Last week, a Kegalle district primary school principal was arrested for sexually abusing eight schoolgirls. The father to two children, 52-year-old Swamivelu Sukumar is accused of showing pornography and then on several occasions sexually abusing the victims aged between 11 to 13 years. The principal was apprehended after a child who had dropped out of [...]


Sexual predators run riot in schools

Parents reluctant to complain due to social stigma, intimidation

Last week, a Kegalle district primary school principal was arrested for sexually abusing eight schoolgirls. The father to two children, 52-year-old Swamivelu Sukumar is accused of showing pornography and then on several occasions sexually abusing the victims aged between 11 to 13 years.

The principal was apprehended after a child who had dropped out of school confided to government officials that the reason she was no longer attending school was because the principal was ‘hurting’ her.

These are not the first complaints lodged against Sukumar; In 2012, when he was a principal at a different primary school in Aranayaka, the zonal education office had received an anonymous phone call complaining of sexual abuse perpetrated by him.

“But when I went to the school to conduct an investigation, I couldn’t gather any evidence from either teachers or students, so we dropped the case,” a Mawanella education division official told the Sunday Times.

On a previous occasion, one victim’s father had gone to the school and yelled at Sukumar, but had never complained to the police. Investigations later revealed that a teacher at the school had brought the principal a cup of tea while he was committing sexual abuse. That teacher is also currently under investigation.

In the same week, a principal of a Hambantota area school was arrested for indecently exposing himself to a 12-year-old female student. The criminal investigation revealed that the accused principal had committed the same offence at a previous school. Earlier this year, a 37-year-old sports and computer teacher was arrested in Anuradhapura area for sexually abusing nine underage students. Another principal at Mahiyangana was arrested for sexually assaulting a fellow teacher’s four-year-old daughter while they were on the way to a funeral.

This year, from January 1 to July 14, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) recorded 714 complaints of rape, sexual harassment and grave sexual abuse cases committed against children. Last year there was a total of 1,772 such complaints.

In 2012, police recorded 1,463 child rape cases, in addition to 91 cruelty to children cases and sexual exploitation of children cases recorded for the first quarter of the year. In 2011, police recorded a total of 1,759 cases of child rape or incest, in addition to 833 cases of unnatural offences, grievous sexual abuse, cruelty and sexual exploitation cases committed against children.

The increased number of child rape cases is not necessarily due to an increased number of incidents, it could be explained by increased awareness and improved complaint systems, officials say. The highest number of child abuse cases reported island-wide are from Colombo and Gampaha districts and this is due to the “good reporting system in these areas,” an NCPA spokesperson Ediriweera Gunasekara said.

The actual incidence of child abuse in Sri Lanka is not known. Research indicates that the numbers reported to the authorities are much less than the actual occurrence. No organisation, government or otherwise, is able to provide proper statistics regarding child abuse in the country, according to a 2013 study conducted by forensic scientists and judicial medical officers at Peradeniya University.

Studies on child abuse show that a considerable amount of teens in Sri Lanka have been abused at some point in their lives. The great majority of the victims know their attackers. A 2005 study found that girls were at a higher risk for sexual abuse than boys particularly in the 14 to 16 age group.

“There’s a general lack of awareness of how to report cases to the proper channels,” Dr. A.N. Vadyasinghe, senior lecturer at Peradeniya and one of the researchers involved in the 2013 study, said. “Even last Wednesday police sent two parents to the hospital to have their child examined for sexual abuse. But they just hung around for over three hours not knowing the process.”

Mostly, parents are reluctant to file complaints of child sexual abuse because of social stigma, intimidation or even economic reasons. Schools would rather have sex abuse cases swept under the rug in case a scandal might “tarnish the good name of the school,” Joseph Stalin, secretary of the All Ceylon Teacher’s Union, said. More often than not, school officials could intimidate a victim or a victim’s parents against lodging a formal complaint, such as by threatening to expel the child or to expose the supposed “bad character” of the child, former NCPA Chairperson Harendra de Silva said.

“Very often the child is the person blamed for this,” Dr Silva added. “Back when I was chairman, a principal from a very prominent school found out that one of the teachers had been sexually abusing a child. The school covered it up by telling the parents ‘you can either take a leaving certificate or we’ll expel the child.’ When they spend a lot of money getting children into schools, often as bribes, they don’t want to change schools.”

“The abuser is often in a position of power, whether it be a father or a uncle at a household, teacher at a school, school prefect, coach or the head of an orphanage,” he added. “We bring up our children telling them to do whatever the adults tell them to do. Once abusers have power over the children, they can threaten the child. With small children, they can be tricked into thinking it’s a game.”

Once stories of abuse get out, victims could be subjected to “secondary victimisation,” where they are shamed or socially stigmatised.
“Once everyone knows about it, it’s difficult for the victim to continue education,” Professor Vadysinghe said. “Blame could come to parents. They might not have much social support.”

Another “burning issue” in child sex abuse cases at schools is that the accused school officials are transferred instead of taken to court, Mr. Stalin said.

“There is no proper procedure to investigate and prosecute perpetrators,” he said. “Instead they keep getting transferred to different schools, where they get the opportunity to abuse even more children. For children who complain, there are no steps taken to ensure their safety. ”

NCPA deputy chairperson Sujatha Kulatunga said the Authority is conducting awareness programmes island-wide for principals and teachers on preventing child abuse and secondary victimisation, in addition to providing psycho-social support for victims.

“We have an Angel network, where volunteer child protection officers conduct grassroots advocacy programs in villages,” she said. “We’ve had very good responses. People see this as a worthy program because they don’t want to see these sort of abuse cases happening anywhere.”

Furthermore, the Inspector General of Police, working with the NCPA, has sent a circular to police stations island-wide instructing them to investigate, within 48 hours, cases reported to the police by the NCPA.

Seven Navy men remanded on sex abuse charges 

Seven Navy personnel suspected of sexually abusing two primary schoolgirls in Jaffna were remanded until Monday by Jaffna Juvenile Court Magistrate K. Jeewarani last Friday.

The suspects, all sailors stationed at the Karainagar Naval Base in Kayts, were produced before the court on Friday for an identification parade. The victim present could not make a positive identification, T. Viswarupan, Probation and Child Care Services Commissioner for Jaffna, told the Sunday Times.

The men were granted personal surety bail of Rs. 50,000 each but their release could not be finalised as court proceedings adjourned for the day.
The investigation would continue despite the victims not making a positive identification, Commissioner Viswarupan said.

The harrowing tale was uncovered earlier this week by Probation and Childcare Services (PCS) officers when they were inquiring into a number of absenteeism in schools in villages in Kayts, Commissioner Viswarupan said. The officers asked the principal of one of the schools why an 11-year-old girl had been absent for some 11 days. When the principal asked the parents of the child why their daughter had not been to school for this long, the baffled parents had replied that their daughter left for school each morning.

The girl disclosed to inquiring PCS officers that the suspects had given her chocolates and biscuits and befriended her. The victim had said her nine-year-old cousin, who walked with her to school, was also sexually abused on multiple occasions.

Both victims were admitted to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital for a medical examination

“Both victims are now in protective custody and we are arranging for them to receive counselling and therapy,” Commissioner Viswarupan said.

Meanwhile the Ceylon Teacher’s Union (CTU) in a press released expressed concern regarding the “death threats” that are “intimidating the victims’ parents into silence.”

“Even when a serious crime has occurred, [the threats] the parents are receiving indicate that the investigation is being hindered by outside influences,” the press release stated. “A number of incidents like this have been reported from the Northern Province in recent times….Because the perpetrators of such crimes are not presented in front of the law to do justice; these crimes are getting worse day by day.”

The CTU has also formally complained against the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) to “ensure the safety of the girls and to make sure that they receive justice.”

NCPA Chairperson Anoma Dissanayaka was not available for comment despite multiple attempts.

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