Photo courtesy of NBC News

Thirty years after ratifying the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNRC) in 1991, child protection is a national crisis in Sri Lanka. Over the past 16 months, 10 children have been physically and sexually abused and murdered as those in authority fail to protect the true beneficiaries of the future, our children.

Who is the safe adult was a question raised at an expert panel discussion on child abuse during the pandemic. I said that while the parents and main carers were considered the primary guardians of a child, the state and judiciary were the ultimate guardians. If a child was experiencing abuse at the hands of people they trust, the state institutions responsible for child protection should be places that a child at risk could access freely. However, due to the escalation of incidents of misconduct, victims often decline to report abuse to the police or the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). It is paramount that these institutions act with accountability to provide a responsible and trustworthy service.

Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Director of the Police Bureau for the Prevention of Abuse of Children and Women Darshika Ranasinghe’s unfathomable response that “There are 85,000 police officers and these are rare incidents; we must not focus on exceptional circumstances” was a hint of acknowledgement and total dismissal of accountability. SSP Ranasinghe overlooked the opportunity for a newly ranked female police officer to show empathy and visionary professional leadership. Instead, she joined her male counterparts in protecting an institution failing to maintain law and order.

Abuse of Power

Varuni Bogahawatte, an award winning police woman, was found guilty of child abuse by the Supreme Court in June 2019 for forcing a 15 year old girl to undergo repeated medical examinations to establish if she had been sexually attacked.

The complaint commences when the girl was questioned in her home by the police woman in front of strangers, violating privacy and confidentiality of a minor. The landmark verdict stated that the court noted with concern the increasing number of incidents of abuse of power by law enforcement authorities. Seventeen guidelines were recommended to secure and advance the rights of the public that are recognized under the Constitution and under the law.

However, police officers continue to ignore this verdict by making a mockery of the judiciary system. The latest trend by law enforcement officers is to conduct their duties accompanied by private media channels. The kangaroo court style questioning of children who are victims and witnesses of crimes and divulging their evidence on public media exposes them to harm and rejection from their own families. They are compelled to change or withdraw their evidence resulting in the collapse of the case after many years.  The unethical news headlines expose these defenseless children and their siblings to public humiliation and decades of mental trauma making it impossible to re-integrate them to society unscathed and unharmed. Both the police and the media are guilty of being secondary abusers, a direct violation of Penal Code Section 365(c), which prohibits identification of victims of sexual abuse and rape.

During the lockdown period in 2020, we saw shocking images of policemen assaulting a 14 year old autistic boy in broad daylight at Dharga Town. He has now filed a fundamental rights petition at the Supreme Court.

In a high profile case earlier in 2021, 41 suspects were arrested in connection with sex trafficking of the 15 year old girl including a Sub-Inspector of Police.

Over the past six months, there have been numerous alleged incidents of women and children sexually abused inside police stations with several officers arrested but bailed within days. The Matara police forcefully conducted a pregnancy test of a 15 year old girl. There is an investigation ongoing. The newly appointed Acting Deputy Inspector General of Police, Renuka Jayasundera, while confirming the incident, said that there was no misconduct by officers even before the submission of final report of the investigation.

Delaying Justice

According to media reports, there were 2,055 child abuse cases, including 1,953 rape cases, in 2020 but the police failed to secure a single conviction. With over 20,000 cases of child abuse pending for the past decade at Attorney General’s Department and zero convictions of rape for the past five years, there is little public faith in law enforcement services. The police failed to ascertain any evidence for five days while the 15 year old who sustained burn injuries at a politician’s house was fighting for her life. She later succumbed to her injuries, becoming a mere statistic of the 1 of 10 children murdered within last 16 months. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), the most powerful institution to protect children with jurisdiction to take over any investigation that is mishandled by the police, has forwarded a letter to the OIC of relevant police station requesting an explanation. Bureaucratic disability is crippling the last fragments of justice.

Denial of responsibility

In 2021, Police Scotland that has been conducting training for Sri Lankan police since 2010, suspended its programme amid serious violations of human rights by law enforcement agencies. The training focused on improving community policing, especially on sexual abuse and gender based violence, and increasing female representation in the police service.

Police officers must accept that responsibility and accountability, mixed with humility and integrity, is the only partnership required to establish a just society. We demand equality, justice and hope for the true beneficiaries of our future – our children.

The author is the Founder Chairperson of the Stop Child Cruelty Trust