Updated: September 20, 2015 08:16 PM GMT
Activists, including Catholic nuns, stage a demonstration on Sept. 18 in Colombo. Sri Lanka is undergoing a public debate over the death penalty following high-profile child murder cases. (Photo by Niranjani Roland)
Catholics in Sri Lanka are adding their voices to demands that authorities crack down on sexual violence against women and children.
Recent high-profile cases of child abductions have outraged activists in the island nation. These include the abduction and murder of a 5-year-old girl in western Sri Lanka. The girl was kidnapped Sept. 11 while she was sleeping. Her body was found two days later.
On Sept. 18, activists from the group Mothers and Daughters of Lanka demonstrated in the capital, Colombo, to demand that authorities implement laws to stop sexual violence against women and girls.
One of the pressing problems, said Nalini Ratnaraja, an activist who attended the rally, is that justice is slow for perpetrators of gender violence.
"There should be a mechanism to speed up the trials," she said. "Sometimes it takes more than eight years for a case to be heard."
Courts are also quick to grant bail to suspected perpetrators, she said.
"We need a women's commission to focus on violence against women and girls, and [we need to] set up a special court to investigate sexual abuses and rape cases quickly," she said.
According to the National Child Protection Authority, there are currently 4,000 child abuse cases pending in Sri Lankan courts. This year alone, the parliament-mandated body has received around 6,500 complaints — 254 of them rape allegations, and another 184 cases involving "grave sexual abuses," which under Sri Lankan law include sexual offences apart from rape.
Good Shepherd Sister Angela Fernando, who attended the Sept. 18 rally along with other nuns, said Sri Lanka's history of conflict — the country's 26-year civil war came to an end in 2009 — has contributed to today's problem.
"Our society is traumatized in the postwar scenario," she said. "Poverty, unemployment, breaking the family structure … all these reasons influence this violence."
Sister Fernando said Sri Lanka needs more counseling, support systems and prevention programs to tackle the problem. The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka can also do more to speak out on the issue, she said.
"At a Church level, there are awareness programs carried out … within the parish level," Sister Fernando said. "I don’t think that the local church comes to the street and raises its voice against these grave problems."
Death penalty debate
The killing of the 5-year-old girl this month triggered demonstrations in different parts of the country and renewed calls from some to implement the death penalty for convicted rapists.
Partially in response to the girl's death, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena said Sept. 18 he was prepared to impose the death penalty in certain cases. Sri Lanka permits the death penalty but has not implemented it in decades.
However, Lakshan Dias, a Christian human rights lawyer, said the death penalty is not the right solution for the problem.
"Hanging someone is unacceptable," he said. "There may be innocent people."
In May, the gang rape and murder of a 17-year-old schoolgirl in northern Sri Lanka also set off outrage in the country. At the time, the National Child Protection Authority called it "one in a long line of cases of brutal sexual violence against women and children."