Sri Lanka Struggles to Contain a Growing Epidemic of Child Abuse

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Schoolchildren play on the water's edge at a beach during sunset in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 3, 2013

War-scarred Sri Lanka is experiencing an alarming scourge of child abuse, and the apparatus for dealing with the problem, UNICEF says, is “grossly inadequate.”

Every day, three to five children are raped in the island nation. Police statistics show the total number of child rapes in 2011 as 1,463; the figure jumped to 1,759 cases in 2012, according to a parliamentary report. Police records also give a total of just over 2,000 sexual offenses against children, besides rape, in 2011; child-molestation cases in 2012 soared to over 5,000, according to parliamentary figures. The total number of all crimes against children — which besides sex crimes include crimes of violence, abduction, trafficking and other offenses — increased by a dramatic 64% between 2011 and 2012.

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Some of the increases can be explained by growing awareness of child rights leading to increased reporting of incidents, but Sri Lanka remains a country where “the family unit is extremely tight-knit and the honor of the individual reflects on the entire family,” says Alia Whitney-Johnson, the founder of an NGO working with survivors of sexual abuse in Sri Lanka, who was interviewed by TIME via e-mail. “It is extremely difficult to report abuse, particularly incest.”

That means it’s unlikely that greater reporting is behind any but a small proportion of the growing figures. Instead, “the incidence of statutory rape and child abuse in Sri Lanka is a growing problem,” UNICEF says.

The traumas suffered during Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, which ended in 2009, may have a role to play. “When the dust settles, that’s when it hits them. That’s when you see severe violent reactions to small things that under normal circumstances would not have happened,” explains Reza Hossaini, UNICEF’s Sri Lanka representative. “It’s a combination of a culture of silence and culture of impunity,” he says, that breeds the “continuation of violence and abuse.”

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But a more important factor may be the growing number of Sri Lankan women who seek to alleviate poverty at home by taking jobs overseas as domestic helpers. The children they leave behind are often defenseless against abusive fathers and predatory male relatives. (Even so, a comparison with the Philippines — another country where large numbers of women have been obliged to find work overseas — is disconcerting. Based on available official statistics, there are roughly 17 cases of child abuse for every 100,000 people in Sri Lanka; in the Philippines, there are just six cases per 100,000 head of population.)

Typical of the case files that cross the desk of Esther Gnanakan, a child psychologist at a Colombo NGO, is that of a 10-year-old girl sexually abused by her father over a year ago. Sudden movements and sounds still frighten the girl, she suffers from nightmares and cannot control her bladder. With a mother working as a domestic helper in the Middle East and relatives unwilling to take her in, she now lives in a juvenile shelter in the Sri Lankan capital. “The child has no other place to go,” Gnanakan says. “We’re just hoping the mother will come back.”

When Whitney-Johnson first arrived and met young girls who had survived sexual abuse, she says it opened her eyes “to the reality that many children face in Sri Lanka.” The girls she worked with were “survivors of incest, and many of them had mothers who were working abroad, leaving them in the care of alcoholic fathers or stepfathers.” As they matured, some had the courage to take legal action, but “as a result, they faced years of court cases,” Whitney-Johnson says.

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While statutory protection for abused children exists, “procedures for investigation and prosecution of child abuse, witness protection and support for the victim” are all deficient, UNICEF says. Tellingly, a third of cases pending in Sri Lanka’s high courts are those involving children, who wait a harrowing five to eight years to get justice, if at all. “The corridors of justice for children are very long and very dark,” is how Hossaini puts it. As court dates are awaited, the perpetrators often roam free while their victims must live in foster homes or shelters.

The authorities are showing greater willingness to face up to the problem. There are now 36 protection bureaus for women and children in police stations across the country. Special courts to fast-track child-abuse cases have also been set up — there is one in suburban Colombo and another in the northern city of Jaffna. However, the dimensions of the crisis remain enormous: over 10,000 child-abuse cases are currently pending across all courts, and more are being added all the time.

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