Pic by Chamila Karunarathne

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women” – Maya Angelou

Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne (2)
Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne

In an interview with Nation, Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne, Former Expert Member and Vice Chair of the Monitoring Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), urges for enhanced political will in realizing a zero tolerance approach to the unabated violence of all forms perpetrated on women and girls.

Q:  The recent incidents of rape, especially young children had been shocking and gruesome. How can we fight this as a nation?  
Child sexual abuse is one of the most shocking criminal acts which continue to prevail in our society, too often with impunity. It should be regarded with zero tolerance and given highest priority, as the victims are children. Children as defined as all those under the age of 18 years, have a right to be protected from all forms of violence. This is a state obligation as a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to accord them protection and to uphold their best interest.

The incidents reported in the media, however alarming, still remain only a small portion of the actual abuse, as, much of it still remains hidden.

Child abuse, including sexual abuse, occurs in all parts of the world. It happens among communities and families belonging to all religious groups, affluent and poor families, among the educated and the illiterate, in urban and rural areas. Although more incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated on girls are reported compared to boys, boys also suffer sexual abuse. Why does it occur? The root causes are complex.

It is difficult to detect peadophiles. They could exist within families, communities and in schools. They are often undetected as it is not difficult to influence an innocent child to keep the abuse ‘a secret’. They also lure children with gifts. It usually comes into the open when a tragic event occurs. Perpetrators of child abuse usually spot a victim, who they have access to, and ‘groom’ them. Children who lack protection in homes,
communities and schools, children who have no family members with whom they can talk freely on such matters, and who may be scared to do so are vulnerable. A new threat which can aggravate abuse is access of children through the internet. The availability of child porn increases the risk of child sexual abuse.

It is important to be alert regarding the commercial sexual exploitation of children by tourists. It is estimated that three to five percent of tourists seek child sex. Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines were known to be favourite haunts of child sex tourists. We need to be watchful of this danger with the new accent on promoting tourism. A surveillance system is essential.

A comprehensive mechanism of child protection focused on eliminating root causes, identifying the key issues and a well orchestrated action plan is essential. We need strong leadership for this at a high level of influence. This should include providing age appropriate protective education to all children in homes and schools as well as through the media. We need better education on the prevention of abuse for all parents,families, teachers and principals.

Child victims and their families need to utilize the health care system as it is easily accessible. Medical professionals have already developed effective strategies to respond to any child victim who enters the hospital care system. The Women and Children Desks of police stations need to place the highest possible priority on every incident reported. They have to be responsive, follow up each case, conduct thorough and prompt investigation until the court appearance. All child victims should have access to recovery therapy. They need long-term support. If the perpetrator is a family member, the child will need protective care, particularly if the perpetrator is not taken into custody, which unfortunately can happen. Delays in the legal process are another issue not yet addressed. The present system where child abuse cases are held up for years is certainly not in the best interest of child victims.
We need a holistic approach to child sexual abuse. Since recovery processes are difficult and lengthy, an effective preventive programme is important. While the NCPA has the mandate to deal with the issue, since the Authority functions under the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, the responsibility to strengthen overall coordination and prioritization lies with them.
Greater political commitment to ensure effective and speedy law enforcement and the expediting of court cases involving children is essential.

It is also imperative that more men join in the campaign to champion women’s rights. Men must think what they would feel and do if their sisters, daughters, wives, mothers and even grandmothers get raped. Why should only women MPs talk about it? What about the men who are MPs? Is it lack of knowledge, awareness, gender stereotypical attitudes and insensitivity to the suffering and tragedy of violence against women, particularly domestic violence that prevent men from speaking out?
Gender harassment is another issue still not addressed. It affects girls and women travelling in public transport, in work places, walking on the road and in teaching establishments. Preventive action is needed regarding this widely prevalent problem. Men themselves need to join in a campaign to prevent such harassment.

Gender equality needs to be learnt from childhood, in schools, applied in textbooks and teaching materials and promoted in schools in addition to the media. There is insufficient effort to include the message that this is wrong and that these are punishable offences.

Q: Especially when it comes to reproductive health, most women have no choice. The situation is worsened with lack of access to abortion even if the woman is a victim of rape, incest. How can this situation be remedied?
Most Sri Lankan women have free access to reproductive health services through the National Health Care System. This includes contraceptive services for adolescents. The private sector and NGOs also provide such services. However, there are still some unaddressed issues. Access to contraception for girls is 16 years, as it is the age of consent. How well adolescents utilize these services is questionable as societal attitudes still prevail which forbid sex before marriage.

One important yet unaddressed issue is that of the access to therapeutic abortion in the event of rape, sexual abuse, incest and unknown congenital deformity in the foetus. This gap in services contributes to the use of backstreet abortionists, infanticide and the abandonment of newborns. Underage girls who get pregnant are at greater risk of maternal morbidity and mortality. Prominent peadiatricians and obstetricians have lobbied hard for this issue, but there has been no progress.

I believe it is inhuman and cruel to force a woman or a girl victim to bear the child of the perpetrator who committed violence against her and raped her. Such pregnancies also cause stigmatization of the victim, her family and the child of such a pregnancy. It is particularly tragic in the case of incest.
The political leadership needs to take this issue up as a women’s rights issue, as has been done in many other countries in South Asia including India.

Q: What drawbacks do you identify in legislation related to female employment which prevents most educated women from seeking part time and flexi work?
It is indeed tragic that there are many educated women who are not in gainful occupation once they are married and bear children. Some sectors like health and education do employ more women, but there are many others which do not do so. This also occurs in the private sector. Women in higher positions of management are low in both the private and state sector.

Among some reasons for this situation is the lack of availability of child care services in work places. Another could be access to maternity leave, and leave for breastfeeding which may or may not be available. Some organizations consider hiring women a ‘nuisance’ because of the leave they may take in relation to a pregnancy or child care.

Many women with low incomes continue to migrate abroad for employment. In some instances, this has led to sexual abuse, violence and neglect. All such women need a system which protects them in the country concerned. This needs to be linked to the relevant embassy.

Q: What is the role of civil society groups in promoting women’s access to legal and clinical literacy?
Civil Society groups and NGOs, including legal aid services do perform yeoman service in enabling women to gain legal literacy and access free services when in need. The outreach needs to be extended islandwide particularly to the more rural areas. More action is necessary both to educate them on their legal rights and the law.

Q: What do you think is the role of party leadership in assuring that correct female candidates will be selected for governance instead of giving way to petty family politics and ‘pretty soap opera faces’?
Many of us involved in the promotion of women’s rights have given up efforts to promote educated and intelligent women to get into Parliament. Nothing seems to work and most politicians while saying they will do so, don’t do much! The majority are probably gender biased.

Their main criteria to select politicians remains their own personal connections to the individual, perceived as being loyal to them, having useful family connections and the support of power blocs. Their level of education, knowledge of development issues, integrity, human rights concerns including those related to women and children appears to be of little concern. This is prevalent among all political parties. The few women in parliament are outnumbered and probably do not have much opportunities to advocate against gender based violence. What we need is not only advocacy but action.

The violence in politics may also be a factor which prevents some educated women joining politics. Our South Asian neighbours have increased women’s participation in parliament by use of a quota system. This has been effective, and one worth considering. Having more knowledgeable and educated women in parliament can certainly help in promoting women’s rights as well as highlighting child rights issues.

Q: Since Sri Lanka has done well in providing educational opportunities at both primary, secondary and tertiary levels for girls, reduced maternal mortality and morbidity, improved family planning practices, has achieved a high female literacy level, it is anomalous that other indicators are still gender biased. What is the way forward?
Yes, I do believe that we can consider ourselves as doing well, based on the indicators of female literacy, females’ equal access to free education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, universal access to free healthcare, the consistent lowering of maternal mortality and morbidity, and high rates of family planning practices. But, we still have a problem with widespread gender stereotyping and gender based violence. We need to adopt a zero tolerance approach to the unabated violence that is occurring in homes and families in the form of domestic violence, and also in communities in the form of rape and abuse. Media exposure is not enough, action is needed. Is it a priority in the current state policy of ‘Yahapalanaya’? If not, it certainly should be.