One of Sri Lanka’s top legal officials is calling for moves to strengthen the country’s judicial system to deal with an increasing number of child abuse cases, the BBC Sinhala Service reported.
Statistics revealed by the attorney general’s office last year showed that in 2007, there were 3,548 serious offences against children.
In 2011, there were 4,480 such offences.
Deputy Solicitor General Sarath Jayamanne told the BBC that criminal procedures introduced more than 30 years ago – as well a law on witness evidence dating back to the last century – needed to be overhauled.
A draft bill is currently being considered by the authorities, he says, and will, he hopes, be in force as soon as possible.
“If you take other Commonwealth countries – Australia and the UK for example – they have introduced new laws that protect the rights of victims,” he points out.
“So there are areas in which we certainly need to improve.”
‘Married to abuser’
Born to a mother who was the victim of sexual abuse as a teenager, he was given up for adoption as a baby to a Dutch couple.
But his mother was forced by society and circumstances to begin a family life with the abuser, and the abuse continued. The man was never charged or prosecuted as the family wanted to protect the family “honour”.
“I’m angry but instead of wasting my energy to take revenge, I’m focusing on helping thousands of sexually abused girls whose plight has largely been ignored,” he says.
It is his tribute to his mother he never saw.
His Nona Foundation was founded in 2005 with a group of young Sri Lankan adoptees in the Netherlands.
So far his charity has helped more than 1,000 child and teenage victims of sexual abuse in Sri Lanka.
“I have come across hundreds of young girls, victims of sexual abuse, during the last eight years,” he tells me.
“I heard how the communities came together, not to protect the victims but to force the victims to keep quiet or even marry the perpetrator in the name of family honour.”
Database of child abuse
But the extent of the increase in abuse cases in Sri Lanka is disputed.
The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), the government body responsible for the welfare of children, insists that there has been no big increase.
One reason put forward for the rise is that there is more awareness of the problem in 21st Century Sri Lanka than at any other time.
Child abuse has always been there, but seldom has it been so frequently reported.
NCPA chairwoman Anoma Dissanayake believes the rise is largely because the media have been paying greater attention to the issue since the end of the conflict between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil separatists in 2009.
To get a clear picture of the extent of the problem, Mrs Dissanayake says the NCPA is creating a database of child abuse.
But Mr Jayamanne told BBC Sinhala that about 45% of cases heard in higher courts in Sri Lanka were estimated to be related to child abuse.
“The trends show that child abuse cases are on the increase,” he said.
“There may be several reasons which are contributing to those things. But generally I can say that in the last 10 to 15 years there has been an increase of child abuse cases.”
Senior officials agree that there need to be big changes in the way the judicial system deals with victims.
“Especially when it comes to children, I think that the victims in child abuse cases need to be protected,” Mr Jayamanne said.
The treatment of the victims, including transporting them in prison vans by uniformed prison officers, is one example.
“It’s totally wrong. We are working on it. We are going to ask for sufficient numbers of our own vehicles for [victims from] all the provinces,” Mrs Dissanayake said.
Increasing the number of courts designed for child-friendly proceedings and establishing children’s courts in particular are of paramount importance to reduce child abuse.
Clearing the backlog and speeding up hearings of child abuse cases are among other measures being looked at.
“Together with the attorney general’s department and the justice ministry we are currently having a pilot project on how to speed up cases. It has now been a year so I hope they will take it forward soon,” added Mrs Dissanayake.
But it is not only the legal system that needs to changed, say activists, but the attitude of the society that treats victims as culprits in the name of “honour”.
“How can you force a victim to live together with the abuser?” questions Nimal Samantha.
“Your whole life will be ruined. Where is human dignity?”