In a shocking revelation, Lawyers for Human Rights Development (LHRD), an NGO, disclosed recently that a study it conducted had found that the number of girl children raped had more than doubled between 1997 (308 cases) and 2000 (668).
When the Sri Lankan government opened a counselling centre at the Ministry of Women Affairs a short while ago to help child rape and incest victims and their families, it was an acknowledgement of a grave situation.
Sadly, the LHRD report claimed that girls were raped by their own fathers, stepfathers, elder brothers, uncles and even grandfathers. This is when both rape and incest were declared as criminal offences with maximum punishment in 1995. Both crimes get a 10-year jail term. However, the study revealed that even the threat of a long jail sentence did not prevent sexual violence against girls.
Several studies have noted that a major reason for the sharp increase in such cases is the migration of Lankan mothers abroad. They remain out of the country for long periods, working as domestic help or labor. In the last decade, Lankan women have travelled to several South West Asian countries like Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Yemen as maids, etc.
Says K Tiranagama, director of LHRD, "There were 18 cases of fathers raping their own daughters. In 15 such cases, the mothers were in South West Asia. In one case, where the mother was away, brothers (aged 15 and 19) raped their younger sister."
Lalitha left her three young children in the care of her aged mother and husband when she left for Kuwait to work as a maid. She sent money regularly for the family, most of which the husband spent on drink. Her mother had practically no control over the house nor could she play a role in looking after the children. One day, Lalitha's sister wrote that her husband had raped their 11-year-old daughter. Her sister was not sure for how long Lalitha's daughter had been a victim of sexual abuse by her father. Lalitha rushed home to a shattered daughter.
Maureen Seneviratne, chairperson of Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere (PEACE) found a high rate of child abuse in the dry zone district of Polonnaruwa, an area dominated by Tamils. However, studies claim that the high rate of child rape and incest is not confined to any particular ethnic group.
The Lankan media has exposed many such cases where victims have been as young as five years. Some explain the incidents as a direct impact of the obscene films and entertainment programs screened in remote villages. However, several articles mention the long absence of the mother or her inability to provide a secure environment to the girl child.
According to members of the NGO, Worldvision, the number of cases could be higher. Incest and rape cases are often not reported to protect the family honor. Women file most cases when they return home from abroad. In several cases, it is too late by the time the mother finds out: The daughter has grown up or the husband has died or run away.
LHRD adds that in most Lankan homes, there is a lack of love and communication between parents and children. In its research in five districts, LHRD found a four-month-old incest victim and perpetrators in a wide age group of 18 to 70 years.
Organizations like LHRD are now working towards increasing the punishment for rape and re-formulating the definition of rape. It is also working with schools in creating awareness among young girls. Other NGOs like the Child Rights Group, Sarvodaya and UK's Save the Children Fund are also involved in rehabilitating the victims.