Safeguarding the future generation | Sunday Observer

Safeguarding the future generation

3 October, 2021

Child abuse is a national problem. In Sri Lanka, child abuse, maltreatment, and trafficking are on the rise. With the development of technology and online platforms, child abuse has increased rapidly. This is evident by the number of child abuse cases we hear of through mass media and social media. Considering the data, it seems that children are abused by their parents, close relatives and neighbours too other than strangers. 

Who is a child? 

Generally, the legal meaning of a child is a minor. The rights and responsibilities of children are usually fewer than adults. They have to be legally cared for by their parents or a guardian. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as “a human being under the age of 18 years unless the majority is established earlier by the legislation applicable to the child.”

Regarding Sri Lankan law, any person below the age of 18 is a child. 

What is child abuse? 

Abuse occurs when one individual causes physical or mental harm to another. In Sri Lanka, child abuse is when the person who suffers from abuse is below 18 years. Abuse usually occurs over a long period, generally in a cycle. It usually goes on until the victim decides to seek help. Unfortunately, victims especially child victims are embarrassed and afraid to come forward to seek help. Most of the time, this happens because of social norms. Another reason is that the abuser would try to keep the child victim quiet by blackmailing them. 

There are types of child abuse such as sexual abuse, maltreatment, physical abuse, mental abuse, employment, neglect, trafficking for sex work, and corporal punishments by parents, guardians, and teachers. All these are prohibited under international law and Sri Lankan law. 

Unfortunately, most of the time, children are abused by their parents and close relatives. The main reason for this is the lack of sex education in Sri Lanka, lack of knowledge about prevailing laws and the punishments, poverty, circulation of pornographic videos on the internet, pornography for commercial purposes, parental neglect, separated families, etc.

Family is the essential and influential element for children. Children who have a good bond with their biological parents are less likely to be abused, but children who live with their stepparents or a single parent are more likely to be abused. Regarding gender, mostly female children are abused by fathers or stepfathers or other close male relatives. Child abuse also occurs in villages. In these families, the mother would have gone abroad for work or the mother has abandoned her children. Maybe the mother goes to work and the father is unemployed. The main reason is poverty. 

Despite having the best interest of children at heart, some parents are unable to offer protection to their children due to the lack of social support networks and poverty. Another reason is the lack of information about available resources. Specific critical services for children with disabilities are frequently out of reach for families. Disabled children are in danger of being exploited.

Another issue is using children (especially females) as sex workers. Also, these abusers use them for pornography. However, with the development of online platforms, using children for this purpose is very easy, because these platforms have connected with the community at large. On other hand, having intercourse with a child below 16 years with or without consent will constitute the criminal offense of statutory rape under the Penal Code of Sri Lanka. These types of people are searching for abandoned children and children who have economic problems. Sometimes we see children’s own father or mother selling the child as a sex worker through the internet, mobile applications, and other means. 

Effects of child abuse

The effects of child abuse can be categorised mainly into two parts as physical effects and psychological or mental effects. Physical effects are, bruises and welts; scrapes and cuts; burn marks; head trauma; weakened brain development; sprains or broken bones; difficulty walking or sitting; torn, stained, or bloody clothing; pain or itching in the genital area; bruises or bleeding in and around the genital area; sexually transmitted diseases; inappropriate dress; poor hygiene; and poor physical health.

Psychological or mental effects can range from anxiety; depression; low self-confidence; dissociation; difficulty with making and maintaining relationships; experiences flashbacks; and persistent fear. After experiencing such effects, children’s behavioural patterns will change.

Some of the following behavioural effects will be indicated, self-harm; eating disorders; alcohol and drug use; trouble sleeping; uncomfortable with physical contact with others; repeating school grades; absent from school often; and engage in criminal activity.

Are you abused? 

If the answer is yes to the above question, and still being abused by someone, you should tell someone close and trustworthy or call 119 or you should complain to the nearest police station, National Child Protection Authority, SLCERT, Children and Women Bureau of Police and Crime Division of Police. 

Legal framework 

In Sri Lanka, several statutes govern the offence of child abuse and other provisions concerning child abuse. Also, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the Cabinet has granted approval to establish nine video recording units for child abuse evidence at provincial level. The purpose is to avoid problems when victims give evidence in public.

This will be a progressive decision to decrease child abuse in Sri Lanka because most child victims do not come forward to a court, police, or other relevant authority to give evidence or statements regarding incidents. The Judiciary (Amendment) Act No. 27 of 1998 eliminates the statutory necessity for a preliminary hearing in cases of rape or rape of a child under the age of 16; as a result, child abuse cases have been expedited, and the victim’s misery of having to testify repeatedly has been minimised.

All individuals have equal rights under the Constitution of Sri Lanka. As a result, minors can also use the same general Penal provisions and remedies as adults. Citizens are protected from torture, cruel or humiliating punishment, or treatment under Article 11 of the Constitution. A basic rights action, on the other hand, can only be filed in situations of executive or administrative action, not when the offender is a private individual.

The National Child Protection Authority was established under National Child Protection Act, No. 50 of 1998, to protect children from child abuse, to monitor anything relating to child abuse, and to advise the government on such matters. 

The main statute which prohibits child abuse and matters related is the Penal Code and its amendments. Any crime done by a child under the age of eight or any act committed by a child under the age of eight who is not adequately developed but under the age of twelve is not deemed a crime under the law, according to Sections 75 and 76 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code.

A parent or guardian who gives up a child under the age of 12 is also guilty of a criminal offence. The following sections of the Penal Code and its amendments have provided the grounds to various offences in relation to child abuse: Section 308 - Cruelty to Children; Section 363 - Offense of Rape; Section 365 - Grave sexual abuse, Unnatural Offence, Gross Indecency; Section 360 - Sexual Exploitation of children; Section 286 - Offense relating to obscene publication and exhibition relating to children; Section 310 and 312 - Causing Hurt; Section 315 - Voluntary causing Hurt by dangerous weapons; Section 311 and 313 - Grievous Hurt; Section 317 - Voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapon; Section 286 - Offence relating to Obscene Publication and Exhibition relating to Children; Section 288 - Offence of causing or procuring a child to be in any street, premises or place for the purposes of begging or receiving alms, or of inducing the giving of alms, Offence of Hiring or Employing Children to act as Procurers for Sexual Intercourse, Penal Code, Offence of Hiring or coercing Children to traffic in articles restricted by the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance. (Imprisonment of either description for a term not less than five years and not exceeding seven years and may also be liable to a fine )

However, all offences include imprisonment and a fine, and it is common practice in the courts to make a portion of the fine payable as compensation to the victim. Section 266 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act No 15 of 1979 allows for the compounding of offenses, in which the accused agrees to pay a monetary sum to the victim.

Some other Acts have provided the relevant laws concerning child abuse. The Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act No. 48 of 1956 was enacted to protect children and young people from harmful publications. Section 11 of the Vagrants Ordinance prohibits causing the seduction, prostitution, or illegal carnal knowledge of a female under the age of 16. The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act No. 22 of 1994 prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. This allows for the prosecution of public officials who have broken the law. Act No. 8 of 2003 (Amendment) on Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children has provided the provisions concerning the prohibition of employment of minors. 

The Prohibition of Ragging and Other Forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act No. 20 of 1998 was enacted in reaction to acts of ragging that put the lives and health of newcomers to educational institutions at risk. Grave bodily harm, sexual harassment, criminal intimidation, hostage abduction, unlawful imprisonment, and forceful occupancy, and damage to educational institution property are all prohibited. Within the context of the Education Ordinance, the term “educational institution” is defined broadly to encompass “a Government school or an assisted or unassisted school.”

The Adoption of Children (Amendment) Act No.15 of 1992 was enacted in reaction to adoption malpractices in both domestic and international adoptions. Regulations No. 1 of 1997 on the Compulsory Attendance of Children in Schools makes it mandatory for all parents to send their children aged 5 to 14 to school, and it deems failure to do so a punishable offense.

The major goal of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, No. 34 of 2005, is to reduce domestic violence. This Act establishes procedures for dealing with any type of domestic abuse, whether physical or mental. A person can fill out the application form given in this Act and submit it to the Magistrate’s Court of Justice in the jurisdiction area of matter, to obtain an injunction against violence. It may assist not just children and women, but also anybody who is a victim of domestic abuse.

Protection of Child Victims 

When determining whether a child is a victim, section 3 (1) b of the Victims and Witnesses Protection Act No. 04 of 2015, which was recently enacted by the recently established National Authority for the Protection of Victims and Witnesses of Crime, states that the child’s highest possible outcome should be taken into consideration. The recipient is said to have the right to receive. Furthermore, to take initiatives to safeguard the rights of children, particularly those of child victims of crime, in a way that is equally acceptable and respectful to the victim of a crime as defined in Article 25 (3) (3) (1) of the Act. It has indicated that the highest possible benefit of child witnesses should be ensured.

Admissibility of computer evidence

However, Evidence (Special Provisions) Act No. 14 of 1995 has provided the admissibility for computer evidence before a court to support the above laws and regulations. The Evidence Special Provisions Act No 32 of 1999 strengthens the rights of child victims by enabling videotaped evidence of a preliminary interview with a child victim or witness to be received. Therefore, abusers who are abusing children as sex workers, selling children, using for pornography, and employing them as maids, can be brought before the court through technological means and punished after a fair trial. 

Adults’ responsibilities

Children are the most vulnerable members of a community, and they represent the world’s future generation. Every child has the right to protection, education, health care, and a loving and caring environment in which to grow up. Every community, country, and culture has a responsibility to offer a good life for children and to extend their possibilities in life, without taking into consideration their gender, culture, country, religion, physical appearance, or race.

The government should establish a window and an online platform for children to come and lodge a complaint other than the prevailing structural police station. Officers working in this place must consist of women and men who are not wearing the police uniform and instead another dress code to be approachable to children. 

The prevailing laws and regulations should be strengthened, altered, amended, and implemented parallel to the technological development of the world as abusers take advantage of technology.