7th December 1997


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What right have you to do this to me?

Case 1:- 15 year old girl from a broken family was sexually abused at 14 years - by the step father, she then became pregnant, and had a spontaneous abortion. Step father was subsequently murdered by the mother who had to serve a jail sentence - (case study done by Prof. D.G. Harendra de Silva - "Child Abuse - The Gravity of Problem and Dilemmas in Management in S.L.)

By Farah Mihlar

Sexual abuse of children is a critical problem in this country.

Sri Lanka is considered a paradise island for paedophiles and sex tourists, but what is often concealed and almost never talked about is the high level of incest which takes place in the country.

After almost 112 years the Penal Code of Sri Lanka was amended in 1995 to include laws pertaining to sexual offences. Thereby under Sec.3 (54) a of the Penal Code incest is an offence punishable by law. Incest is simply defined as sexual intercourse by an adult or older adolescent with a younger member of his/her family.

According to non governmental organisations studying the subject of child abuse in S.L., almost all cases of incest are cases where a father has either raped or sexually abused the daughter. Few cases of sexual relationships between siblings have been reported and not a single case of sexual abuse by a mother has been recorded in this country.

It does not take much research to prove that a victim of incest suffers immense mental trauma. "When the child grows up and asks who is my father how can you explain that your father and my father are the same" says Director of The Family Rehabilitation Centre Mr. C. T. Jansz. Such are the almost bizzare traumatic states associated with incest. The most pathetic cases are when the child becomes pregnant as a result of incest.

In most cases the pregnancy is terminated illegally through an abortion. But if the young girl is made to continue with the pregnancy the repercussions are pitiful. Often babies grow up not knowing who their father is, and the mother suffers by her failure to explain or provide answers to her children.

A voluntary worker involved in cases of child abuse explains that children usually wear underclothes to conceal the private parts of their body. The only time a parent touches a child's private parts, is when the child is being washed. "When the child is playing or watching TV parents don't fondle or touch her body" he explains. Therefore when a child is sexually abused, it is obvious he would feel violated.

For instance, it is likely that the child would also feel betrayed, let down. It is difficult to empathise with the feeling of violation that a victim feels, unless you try to put yourself in the child's position. The child would be traumatised and confused, mainly because he or she feels the violation was by somebody who was respected and looked upto. The subject is poorly researched and only few statistics and figures are available. Studying the subject is difficult and this is mainly because few people come out in the open and talk about it. Children hardly ever admit to being sexually abused or raped by a family member. This is mainly because the child himself is unable to accept it. In most circumstances children are afraid to openly talk about such an incident and on some occasions they are under oath to maintain silence. This is when the father would threaten to kill the child if she speaks about the abuse. Sometimes a child does not relate such an incident because she is made to believe that it is normal by father who assures her that he is abusing her "because he loves her" or "because they have a special bond."

Though there is no substantive number that would indicate the extent to which incest is practised in this country, it is commonly accepted by workers that it is undoubtedly a critical problem.

Evan Ekanayaka, a psychologist working with ESCAPE (Eradicating Sexual Child Abuse Prostitution and Exploitation) says the psychological impact on the victim will depend on several factors including the length of abuse, the type of abuse, the abuser, the age of the child, and what support systems were available for the child "Depending on these factors the short term implications range from physical ailments, nightmares, bed wetting to developing fears of things for no apparent reason, and sudden major changes in the behaviour of the child.

The long term psychological impact will be the inability to have steady relationships and the failure to recognise boundaries in relationships. This means the individual will have distorted ideas on the difference in relationships between parents, friends and lovers.

"Sometimes it is better that the husband has sex with the child than another woman," a mother of a victim told a volunteer. Though this is not always the typical reaction, it indicates the importance of the third party in incest. Often , the mother is also abused. This contributes to a conspiracy of silence. sometimes the silence is through shame, but most often they contribute to the silence in a bid to avoid the social stigma that would invariably arise from such an incident. Relatives also conceal the incident for the same reasons while neighbours choose not to get involved. "Who would like to complain, could you admit that such a thing is happening in your family" says one official. In any event, all of it goes to show the significance of the third party in cases of incest. In some cases, the mother may not be privy to the act.

Is a person who suffers from incest insane? Its easy to believe so. But psychologists explain otherwise. Research shows that it is possible that the abuser may suffers from mental imbalance, but more often incest is attributed to several other factors. The most common trend however proves that in many cases the person who sexually abuses a child was also sexually abused as a child. Apart from the psychological reasons there are many sociological, cultural and economic factors that encourage incest.

The most prominent factor that contributes to incest is the non existence of a mother in the family unit. The largest number of incest cases are reported from homes where the mother is employed in a foreign country. "Mothers between the ages of 20-35 go to the Middle East leaving behind young girls with very little protection from the father or other members of the family" says Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne of UNICEF. In this context there are two consequences. Firstly, the father comes home and finds the daughter unguarded and unprotected, and indulges in sexual intercourse. The second situation is where the daughter who acts in place of the mother, is forced to extend her "family" role to sexually satisfying her father.

"Whenever incest takes place in the presence of the mother, the father often happens to be an alcoholic,'' according to Dr. Wijemanne. When incest takes place in these circumstances, the father is probably abusive and violent and the mother who is also afraid of the consequences is unable to protect the child.

Poverty can also contribute towards incest. In most poor houses six or seven members of one family have to sleep in one small area. In such cases it is difficult for parents to conceal their sexual relationship which often results in incest, either by the father abusing the child in the presence of the mother, with the mother's approval or in the absence of the mother or even with siblings practising what they observe their parents doing.

Some abusers prefer raping their children simply because a child would comply more easily. A parent can dominate the child to do as he wishes . Social workers explain that it is not possible for a heterosexual to gain full satisfaction by having sex with a child. However the easy accessibility and submissiveness is usually a motivating factor for the father. Apart from being socially taboo, incest is disapproved of in all religions. In Sri Lanka, cultural conditioning counts in the incidence of incest, according to authoritative resource persons. It is probably linked to the concept of worshipping a parent, and being unable to oppose a parent's actions. This is often why, when a child is raped or abused, she is unable to stand up against the abuser and silently accepts the abuse. Male dominance in the household which is a contributing factor to incest, is also synonymous with local culture.

Dr. Wijemanne says that incest oversteps racial and class barriers, and is practised in almost all societies. Another NGO worker however says cases of incest are more often found in poverty stricken areas because in the cities people have a variety of outlets and avenues for sex, and need not make use of a child.

It is significant that not a single case of incest has so far come to court, despite the obvious prevalence of incest and the fact that the law is clear on the subject. If a person is found guilty of incest he faces a prison term of not less than 7 years and not more than 20 years. . Very few complaints are made to the police in any case, says DIG Nizam.

Probably, the major problem in dealing with victims of incest is the fact that the abused child must feel he is believed. This is vital. C.T. Jansz of the F.R.C. suggests that in the absence of a counsellor or a psychologist, a school teacher should take that role upon her self to assist the child. This means that children, must be taught from a very young age to stand up against any form of abuse and to be able to confide the problem to a confidante. Adults should also overcome social taboos, and their personal fears and complain to the authorities when they are in the knowledge of incest taking place. Once a child makes a complaint the handling of the issue properly can minimize the psychological impact on the child. The legal authorities must be able to provide protection to other members of the family who are also under the threat of the abuser. Urgent psychological help for the victim and other members of the family is very important. The unavailability of these basic requirements only worsens the crisis. The mere existence of the law is insufficient. It must be effectively implemented, and swift action must be taken to charge the perpetrators.

It is obvious that the problem of incest is not getting better in this country. Every citizen has a role to play in combating it. It is easy to believe that every child is brought up in a secure environment. It is easy to be blind to the reality that thousands of children don't go to sleep at night, they lie awake to be fondled and raped by their own parents. No one sees their tears - It is time we opened our eyes.

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