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The nation celebrated International Women’s Day on Wednesday with special events that paid deserving tribute to its mothers and daughters. Yet, for a country that gave the world its first woman prime minister, Sri Lanka over the  years, possesses a shocking record of rape and sexual abuse. According to official data, there has been an increase in the incidence of child sex exploitation and raping of women.

Our citizenry should hang their heads in shame and not try to conceal our blushes. Make no mistake about it, we are a nation of rapists and pederasts. That is a damning indictment but nonetheless damned well true.

Statistics reveal that in a time frame of 90 minutes a woman is raped in Sri Lanka and that almost one-half of all crime recorded in the country are rapes of women and girls. And out of 300,000 cases, only 600 perpetrators are remanded, meaning only two percent of the offenders in such cases are actually punished.

The victims are mostly females under the age of 16. In addition, activist lobbies have claimed that 90 percent of women who commute on public transport have been ‘abused’ in one way or another by fellow male travellers. But the coppers claim it’s less and if you believe in the credibility of the cops their judicial statistics show that five rapes occur in the country daily.

Meanwhile in Sri Lanka, violence towards women is a repeated occurrence and rising. Amid unspeakable and appalling disclosure that as many as 750 cases of child rape or sexual abuse alone had been reported until August last year.

Yet shockingly, these are just some of the cases released as police statistics while the majority of them are not reported. Activists claim that the conflict in the north had also resulted in a high rate of sexual abuse. They claim there is a gaping lacuna in law enforcement and the judicial process in preventing the high occurrence of rape and sexual abuse.

Violence and indecision have been cutting sharply into the inner soul of our nation, questioning our morality and our culture. Our beautiful island which was once the famed and tranquil ‘Dhammadipa’ has been transformed into a different type of paradise. A Paradise for perverts, no less!

Certainly something is appallingly wrong with the way women are treated in Sri Lanka.
Another astonishing question that begs an answer is that if a man can respect and provide protection to his mother, wife, sister and daughter why can’t he treat other women or a child in the same manner? But it’s far from the only example of abuse endured by women routinely denied full protection under Sri Lanka’s defective criminal justice system.

Many believe there is a deep-seated anti-female prejudice built into Sri Lanka’s  justice system. And I dare say they are right. There has never been a vigorous quest for justice or pressures for accountability from any of our governments. Such indifference flourishes among our society regarding these monstrous crimes.  The criminal laxity on the part of governments to resolve the problems of the law enforcement apparatus reinforces the deeper lassitude in Sri Lankan society and its system of justice.

Leniency in dealing with the perpetrators by both the judiciary and the state is another aspect that has to be addressed  seriously.  These crimes are a highly traumatic, personal violation of the victim who experiences a wide gamut of fear, anger, guilt and shame.
Because of the societal stigma, the painful hospital examinations, the humiliating legal procedures, which include hours and hours of telling and retelling, living and reliving the nightmarish ordeal, the personal attacks on an adult victim’s character in the courtroom, it is estimated that as high as 90 percent of rapes go unreported. Given the startling scale of such offences many more incidents have not surfaced because of fears of reprisals and more humiliation for the victims.

And the police? Yes, we are referring to certain enforcers of the law, who have sworn a sacred oath to protect the people from criminals and criminality. But who should protect an unarmed populace from these very elements who break the very laws they are supposed to implement themselves.?  Many of them have been known not only to fail to investigate complaints of rapes swiftly they also subject women who report rape to humiliation and abuse that constitutes a second assault.

Oh yes, the women ministers in our political leadership have been loudly engaged in what it appears to believe is advocacy of women’s rights. Theirs are   for the most part dramatic but ineffectual calls for summary trials, castration and mandatory death penalties. The same leaders will, if past record proves a guide, do absolutely nothing to actually address the problem.

For all the noise that each of these rape atrocities has provoked, Parliament has made no worthwhile progress towards desperately-needed legal reforms. Even fundamental measures, such as enhanced funding for forensic investigations, more trained women police officers to deal with female victims of sexual crimes, and making expert post-trauma support available to victims, are conspicuous by their absence.

No one asks to be raped, but it is easy to understand why a victim might choose not to report a rape. The medical exam is painful and the legal process forces the victim to visit and revisit the rape. Then, especially in cases where the victim knows the perpetrator, there is always a fear with regard to the victim’s safety and the victim can count on being degraded and humiliated in court by the defence attorney. Does this sound like something you would choose to experience?

Many people, men in particular, do not understand the dynamics of rape. If you have any doubt, just ask a few men when was the last time they had fears of being raped and how they would feel if they were raped. Most immediately think of a woman seducing them against their will, and the depth of violation known to rape victims does not even enter their minds. This is because rape is almost exclusively a male crime. Yet, why is it that we as a society question the validity of violent crimes committed against helpless women and children? The victims of other criminal acts are not scrutinized and placed on trial right along with the defendants, or just totally ignored by the community and the justice system.

A society that does not protect the vulnerable, the children, the aged, the handicapped and the desperately poor is a failed society. Sri Lanka is not alone in its failure to carry out vigorous campaigns against sexual abuse of women and minors. It is a worldwide problem. But in no way does this exonerate our lack of action in our own neck of the woods.

Harmful traditions, customs and cultural norms, gender stereotypes and inequality and patriarchal political, economic and social structures manifest themselves in this most egregious violation of women’s human rights. This in turn creates and perpetuates an environment of impunity for perpetrators.

Men typically indulge in violence as an exercise of their inherent power, entitlement, superiority and a sense of ownership of women. This is the mirror image of the sense of vulnerability, fear, shame, helplessness, resignation and dependence felt by women and girls who are victims and survivors of such abuse and violence.

Perhaps the real tragedy we must contemplate, as we consider these revolting stories with women being subjected to such repugnant brutality is that in a few months or less they will be forgotten. There will, by then, have been the next victim, and the one after. And absolutely nothing will have changed.

All of us are culpable to different degrees, ranging from turning a blind eye to those heinous crimes, not speaking out against them or leaving the problem to be dealt with by parents, teachers, guardians, police, social workers or counsellors who are already overwhelmed with different aspects of helping the victims.

Those who remain silent or actively take part in covering sexual crimes should be treated as accessories to the crime. No one is above the law and in some instances the perpetrators are the so-called most respectable citizens.We all have to do more. Because rape is an abomination no civilized society can tolerate.

How does one account for the strange contrast between our seeming outrage about rape and our incredible unwillingness, as a society, to actually do anything about it? Fundamentally, is it because we are far more widely complicit in crimes against women than we care to acknowledge? It damn well seems like it by the look of things that have turned the justice system on its head.

Yet one thing is certain. If Sri Lanka is to reach its full economic potential, and hold a respected place among democracies, it will need to deliver real justice to the female half of its population. The world is watching and waiting!
gdgasross@gmail.com