Shanika Sriyananda, GPI
 

Sri Lanka Copes With Pregnant Preteen Rape Victims, Access to Online Pornography Blamed

 

Article Highlights

Sri Lanka

Staff at Sri Lanka’s lone center for minors who become pregnant as a result of rape say residents are getting younger. Cases of sexual abuse of female minors increased 46 percent from 2006 to 2011.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – Thilini, 13, breast-feeds her 1-month-old son.

An oversized maternity blouse envelops the thin and small girl. Her long hair is plaited with white ribbons.

When she carries her baby, she looks as if she is holding a doll. The baby cries if Thilini doesn’t fit her small nipple to his mouth. She tries helplessly to calm him.

Thilini says that an elderly neighbor raped her in 2012 in the remote hamlet where she grew up in Nuwara Eliya, a district in Sri Lanka’s Central province.

A Magistrate’s Court sent her in August 2012 to Ma Sevana, the Transit Home for Teenage Mothers, in Moratuwa, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, to protect her while her case proceeds.

Ma Sevana is a registered center under the Department of Probation and Child Care Services. The Sarvodaya Suwasetha Sewa Society, a charity organization that reintegrates neglected, disabled, socially disadvantaged children and elders into society, opened the center in 2001. This is the first time the center has granted an interview to the press.

Thilini says she wants to go home so that she can continue her studies and her dancing.

“I want to become a dancing teacher one day,” she says confidently. “I want my baby, but I want him to be at a children’s home.”

In the meantime, she says she wants to temporarily leave her son at the center’s nutrition center, which cares for babies.

“Once I study and get a job, I will take my son back,” she says.

But Thilini’s family doesn’t want her to return home, as her neighbor charged with her rape is out on bail. They want her to continue her studies from a home run by Sarvodaya Suwasetha Sewa Society that offers food, shelter, education and medical care.

Stigma within her community is also strong.

“I am still scared when I recall how people looked at me wherever I go,” she says. “This is not my fault why people laugh at me.”

Staff at Sri Lanka’s lone center for minors who become pregnant as a result of rape say residents are now as young as 12 and are too young to understand how they got pregnant. Experts attribute an increase in sexual violence against female minors to cultural changes, such as new exposure to pornography thanks to increased access to technology. Many of the young rape victims at the center say they don’t want their babies and struggle to cope with their situations. They can access counseling, education and vocational training at the center. Government ministries have proposed legislation to penalize the rape of child victims with the death penalty.

Cases of sexual abuse of young girls – including rape, molestation and harassment – increased by 46 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to the Children and Women Bureau of the Sri Lanka Police.

Children younger than 16 years are minors under Sri Lankan law. Having sex with a minor with or without consent is considered rape here.

Police receive at least four rape reports every day in Sri Lanka, with minors making up the majority of victims, according to the Children and Women Bureau. Perpetrators are usually related or known to victims.

But the number of incidents is likely much higher. R.M.A Nimalsiri, a senior counselor in the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, says that data on how many teenage girls are raped annually is incomplete, as families settle most cases among themselves because of social and cultural taboos.

Neetha Ariyaratne, general secretary of Sarvodaya Suwasetha Sewa Society, says the center is taking in pregnant rape victims who are younger than ever.

“We rarely got girls who were raped at the age of 12 and 13,” Ariyaratne says. “But now, more girls are in that age group, and we face difficulties in telling them what has happened to them. How can we say [to] these small children that they carry babies?”

Sanduni, a 12-year-old girl wearing a pink floral frock, runs and jumps with her 13- and 14-year-old friends at Ma Sevana. They are each several months pregnant. Their bellies become bigger every day, even though many say they don’t understand why.

Sanduni’s family lived on the street in the central bus stand in Anuradhapura, one of the holy cities in Sri Lanka’s North Central province. She doesn’t know how to read and write, as she never attended school.

Her stepfather sexually abused her every night since she was 8 years old. She says she thought such abuse was normal.

Now, Sanduni says she knows the abuse was wrong but struggles to process it. She says she loves her stepfather because he gave her a doll and touched her body gently. But in the next moment, she says she wants to chop him into pieces because she is boiling with anger.

She also doesn’t yet understand how she got a baby inside her belly.

Wasantha Pinnawela, the matron at Ma Sevana, says sexual abuse happened so often to some girls that they don’t understand that’s how they became pregnant.

“I am speechless when these small girls ask how they got babies inside their bellies,” she says. “Since they are repeatedly sexually abused from their very tender ages, they don’t know what action made them pregnant.”

Ma Sevana is the only center in Sri Lanka for underage pregnant mothers who are the victims of rape, according to the Department of Probation and Child Care Services. But there is another home registering with the department to provide services for teenage mothers and any women who are pregnant out of wedlock.

When the Magistrate’s Court reviews underage rape cases, they now send the girls to Ma Sevana for six months to one year until they deliver their babies and the courts reach a verdict for the accused.

But this is a new judicial trend. Ariyaratne says the common practice has been to send pregnant teenage rape victims to prisons in order to protect them from their attackers.

“They are sent to the remand prison, where they are kept with other female convicts until the court case is over,” Ariyaratne says, though this is beginning to change. “Now, they are sent to this home, where they feel they are at home.”

Since Ma Sevana opened in 2001, more than 175 mothers who are teenagers and preteens have lived at the center. The center now houses 17 mothers, five pregnant mothers and 11 newborn babies.

The young mothers at Ma Sevana receive free accommodation, food, medicine, medical care and clothes through donations to the Sarvodaya Suwasetha Sewa Society. Ariyaratne and Yasanjalee Jayatilleke, a sociology professor at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, attribute the increase in rape and abuse of minors to cultural changes. These include weakened family structure, loss of traditional values, and new access to pornography with the increased availability of mobile phones and Internet.

Jayatilleke, who initiates sexual abuse awareness programs in schools, media and women-based organizations, says that more mothers work now, so they can’t protect their children from abuse.

“The best person to look after the children are the mothers,” she says. “But due to the prevailing socio-economical situations, women need to seek employment to share the burden of running their families.”

Nimalsiri says abusers can be family friends, neighbors, or even school principals and elderly teachers.

Jayatilleke confirms that figures of authority – including principals, teachers or politicians – are often perpetrators of sexual violence against teens. A common tactic is to attempt to silence victims by threatening them or offering them money or gifts.

Pinnawela says that boyfriends may also take advantage of younger girls.

Jayatilleke says that recent research by the United Nations Development Programme in Sri Lanka cites increased use of Internet and mobile phones, which expand access to pornography, as the main reason for the spike in child sexual exploitation and rape.

Lakshika, a 13-year-old at Ma Sevana, is from Ampara, a district in Sri Lanka’s Eastern province. She is three months pregnant.

The father is her 16-year-old brother. Lakshika says her brother raped her after starting to consume pornography.

“My brother, after coming from school, used to spen[d] lots of time looking at his phone,” Lakshika says. “Few months later, one day, he dragged me into his room and started kissing [me]. He did it daily but pleaded with me not to tell my parents. As I love him a lot, I didn’t. But one day, he …”

Lakshika can’t continue and starts to cry.

Today, her brother is back at home on bail after police arrested him on charges of raping his sister. The case is pending in Magistrate’s Court.

Lakshika says she doesn’t want to keep her baby because of the social stigma attached to raising a baby as a result of rape, and especially at her young age. She plans to put her son up for adoption.

“I don’t want the baby, as I can’t go home with him,” she says as tears glisten in her eyes. “I will give my baby to someone.”

She also says she can’t obtain an education if she has a child.

“I want to go back to school,” Lakshika says, while tightening the white ribbon on her long, plaited hair. “I want to continue my studies.”

Most of the teenage mothers at Ma Sevana say they do not want their babies. Most want to return home from the center, leaving their babies at an orphanage or putting them up for adoption.

Abortion is generally illegal in Sri Lanka, unless the pregnancy or childbirth threatens the life of the mother.

For teen rape victims in Sri Lanka, if their communities are unaware of their pregnancies, the parents secretly give the babies up for adoption after their deliveries, Jayatilleke says.

“Some abandon or kill their newborns,” Nimalsiri says. “All teenage mothers who are directed to counseling suffer from depression. They complained about less sleep, hatred towards themselves and the males. Most of them don’t want their children and try to commit suicide. They also suffer from conduct disorder. They are ashamed, angry and disappointed in themselves.”

Nimalsiri says some teen mothers from poor families take to sex work, as they lack financial or emotional support to raise their children.

Counseling is required for girls at Ma Sevana.

Since these girls have dropped out of school, they can also take short courses to cover their missed lessons so they can continue their studies once they return home, Ariyaratne says. Volunteers also teach short English lessons.

Vocational training is available as well. Courses include making dresses, gardening, sewing, making jewelry, cooking and baking.

Ariyaratne says Sri Lanka needs to tighten its laws related to crimes against children.

Rape of a minor currently carries a punishment of 10 years in prison.

Authorities at the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs say they are partnering with the Ministry of Justice to introduce new legal provisions to enforce the death penalty for all those convicted of child rape and to remove the option for bail.

Minister Tissa Karaliyadda of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs says that it forwarded a proposal for rigorous imprisonment and tough legal measures for child abusers during 2012 to the Department of Legal Draftsman, which drafts the main legislation and amendments under the Ministry of Justice.

Anoma Dissanayake, chairwoman of the National Child Protection Authority, which falls under the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, calls for a stricter bail system for child rapists. She says the new laws will be tabled before the Parliament of Sri Lanka soon.

“A child rape is a grave crime,” Dissanayake says, “and the child rape accused should not be given bail in a Magistrate’s Court.”

Editor’s note: Rape victims’ last names have been withheld because they are minors as well as to protect them from stigmatization.