practices to prevent things like this from happening.

Normalisation is the issue

Daham Fernando, 26, undergraduate

Sri Lanka still has a long way to go when it comes to addressing sensitive issues such as this. Whether the authorities are competent enough to handle such situations is not the issue here; it’s the way things are being normalised. When it comes to the question of whether we are doing enough, by no means have we ever done enough. 

Firstly, there needs to be a stronger legal force to make sure offenders are brought to book regardless of their social stature, which is something that does not seem to happen in this country. Secondly, there needs to be more awareness amongst the people. 

The key to preventing it from happening in the first place is to know what child exploitation or abuse is. I believe there needs to be more awareness programmes at the community level, and it is essential to focus on the dangers children face in the virtual sphere. Online grooming and the exploitation of underage children virtually is something the country needs to pay more attention to, especially given that the education sector now relies heavily on online education and children are evidently spending more and more time online and are exposed to more threats virtually. 

People conveniently ignore it

Jerome de Silva, 26, software engineer

Although the matter has recently come to the forefront due to the recent incidents, it’s important to note that things like this have been going on in this country throughout its history.

Oftentimes, the perpetrators are allowed to go free because the legal system in the country is simply not strong enough, and if the perpetrator is moneyed, or has influence, nobody raises a finger. Be it sexual exploitation of minors, child labour, or physical abuse, the people in this country choose to ignore incidents such as this as per their convenience, and that is the sad truth.

I believe we need stricter laws, stricter punishments, and more awareness and discourse among the people.

Need to raise awareness among public

Nihara S., 24, undergraduate

We as a country are not doing enough to address the exploitation of underage children. Apart from the very few incidents that make it to the media, there are so many stories that simply go unnoticed and untold. The survivors live a lifetime of trauma and some of them don’t even realise what they are being put through. 

I believe there needs to be more awareness amongst people on child labour, especially given the incidents that have come to light recently. Another aspect to be taken into serious consideration is the age of consent. Those below the age of 18 are considered minors. However, the age of consent in the country is 16, which is horrifying. 

Awareness, outreach for children necessary

Johanna Mendis, 58, homemaker 

Stricter rules and regulations are essential when it comes to this, and although I see so many people of influence speaking up against such issues, there seems to be very little action taken against those who commit these heinous crimes against children and minors. 

Raising public awareness is also important, but I believe more steps need to be taken towards educating children on seeking help if they ever face a similar situation, and I also believe the country needs more outreach programmes to rehabilitate children that have gone through similar situations. 

Lack of action, policy implementation the problem

Ashani S. Silva, 24, undergraduate

I believe this is an issue that needs further discourse, and although the issue has come to the forefront recently, it is something that has been prevalent in the country throughout its history. We also need better policies and the authorities should genuinely want to put a stop to this, instead of contributing to the issue any further. I strongly believe the lack of action and proper policy implementation is a part of the problem. 

Start with awareness sessions in schools

Yasith P., 36, entrepreneur

In my opinion, the authorities are not doing enough. While islandwide awareness sessions should be carried out in schools, I believe there needs to be more discourse on the subject as well.

There are many instances where older children in schools are abusing the younger ones too. The children must be taught how to be mindful in these situations, while the law enforcement agencies in the country need to take stringent action against those who take advantage of minors.