Protecting the defenceless

Thursday, 1 October 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

With the recent spurt of high profile cases of violence against children being the catalyst for a revived argument in favour of the death penalty, little attention has been given to preventive measures and empowerment. 

While the focus has been solely on retributive action, the victim still remains the victim as society focuses its wrath on the perpetrators. Maybe today, on Children’s Day, the conversation can be altered to address the roots of such gross violence against the most vulnerable sections of society in hopes of achieving the most arduous objective - changing social attitudes.

Last year, the then Minister of Child Development and Women’s Affairs stated that a staggering 20 children were abused each day according to statistics recorded in 2012. He stated that 7,418 children suffered various types of abuse that year. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) recently stated that they had received around 6,500 child-related abuse complaints this year alone which may indicate an increase in such crimes or merely the reporting of the crimes. Experts state that around 95% of the offenders are known to the victims, highlighting the deep societal problems that need to be addressed in order to find a meaningful solution to this depravity.

There is also concern that due to the general stigma of being an abuse victim and the fact that family members are often the abusers, many cases – if not a majority of them – go unreported and therefore unpunished. Even once the offence is reported and the responsible parties arrested, a sluggish legal system mires the victims in years of litigation.

In its clumsy way, Sri Lanka has traditionally responded in a reactive manner; trying to tackle the crisis by attempting to reduce the number of mothers seeking employment overseas. However, when comparing Sri Lankan child abuse with statistics from other migrant-oriented countries, Sri Lanka’s abuse is an anomaly once again pointing to deeper issues triggering the devastatingly high numbers. Furthermore, the rise in high profile cases have pressured the Government into reconsidering the implementation of the death penalty as a form of deterrent instead of seeking preventive measures and improving the efficiency of the judicial process. Studies have shown that the death penalty is no deterrent to crime wherever it has been enforced, suggesting that the best course of action may be averting the disaster before it takes place.

However, as is the case with rape, victims of child abuse are also re-victimised due to the lengthy legal processes they have to endure – processes that take years while the offenders often roam free. Under the present Penal Code, a convicted child rapist is given a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of 20 years. The lack of urgency and severity in terms of protecting the victim and the rest of society from these crimes is frightening. Leaving aside the retributive aspect of crime and punishment, we still need to consider the fact that the punishment must fit the crime.

In order to win the battle for changing societal attitudes, there needs to be a concerted effort to raise awareness on the matter as well as implement systems that protect victims and encourage them to speak out and seek help. If we are to ensure that the abused don’t later become the abusers, the Government needs to improve rehabilitative systems which include psychological support while providing them with proper institutionalised care instead of carting victims off to State or non-State run juvenile centres.

With the spotlight once again being cast on this pressing subject, Sri Lanka needs a fresh approach to tackling issues of child abuse in a manner in which systems and policies are set in place to protect victims and prevent victimisation and not merely punish culprits through an already congested judicial process.