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Grave sexual abuses and what to do about it

By Dimithri Wijesinghe 

News of the death of a 10-year-old girl after succumbing to injuries sustained from sexual assault, and the death of a 16-month-old infant resulting from yet again sexual abuse recently emerged; the consequential punishments for the perpetrators fuelling major discussion on the topic of justice and punishment in our island.

What to expect legally

Considering the legal procedure of such crimes in Sri Lanka, following preliminary investigations, the suspect will be on bail or in remand (bail will not be granted for crimes that are punishable by death) for a minimum of one year until the indictment is issued by the Attorney General (AG) for the initiation of the High Court trial. This is the best case scenario. According to the Child Protection Force (CPF), bringing the accused to justice takes 14 years on average.

We spoke to a number of criminal law practitioners around the island with regard to the current procedure in place. The maximum sentence for sexual abuse is 20 years while the minimum is seven years. Some criminal law practitioners expressed that the minimum sentence itself scares the accused into attempting to plead not guilty and try their luck. Some others expressed that while it might be controversial, they believe that if you are to reduce the minimum sentence and include a far higher compensation to the child, then it would incite the accused to plead guilty at the initial stages itself, before outing the child on the stand, in which case immediate punishments can be handed out and any future procedures could be negated.

This is favourable for the victim as they would receive a hefty compensation, the offender would be punished, and the child would not be forced to relive the traumatic details of their suffering for years to come on a prolonged trial. This line of thinking also proposes the widely discussed “sex offender registration”.

This discussion of punishment often dominates the matter of other underlying issues such as the psychology of the offender and addressing the root cause(s) of the matter. Before we look at whether Sri Lanka should adopt a sex offender registry or if justice delayed is no justice at all, we reached out to forensic psychologist Raneesha De Silva to take a deeper look into what could lead someone to commit heinous crimes such as sexually abusing a minor.

The psychology of the offender

De Silva began with differentiating between “sex offending” and “sexual deviance”. Sexual deviance is the preference for illegal (this differs from country to country and societal norms) sexual interactions, but not everyone with a preference engages in the act. Then the question arises as to what pushes sex offenders over the edge, despite a majority of them being aware of the dire negative consequences such as imprisonment and social stigma.

One’s dominant preference, personality characteristics and cognition, and access to victims are some of the key factors.

“A person who likes to engage in illegal sexual acts (e.g. forced behaviour/sexual intercourse with children, etc.) may have other ‘normal’ sexual interests as well. However, they may prefer to engage in illegal sexual acts as it is their dominant preference, and this preference may have developed as a result of such behaviour being normalised, be it through access to violent pornography, due to peer acceptance, and/or lack of knowledge regarding what is considered healthy and accepted sexual behaviour. It is important to note that due to popular media, many (previously considered) ‘abnormal’ sexual acts (e.g. bondage) are now accepted in society,” De Silva explained.

Research reveals that individuals with interpersonal difficulties are more likely to engage in illegal sexual acts as they do not have strong communication skills and/or associated personality characteristics to approach a consenting adult. Repeated negative experiences or constant rejection may then encourage them to approach more vulnerable individuals such as children, who have diminished control/power over an adult. This may explain as to why the perpetrator(s) may be a known adult in the majority of the child abuse cases.

According to De Silva, it is likely that an individual may engage in illegal sexual acts if s/he is to believe that “it is okay/this is normal”. The most common deviant schemas are: a) This world is a dangerous place, so if I must not act this way, I will be a victim; b) I have no control over my desires; c) Humans are sexual beings (objectification); d) If they don’t know/think this is bad, there is no harm; and e) I have the right to know whatever I want (entitlement).

De Silva said that it is important for parents to be aware of the “sexual grooming process”. More experienced sex offenders take time and put effort before committing the illegal sexual act. This may subtly happen over weeks and months of time, where they may become/already be close associates of you. These individuals will gradually expose your unsuspecting child to sexual conduct (e.g. to talk about sex, share inappropriate sex material, touch them with/without clothes on, etc.) to the point of sexual intercourse. Some of them may be online sex offenders who might gradually develop their behaviour into offline sex offending (e.g. revenge pornography, cyber harassment, etc.).

As explained, there is a larger community of online sex offenders due to the “3As”: Affordability, anonymity, and accessibility. It was also emphasised that the emotional and psychological scar of online sex offending is not in any way lesser than offline sex offending. The less discussed type is female sex offenders. Due to their implicit nature of offending and the nurturing societal and occupational roles (e.g. mother, nurse), the majority of their sex offending goes unnoticed/unaccounted for, especially due to societal perception of receiving female sexual attention, whether it may be unsolicited or not.

Punishment vs. root cause

“As emotionally satisfying it may be, the capital punishment will not address the root of this problem. As supported and encouraged by research, the world is moving towards rehabilitation and away from punitive methods of punishment, especially as there is outcry for apparent miscarriage of justice due to the flawed justice system. Therefore, there is an immense need to focus our attention and resources on sex education and awareness, for both sex offenders and the community in general,” De Silva further explained.

University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ) Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice senior lecturer Anuruddhika Buddhadasa also shared her thoughts on this matter of punishment versus the possibility of rehabilitation.

Buddhadasa addressed this current issue of delayed justice. “Punishments should be given out as immediately as the crimes are committed. If the case drags on for years and years, the agonising feeling of the mind, the guilt felt by the offender will dampen and they will begin to believe they do not deserve this punishment,” she said, adding that these are the principles of punishment; if you wish to rehabilitate and “teach someone a lesson”, as generally put, the punishment must be dealt out immediately. There is no purpose in delayed justice as it affects the possibility of rehabilitation by giving way to the question “why am I being punished?”

She shared that laws must be updated to suit the requirements of society, and her personal belief is that at least where it is practically possible, you cannot be handing out generalised punishments. “You must conduct an individual case study,” she said.

She provided that each scenario is a complex one; if you look at the psychology of an offender, they too may be a victim in their own way, suffering from childhood traumas, in which case imprisonment and eventual release would do no good. Therefore, in order to determine the punishment, the offender must be thoroughly studied. 

Buddhadasa also spoke about the proposal of a sex offender registry, to which she said that in criminology, they have a term called “labelling theory” which provides that once you are labelled, society will identify you as such and you too would then begin to internalise this label. “They begin to think that if the world thinks this is who I am, then why not embrace it,” Buddhadasa added.

Finally, she shared that as it is evident that in rehabilitation or even doling out punishments, you must look to the root cause of the matter, the best available solution is to practise prevention before needing a cure. Therefore, inculcating a culture of education and awareness at a young age is the ideal scenario where we as a community could finally come to see even a semblance of a solution for what society is greatly dealing with right now.