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Schoolgirl's strangling sparks outcry in Sri Lanka

Remote areas like Jaffna 'no longer safe' for girls and women as drug traffickers unfazed by military, activists say

Niranjani Roland, Colombo

Niranjani Roland, Colombo

Updated: July 25, 2018 04:06 AM GMT
Schoolgirl's strangling sparks outcry in Sri Lanka

Students, parents and villagers demand justice for victims of child abuse on June 27 at Sulipuram in Jaffna, the capital of Sri Lanka's Northern Province. The National Child Protection Authority said it received 3,785 child abuse complaints in 2017 but many more go unreported. (Photo by Nishanthan/ucanews.com).

The gruesome rape and revenge killing of a 6-year-old girl in Jaffna in Sri Lanka's Northern Province on June 25 has shone a light on some of the failings of this island nation as it still reels from the effects of civil war.

A postmortem on the first-grader, whose body was found dumped inside a well, showed she was sexually molested and then strangled.

Within days, police had arrested three suspects including two 17-year-old men and a 22-year-old who was a relative of the victim.

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Police said the older man admitted to smoking marijuana and luring the child to a forest on the outskirts of Sulipuram village on the pretext of showing her some pigeons, where he abused her with his cohorts.

He claimed the act had been carried out as a form of revenge after he had squabbled with the girl's father one week earlier, according to the police report.

Sri Lanka is far from a lawless state but the abuse, rape and even murder of young children remains a terrifying reality in remote areas, where many kids remain vulnerable after being orphaned by the nation's 26-year war that ended in 2009 when the military squashed the insurgency, activists say.

Jaffna bore the brunt of some of the fighting between the army and the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group, and was still reeling from the abduction and rape of another schoolgirl in 2015 when the latest news broke.

The High Court sentenced seven men to death last year for the earlier case but activists say the government needs to do more to protect local people, especially children, from the dangers posed by multiple actors.

They have also condemned security forces for allegedly engaging in drug trafficking in the region, which they say is helping to spread a culture of violence and other nefarious activities that increasingly ensnare kids.

Saroja Sivachandran, a woman activist, said the northern part of the country is still feeling the legacy of a former era when thugs, illegal sand miners and other groups operated above the law and enjoyed a degree of state patronage.

In addition to sword attacks and cases of sexual molestation, the illegal moonshine industry is still going strong, with many locals turning to kassippu to forget their troubles. Some reports claim only 20 percent of the alcohol consumed in Sri Lanka is legal.

These trends have come together to create an environment where children are no longer safe to freely walk the streets, said Sivachandran, executive director of the Women's Development Centre, a local NGO.

"Child abuse, rape and murder still take place in remote areas like Jaffna," she said. "In 2016, an 18-year-old schoolgirl was gang-raped and murdered and a 14-year-old girl was also raped and killed here."

The National Child Protection Authority received 3,785 child abuse complaints last year but said the true number could be many orders of magnitude higher due to social stigmas that still consider such attacks to be an embarrassment on the families of the victims.

"We have seen that child abuse cases are increasing in the North," said Sivachandran.

"Many children have been affected by the war. Some are now in orphanages, where they don't get any sex education and are seen as easy prey," she said.

"When someone approaches them with intention to do them harm, they can't see the warning signs."

Sri Lanka is still rebuilding from the ruins of war. At this stage of post-war development, "many basic social structures have collapsed and many parents have migrated elsewhere in search of work or a better life," she said.

This has torn apart the fabric of society and left many youngsters fending for themselves, bereft of the "survival mechanisms" they need to spot and ward off danger, she added.

She described the high rate of unemployment among young men in the north as a recipe for disaster as they struggle to attract women and have a lot of time on their hands to get involved in illegal activities.

Many see little point in continuing their studies after the age of 18 as they can make more money from criminal activity, she said.

"Jaffna is a militarized city. Government forces should have controlled the situation but illegal activity remains rampant," she added.

"Unless something is done to address this situation, the army will have to remain stationed here permanently as things are only getting worse."

Activists claim that, a decade after the war ended, the military systematically violates the rights of local people in this and other parts of the country, robbing them of their land and committing other more egregious crimes.

Such behavior inevitably spurs backlashes from time to time, with demonstrations recently seen in the north and east of the country by women's organizations, university students, teacher and nuns.

They demand an end to the abuse of women and children and call for justice for victims of sexual assaults. Many rail against the spike in such crimes in the wake of peace having supposedly settled on Sri Lanka.

"I attended several protests against the rape, murder and violence meted out against women and children," said Sivachandran. "But the government doesn't pay much attention to what is happening in Jaffna."

The net result is that Jaffna is no longer a safe place for girls and women of all ages, said Father S.V.B. Mangalaraja, director of the Commission for Justice and Peace in Jaffna Diocese.

"There is a strong army and police presence here but they can't control the rampant drug trafficking, which we can see here happening every day," he said, adding that a culture of impunity has made the law seem ineffective.

"The dealers get arrested but the next day they're out on bail and up to their old tricks again, which makes people scared," he said, adding that certain law enforcement officials are known to be complicit with the criminals.

"Parents, teachers, principals, religious leaders, academics, politicians and those responsible for implementing law and order must take firm action to stamp out this [corruption] and culture of violence," he warned.

"Religious leaders should conduct more programs to raise awareness of what is going on and how it can be tackled," the priest suggested.

Not ignorant of such problems, Sri Lanka's cabinet recently discussed reintroducing the death penalty as a punishment for drug traffickers.

Even though courts already have this as an option as capital punishment is enshrined in the charter, it has not been called into use since 1976.

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