Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Just how big is the issue of child abuse in Sri Lanka?

Let us stand up against child abuse

Yearning for protection and love. File photo

Just how big is the issue of child abuse in Sri Lanka? Obviously, a topic like this will always be in the shadows and one may have even look at the definition of ‘child abuse’ before giving an answer. But the figures are startling. According to the Head of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), reports of child abuse and infringements of child rights in Sri Lanka have tremendously increased in the past few years. Another recent report said that over 4000 cases are currently pending in courts for child abuse.

What does this mean? Does it mean that our moral structure is breaking down?

Let us face the reality. Authorities believe that child abuse may actually be more prevalent in Sri Lanka than in USA. There are valid reasons for this assumption. In Sri Lanka the child abuse is carefully hidden from outsiders by both abusers and victims. The victims are afraid to speak about their abuse because of the shame it will bring to them and their families, and therefore the abusers continue to get away scot-free.

At least in the Western world, victimized children today are more and more encouraged to speak out, and society is more apt to take their accusations at face value rather than automatically condemn such victims. This action is opposed to the situation in our country where family tradition is more prominent, and the words of children more often ignored.

For instance, I know of one Sri Lankan woman born over forty years ago into a very highly-respected family. In our discussions about child abuse, she told me that she had been a victim of abuse; she had been sexually molested as a child by a close relation of the family.

This was not something that she casually revealed to me; it was a terrible secret between her and her abusers which gave her great pain and torment, even 30 years after the event had ended. She knew she wouldn’t be believed by her parents or elders if she revealed what happened. And this woman was not born into a poor family; no, her family members were university-educated high-society people who became quite prominent and influential.

When we talk about child abuse, generally we mean physical and sexual abuse. We forget about emotional abuse, which is the cruelest and most destructive of all types of abuse. It means, ridiculing and verbally abusing a child, ignoring a child’s emotional needs or isolating a child from the family.

Government Action
These abuses generally do not end up at courts but the child grows up with an inferior complex or destructive tendencies or with mental disorder. Recent research has found that more children suffer from emotional abuse than from physical and sexual abuse combined.

What have successive Governments done about the child abuse? Two decades ago, we ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its optional protocols. 36 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is children under 18 years of age. 20 percent of the population is of school going age.

Thanks to the free education policies from the primary to university levels, we have a literacy rate of 93 percent comparable with developed countries.

Today, we are already on par with the MDG’s for primary education, school gender parity and reproductive health services. Yes, we can be happy of our progress.

The Government has implemented many programs to combat abuse of children. For example, the Children and Young Persons Ordinance create offenses and imposes heavy penalties for exploitation of children for pornography, sexual exploitation, begging and trafficking. The Penal Code has been amended to provide for enhanced punishments in respect of offences involving sexual exploitation of children. A strict legal procedure exists to protect children’s rights upon adoption.

Sri Lanka as a State party to the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoptions has put in place the necessary substantive and procedural safeguards to prevent any abuse of the process.

Our criminal justice system is geared towards the rehabilitation of child offenders. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) was established a decade ago to serve as the apex body that focus attention and provide institutional leadership to the efforts on preventing child abuse, prosecuting offenders, fostering national awareness of children’s rights and providing advice to the government and in assisting victims of abuse.

We have also strengthened our laws in child trafficking by electronic media, in accordance of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.

So, what went wrong? Why is child abuse increasing?

Although, there are lawyers and child rights activists who are ready to spell, explain, and act against child abuse, they are still not a critical mass and their views are not strong enough to be able to impact consciousness of the policymakers, police, lawyers, judges, teachers, schools, mental, physical and sexual health professionals, and all those who could take up the issue.

Although the issues of shame, family honour and plain depravity mean that not enough statistics are available, it also means that every statistic available speaks not just for itself but for a lot many others in the shadows. Eventually the children who are invisible will, because of the abuse and betrayal they have faced, retreat further into the darkness and possibly out of reach of help.

Apart from the legal dimension, child abuse also has pronouncedly psychological and emotional elements. Worldwide surveys point out that such abuse negatively impacts a child’s physical, emotional and mental well-being, leading to severe behavioral and psychiatric disorders. Suicidal tendencies and drug abuse are common long-term effects.

A World Health Organization survey also points out that there is an unambiguous behavioral and emotional pattern in the abused. Usually the child hardly talks about the incident. And, even if he or she does, no one takes it seriously. That in turn triggers feelings of self doubt and guilt, worsening the child’s feeling that it is his or her fault. As the child matures, compulsive behavior reinforces this guilt.

So, where does the solution lie? If we first talk about the physical child abuse, most sociology experts advocate of a total ban on physical punishment against all forms of punishing children. In fact, the use of any kind of force against children as a disciplinary measure is illegal in 24 countries around the world.

Until such time the Government makes a decision, I believe that, NCPA with the cooperation of law enforcement and other government agencies should implement firm protocols that commit those agencies to activate four important functions.

First, to conduct prompt and thorough investigations of child physical abuse, endangerment and neglect cases, secondly, to reduce trauma to victimized, thirdly, to cooperate effectively to prosecute and prevent physical abuse and neglect to the children and finally, to train the staff on scientific investigation of child physical abuse. These actions will definitely help.

On the subject of sexual abuse, educating and enlightening children about such issues, helping them distinguish between “good” and “bad” touch is a partial answer. Children also ought to be made aware of impulsive decisions they may make under pressure from peers, bullies and abusers. Sex education in schools is also productive.

The Netherlands, a country where teenage pregnancy rates plummeted from 60 per cent to about 25 per cent through aggressive sex information campaigns in schools, is an example. In our country, I remember how a nationwide furor resulted after somebody’s suggestion to introduce sex education in schools.

The subject has divided opinion between camps who felt such a step would lead to unnecessary experimentation by curious teenagers and others who believed it would help whittle down cases of sexual abuse by creating widespread awareness.

We also have to talk about emotional abuse of children. At some time, most parents or teachers, find themselves feeling frustrated and angry with children. This is normal. Occasionally they say things they regret - to the children.

This, too, is normal. But if they find that they are routinely having angry outbursts or that whenever they are frustrated they lash out at those around them in abusive ways - then they need professional help. There is nothing to be ashamed of.

The family Doctor, psychotherapist, or mental health professional will suggest some ways to begin helping calm down.

Child abuse is attracting so much scrutiny and public debate today. It is time the government begin to adopt strong and unequivocal measures to contain these heinous crimes. For a country with over a third of its populace consisting of children, such measures are long overdue.

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