Abused child victims lack legal rights

December 2017 | The Sunday Times

Cyber bullying also brought to the fore

Did you know that 40% of all children in Sri Lanka are subjected to some form of physical or sexual violence? This alarming statistic was revealed by lawyer Aritha Wickramanayake  at the YOU TEEN forum held by the Zonta Club II of Colombo last month at the OPA. Aritha spoke about his work on child rights with iProbono, an international legal charity which brings together people who need legal help but can’t afford it and lawyers who work for free.

He highlighted incidents in India where iProbono has helped fight injustice. The story of Amal, a three-year-old who was raped by her neighbour, which had somewhat of a positive outcome as the High Court in India overturned the verdict of the trial judge in favour of the accused, sentencing the accused and setting important guidelines on how children can give testimony in trial and how evidence should be taken from children, considering both their mental and emotional needs. Akash, a schoolboy who was raped by four older boys in his school was given higher compensation than previously allowed for a victim of sexual abuse because of the lawyers petitioning to change the scheme of compensation.
The figures in Sri Lanka are alarming. Apart from the fact that 40% of children are subjected to some form of physical or sexual abuse, only 3% of people who commit acts of sexual violence are arrested, and only 2% of that 3% are punished for their crime. “There is a huge proportion of people who are getting away with sexual violence in Sri Lanka,” says Aritha, adding that Sri Lanka has one of the worst legal systems in handling rape. The Sri Lankan courts also do not take a child-centric or victim-centric approach, often resulting in more abuse or neglect and little redress, we learn. “When a child has been raped or is subjected to some form of sexual abuse or assault, they are often transported to court in the same prison van or bus as the accused along with other adult offenders. These children are not separated from general criminals and from the perpetrator of that crime,” he says.

It is also appalling that while the accused are granted bail, children are put into homes while the case goes on. They are not allowed to leave until the case ends, with the average case lasting around 12 years,  at which point they are simply sent out regardless of if they have somewhere to go.

The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act allows girls to be married at the age of 12, contrary to the general law which states that children below the age of 16 who have sex have been victims of statutory rape. “Sri Lankan Muslim girls have no say in the marriage, they have no say in how they are treated by their husbands and they have no say and no right to say no to their husband…,” says Aritha. He also points out that the girl child doesn’t even have to be at the wedding – the father of the girl can marry her off without her consent or permission and the courts of Sri Lanka cannot intervene.

He also points out the conflict between Article 12 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution, which states that every person is equal and no one shall be discriminated on the ground of their race, sex, religion etc. and Article 16, which states that any existing laws take precedence over constitutional rights. “We need to ask that Article 16 be removed immediately,” he stated, adding that iProbono is in the process of bringing lawyers on board to see how to change the existing laws, while working with the newly formed Child Protection Force, who help children who appear in courts against their abusers.

Addressing the issue of sexual harassment and cyber exploitation at the seminar was Hans Bilimoria of the Grassrooted Trust. ‘Baduwa and kella’ – If you have never used these terms to describe a woman, raise your hand,” Hans asked and unsurprisingly, very few people did. For Hans, the issues revolving around the recent culture of teenagers and young adults sharing ‘nudes’ are directly connected to the lack of respect young men have for women – symptoms of which are the terms used by men to refer to women and girls and the general culture of sexual harassment in the country.

He describes a typical scenario where a boy asks his girlfriend for a naked picture, saying she can trust him. After the picture is sent, when the girl either wants to end the relationship or refuses sex or something similar, the boy threatens to release the picture. If the boy demanded ‘sex’ by blackmailing the girl, then he has raped her because there was no consent, Hans reminded the audience.

“This picture has been understood comprehensively by the perpetrator because they understand how shame works in this country,” says Hans. The issue is not the sharing of nudes but the violation of the consent and trust by the boy and then by society – that is what causes these issues, says Hans, adding that the main way to prevent such occurrences is by teaching boys to respect girls and women from the time they are young.

Girls and women can prevent being victimised by thinking before sharing. “Think about the power you give your boyfriend when you share that naked image,” says Hans, adding that such measures need to be taken because present day Sri Lanka is not the Sri Lanka of the time of the Sigiriya maidens.

He also directed people to the Grassroted Trust website in order to learn about cyber crime and how to prevent it.

For further details, please visit the Grassrooted Trust website at

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