Photo courtesy of Ada Derana

Sexual and reproductive awareness is essential for the health of all human beings but it is often neglected or stigmatized in Sri Lanka. The recent Covid pandemic and economic crisis have shown the need for greater health awareness in general, as many men and women throughout our country do not currently have access to healthcare, family planning and education about their bodies.

This knowledge gap causes various health and wellness problems that need a multi-disciplinary approach. The problem of ignorance is not just measured in the large numbers of women and girls suffering  menstrual poverty, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. It also includes the psychosocial aspect of sexual health: specifically, the vulnerability of people to sexual abuse. The issue of consent is a significant aspect of the ignorance which results from cultural shaming of awareness being raised about issues of sexuality.

For example, a recent newspaper article in The Daily Mirror misleadingly framed a rise in the rates of statutory rape as “rape with consent”. This terminology is confusing and misleading, suggesting that rape, which is an act of violation and assault, can be consented to by a victim. The statistics cited in the article illustrate the flaws of the outdated laws that are applied in such cases. Statutory rape is a serious offence that violates the rights and dignity of all victims, especially children and adolescents, and can cause long term physical, psychological and social impacts on them.

Sri Lanka clearly needs to adopt a more holistic approach, especially regarding sexual activity between two adolescents. We need to make significant changes in the current system to prevent misconduct and address the problems of ignorance and stigmatization of sexual conduct more effectively. It is crucial to share relevant information among the stakeholders who are called on to intervene and inform in these incidents such as police, social workers, doctors and health staff who attempt to assist and support adolescents and their families. Better informed contextual support could reduce the harm done by the blanket criminalization of some clauses in the penal code. Doctors and health workers need to enhance their knowledge and skills regarding how to identify, treat and refer cases of sexual abuse, especially among young patients.

Medical and health personnel also need to be more comprehensively trained in situational sensitivity: on how to build trust and obtain relevant information from adolescent victims of sexual abuse to provide them with a better quality of service. It is important to create a safe and supportive environment for survivors of sexual abuse where they can disclose their experiences without fear of stigma, blame or retaliation. Stakeholders should respect their confidentiality, autonomy and choices and provide them with information and options.

It is also important for survivors to access other services that can help them such as therapy, legal assistance and community support. As citizens, we all need to advocate for legal reform to combat sexual and gender-based violence and to protect the rights of survivors. It is necessary to reform the laws that allow marital rape, that punish consensual sexual activity between adolescents and that disproportionately focus on the victim’s character or sexual history in rape trials, misdirecting the legal system away from the misconduct of the perpetrators.

There is a significant gap in knowledge about sexual health among Sri Lankan people regardless of their age, gender, education level or social background. People are traditionally brought up to often feel ashamed about sex, when it should be recognized as a basic human need. It is important to encourage people to explore their sexuality and learn about sexual health and communication. We need to challenge cultural myths and empower teachers and educators in schools to convey the message that sexuality is far more than the act of sex. Sexual feelings emerge in a context, which encompasses the biological and psychosocial aspects of each human. There are cultural and religious barriers to education and awareness but the more we talk and educate about sexuality, gender identity and related topics, the more the society will become more comfortable and safe for everyone. As a democratic nation, we need to build a contemporary society that respects each individual’s sexuality so that they can live freely and without discrimination.

In the recent article in the Daily Mirror about the number of rape cases in which the survivors “gave consent”, it is clear that when the police classify rape as rape with consent, they may actually mean rape with coercion. This might be a case of nuances being lost in translation. Coerced, when translated to Sinhala, means forced.

A person’s free, informed, and willing consent to participate in a sexual act should serve as the foundation for defining rape and sexual assault in legal terms; this consent must be weighed against the context of the incident. This requires considering a wide range of exploitative scenarios, with a special focus on power, authority and control relationships, weaker position exploitation and situations requiring trust, influence and dependence in particular. It is important to realize that consent cannot be sincere, voluntary or willing when coercive conditions are present or when positions of vulnerability or dependency are taken advantage of and that engaging in sexual activity is not an expression of one’s free will or choice, especially for a child.

Sri Lankan culture tends to infantilize youth and keep them ignorant of the dangers of the modern world in a bid to protect them, especially with the onset of technology and the widespread impact of social media. Unfortunately, this lack of preparation means that young people often engage in online relationships, unaware of the character or motives of the people they are connecting with.

Children get groomed by sexual predators. And unfortunately Sri Lankan children growing up often in the extended family context in which they are brought up to trust older people are vulnerable to this unlawful behavior on the part of older people. Grooming is when the predator builds a friendship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person in order to manipulate, take advantage of and abuse them. Grooming exposes children and teens to sexual abuse, exploitation and trafficking.

Prosecuting child sexual assault is difficult for a number of reasons. Survivors could experience shame and remorse, be terrified of reprisals or be hesitant to come forward. Children may also not be able to express their experiences or completely understand them. They may not even know that what happened to them was wrong. There may not be enough evidence of a kind which can be produced in court because abuse frequently takes place in secret, making it challenging to obtain solid proof. Young victims may also find legal procedures intimidating and the difficulty of prosecution might be aggravated by societal views against talking about such delicate subjects. A fearful child will often feel threatened by any questioning of details of a traumatic event, as each question will feel like a personal attack.

This is why when addressing child abuse, trauma-informed questioning and data collecting are essential. It entails using techniques that take into account the possible effects of trauma on a child’s capacity for accurate detail recall and communication. The goal of this strategy is to minimize the possibility of recurrent trauma while encouraging openness by creating a secure and encouraging environment. Data acquired via trauma-informed methods is more likely to be trustworthy and can help improve the child’s support and intervention.

Unfortunately, in the context of contemporary Sri Lanka, children who are victims of sexual abuse and who are brave enough to report their experiences continue to be retraumatized, due to the lack of awareness and empathy from their school teachers and counsellors who tell them to tolerate and show respect to adults, to stay silent due to the shame it brings on the family and that the adult cannot be wrong so it has to be the victim child who is seeking attention by disrupting the normal perfect life.

From the support team of investigators to the medical officers to police officers, focused training is urgently needed so that when incidents occur in which intervention is required; investigating officers would show some kindness if they realize the fear, suspicion and trauma the child is feeling and experiencing and the mental upheaval the child is working through.

We forget that these young people have been betrayed by family who they trusted. How should they behave when members of their trusted family circle have exploited them and made them “the guilty party”? How do they know right from wrong when strangers tell them to believe things which their trusted family contradict everyday?

In addition, we continue to find reasons to make them the “problem child” in each of these stories, relieving ourselves of any accountability or blame so that we ourselves can sleep at night, feeling safe at home.

The first question most often heard in cases of child abuse is, “Are you sure it’s really happening?” The victim is often disbelieved, as it is almost a default defense mechanism for adults to believe the child is lying. We would prefer to believe that instead of being confronted by the picture the statistics portray: that we are living among so many monsters who could hurt and continue to betray an innocent child.

Victims of abuse are often further dismissed and belittled by officers within the system of justice, as this direct victim statement illustrates:

“Throughout my time giving statements and going through the JMO, they always altered what I would say to suit the image they wanted to present of me. When describing my abuse, I had to change my language and the way I described things because they want me to talk like I was an innocent kid. They didn’t like the fact that I would use the biological names for body parts. They would make me re-say it with the innuendos children use. Even what I wore during the incident was questioned. They kept asking if I was wearing pants although I kept saying it was a skirt. They tried to pass off a lot of his behavior as ‘fatherly’ even when it came to the point of him saying he wanted to have sex with me and not my mum. And through the process I would be called a liar and when I refused to answer things I’m not comfortable with, they would say ‘Yes, of course, don’t ask her, she doesn’t know anything.'”

It is more and more obvious to those of us working in the sphere of Gender Based Violence and assisting survivors of domestic violence and survivors of abuse that most of the perpetrators are also victims who have normalized this behavior through their life and continue to ignore and normalize sexual abuse in their later lives.

To disrupt the generational damage caused by this dysfunctional dynamic we must take action as a community to raise awareness to protect our children and young people. The  print and digital newspapers with the highest circulation in the country and all reporting journalists in the media have an important role to play in this, to inform themselves and their readers in a responsible way to prevent the dissemination of misinformation.