Editorial: By the people, for the children

Any nation can achieve much greater progress when its citizens realise that their powers and responsibilities extend beyond just exercising their franchise to elect the leaders they prefer, and sometimes, it is the citizens and community leaders who effect real change, not politicians.

To reiterate this civic responsibility concerning child abuse cases in the country, recently, an organisation named the Stop Child Cruelty Trust (SCC) launched the #JustANumber public campaign, exactly three decades after Sri Lanka ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in July 1991. The campaign focuses on raising awareness and insists that the authorities take urgent action to stop child abuse cases, and it would perhaps fill the lacuna created by the people’s failure to understand the seriousness of their role in thwarting child abuse cases.

A major issue even the authorities face when addressing child abuse cases is that victims and witnesses are reluctant to speak out about what they have experienced. In that sense, a movement that encourages them to speak out would not only normalise talking about such incidents, but would also help everyone understand the warning signs of such crimes, thereby increasing the number of people getting support. The same happened when the #MeToo movement came into existence – it helped victims and witnesses of sexual abuse to speak out, even though what they could do on their own after such incidents, was limited. Even though the #MeToo movement did not turn out to be very strong in Sri Lanka, globally, it has brought about unprecedented change.

Why we need such a campaign, or a movement, is a timely question. The truth is, the law and its implementation, as well as the law enforcement agencies, are not flawless, and what they can do is limited. Police Media Spokesman Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) Ajith Rohana last week acknowledged that when it comes to online sexual abuse and exploitation cases, local Police stations and grassroots-level Police officers are not fully aware and sensitive of such issues, and added that the Police are in the process of introducing reforms to address that issue.

However, that is not to say that the role of politicians and the authorities in this regard is insignificant. The problem is that the people have developed a culture of looking to their elected representatives for solutions to their issues, and in the process, forgotten their responsibility and power, creating a situation where social issues are left unaddressed for decades. 

The people have also forgotten that laws, regulations, and policies do not, and cannot, always solve issues. Their implementation is not always flawless and they are not always designed to resonate with the people’s lives, but rather, to align with the beliefs of lawmakers. When it comes to issues such as child abuse, which is an issue that pertains more to the society, i.e. the people, the people’s power to effect change is greater, as they are the ones dealing more closely with their children.

According to international data, it is confirmed that Sri Lanka is among the 10% of countries considered the least safe for children against violence. Additionally, a public survey conducted by the SCC presented alarming figures about the people’s understanding about laws pertaining to child abuse. It found that 83% of citizens had opined that the existing laws are insufficient to protect children, while 76.3% of the respondents had said that the laws need to be changed or renewed. The survey also found that 76% of citizens are unaware of the laws aimed at protecting children. In a context where a considerable number of child abuse cases take place in homes, schools, and other places that children frequent, this level of understanding is not nearly enough, and such ignorance itself can create room for abuse to continue.

After the sexual abuse incident of a 15-year-old girl child who was sexually exploited for months on end, with the alleged perpetrators turning out to represent a broad cross section of society, the country started discussing the issue of child abuse that existed for a long time, but it was not discussed adequately. 

However, now that more attention has been paid to this social ill, perhaps a campaign, or a movement, that allows people to speak out actively would keep the discussion moving and active, without allowing it to be forgotten in a couple of weeks.