By Dimithri Wijesinghe
On 5 April 2020, a police complaint was lodged in the Monaragala District regarding a case of sexual abuse of a young girl aged between 12 and 13 by a number of adult men. The child, who had been living with a disability, is currently receiving treatment in the Hambantota District General Hospital.
“A Sociological Study on Child Abuse in Sri Lanka: A Case Study in Wellawaya Police Division in Monaragala” conducted by Sabaragamuwa University Department of Social Sciences senior lecturer Nadeera Sarojani Jayathunga found that child abuse has been rapidly increasing in Sri Lanka as a key social issue compared to the other types of crimes spreading all over the country.
Recording the highest number of child abuse cases from 2005 to 2011 in the Monaragala District, the Wellawaya Police Division was selected for the study.
The main causes for child abuse were found to be sexual interest, to exact revenge, physical punishments, incest taboos, mental illness, and lack of parental skills, sickness, drug addiction, disability, divorce, and poverty. The study identified three major negative consequences of child abuse: emotional, physical, and behavioural effects.
Considering this survey chose the police division in the Monaragala District, it is cruelly ironic that the recent incident was also in the same district.
The Ministry of Social Welfare, Probation, and Child Care in its National Policy on Disability for Sri Lanka provides the legal definition of disability as that described in the Protection of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, which states: “A person with disability means any person who, as a result of any deficiency in his physical or mental capabilities, whether congenital or not, is unable by himself to ensure for himself, wholly or partly, the necessities of life.”
This definition is reasonably broad and encompasses both medical and socioeconomic aspects of disability.
The Department of Census and Statistics in a survey has found that about 1.7 % of the estimated child population in Sri Lanka living in households (about 4.6 million) have some form of disability condition.
While all children are at risk of being victims of violence, disabled children find themselves at significantly increased risk due to stigma, negative traditional beliefs, and ignorance.
UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), the thematic group on violence against disabled children, has also stated that children who live with a physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental health disability are among the most stigmatised and marginalised of all the world’s children.
The Sunday Morning Brunch, Police Headquarters Speaking to — Prevention of Abuse Against Women and Children Director Bimshani Jayasinghe Arachchi, shared that in Sri Lanka, there are limited opportunities for disabled children and persons, which isolates them and leads to varying degrees of stresses and hardships. She said that disabled children are often targeted by abusers who see them as easy targets.
We then spoke to Ãshinsa Secretary General Shyamalika Samaranayake. Ãshinsa is a local non-profit organisation (NGO) working to empower children and the youth with disabilities, who had been in contact with the child of the recent incident several months prior to the incident and are familiar with her and her family background.
The NGO has its head office in Anuradhapura and has representative offices and centres in Welimada, Nuwara Eliya, Batticaloa, and Sevanagala, the latter of which is where the recent incident took place.
Speaking about the incident, Samaranayake shared that the primary reason why this girl had to suffer was due to the ignorance of her parents, adding that the girl, although disabled, was very sociable and did not display her disability and that her parents had not often paid the attention and care a child of her condition requires.
She said the child would often roam around unsupervised around the city, and the incident of sexual violence was not a gang rape but in fact has been happening for several weeks.
Furthermore, Samaranayake stated that in Sevangala, there was a previous incident that happened about four to five years earlier, which was somewhat similar to that of the recent incident. In that, a young girl with a disability had been sexually assaulted by the local postman. However in that scenario, the father of the child had passed away, leaving her mother no choice but to leave the child at home unsupervised in order to do her job.
Children with disability at increased risk for abuse
UNICEF in its report has stated that the factors that place disabled children at increased risk for abuse are often related to social, cultural, and economic issues and not to the disability itself. The same was confirmed by Samaranayake in her experience working in the grassroots level of the rural communities.
She provided that in her experience what she has primarily observed is that children with a disability in rural areas are often viewed as burdens. She shared an example where in areas parents live on chena cultivation, if they have a disabled child at home who requires constant care, they would not allow the child to accompany them to the paddy fields; a majority would simply leave the child at home to fend for themselves all day until the parents return.
Samaranayake added that girl children are subject to what they refer to as “double discrimination” as they are female and also disabled, and so they have a much harder time in receiving any type of care.
“When we do provide aid and deliver rations, we have to make it a point to stress it out to these households that this aid they are receiving is purely because of their disabled child and so they must discard the notion that their child is bad luck,” she added.
Moreover, she shared that particularly during these times of hardships due to the pandemic and curfew, in order to provide aid for children who may be suffering from disabilities, they had found it near-impossible to obtain statistics as to how many persons with a disability reside within that jurisdiction as most grama niladharis themselves aren’t aware.
However, she provided that the Presidential Task Force has done an admirable job in connecting the NGOs and their organisation in providing aid for those suffering from disabilities as well as for others in need.
“We get direct complaints, but we are also often connected with incidents of violence against children – children of all ages and those suffering from disabilities – through various organisations working in certain areas. We take immediate action against such claims,” said Jayasinghe Arachchi.
As such, disabled children who are already facing marginalisation in society and their families are made to be more vulnerable and helpless with the lack of care and attention they need, the relative neglect they experience, and therefore the lack of knowhow to protect themselves or even to communicate their experiences.
Jayasinghe Arachchi shared an example where in the Hanwella Divisional Secretariat (Lahirugama), a mother had migrated leaving all three disabled children in their father’s care. It was found that the children were largely neglected and demonstrated low hygiene levels and did not even attend school regularly.
What you can do
It is evident that children with disabilities are potentially at higher risk for abuse or neglect than children without disabilities.
Even in their own families, disabled children may be more likely to experience physical abuse as parents can become frustrated by the child’s difficult behaviour and thus respond harshly. As these children are likely to be less able to do things independently and so rely more on adults for their care, abusers may take advantage of kids who have difficulty in speaking, hearing, or comprehending social situations well. These children may be more likely to experience sexual abuse.
The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) provides certain steps to better ascertain whether your child is being abused – steps a parent could adopt in order to protect children with disabilities from abuse or neglect:
- Parents are advised to be better informed, know the signs of possible abuse, such as sudden changes or unusual behaviour, physical bruising or wounds, etc.
- Know where your child is and what they are doing at any given time of the day and get to know the people who take care of your child. Identify and remind your child of safe adults he or she could turn to
- It is important to speak to your children frankly and tell them that if somebody touches them unnecessarily or maltreats them, they absolutely mustn’t keep quiet. At that moment, inform them in an easy-to-understand way to say “don’t”, move immediately from the place, and communicate the incident to someone trustworthy, expressing it continuously till somebody listens to you
- If you think your child has been abused or neglected, you are advised to talk to your child’s doctor about your concerns, take them to a hospital, and call the police (dial the Police Children and Women Bureau at 011 2444444)
- The NCPA provides that you do not wait until you’re certain; if you are worried about a child, then make the call to their free, trained 1929 helpline counsellors