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22nd November 1998

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After ThoughtRape: are we to blame?

by Kumudini Hettiarachchi

Where were we, oh where were we, when the following incidents and many more took place not so long ago?

* An eight-year-old girl, who had not even reached puberty, is dragged into the jungle, while returning from school, by an army deserter, brutally raped and her head smashed repeatedly on stones in Kurunegala. Her nude body is found with half the guava fruit she had been enjoying while walking home, along with her school bag and shoes. She was the sixth in an impoverished family of seven. Her parents are eking out a living by cultivating a small plot of land. The rape and murder case is pending.

* An 11-year-old "servant" girl is allegedly raped by a Provincial Council member (50) in Tissamaharama, but there is difficulty in getting the child's family to take the matter up in courts due to "balapam" (pressure).

* A nine-year-old girl in Aranayake is raped by her father, who is serving in the army, whenever he comes home from the operational areas. The girl's mother is in the Middle East. Police are reluctant to take action against the soldier.

* A seven-year-old in Kurunegala is dragged into the shrubs by an army deserter and violated with a stick.

* A 13-year-old is pulled into the shrine room and allegedly raped by a 29-year-old monk in the Rambukkana area.

These are a few (?) of the documented rape incidents this year. All these and many more have appeared in the media, mostly in the vernacular newspapers.

Therefore, I feel I have the right to ask, where we were, the Colombo middle class and the so-called groups "looking after" the interests of women and children in this country?

Maybe we were abroad on some jaunt, attending conferences with all expenses paid by some aid organisation, maybe we were in our comfortable offices writing reports about "violence against women", maybe we didn't read the vernacular papers or maybe we just didn't care, because it was all happening, in a majority of cases, to the humble, the poor, the rural women and children of this land.

According to police statistics 900 cases of rape were reported in 1997 alone, while according to the media 898 cases of rape have been reported from January to October this year.

But these incidents didn't touch us. We were asleep. There wasn't a murmur about that hapless child of eight, raped and killed in Kurunegala.

For us in Colombo it didn't matter, we were cocooned against such violence until it happened to Rita John on Crow's Island. Yes, it was a heinous crime - newly-wed Rita, was dragged by a gang before her husband's eyes, forced into a trishaw, taken to the marshes, gang-raped and murdered brutally.

There is general consensus that such things should not be tolerated, that the perpetrators should be punished severely. Only after Rita's rape and murder did, we, the saviours of the nation's women and children wake up from our slumber. Maybe we saw the stories because the English newspapers too splashed them across their pages. We woke up then with a bloodcurdling yell - violence against women is increasing.

"Do something," we shouted to the government. As a cynical newspaper woman, I tend to question, "How sincere are we?" Wasn't it just a little hypocritical that in the latter stages of the year and only after Rita John's murder that we took to street protests? What about all those other rapes?

What about that eight-old-year whose head was smashed on the rocks after her innocence was violated in a brutal and beastly manner? This brings echoes of 1990, when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna's insurrection was on the wane.

A little voice, which I cannot hush, keeps saying that maybe we the Colombo women took up placards and braved the weather at Lipton's Circus, because the foreign media would have been interested in Rita John's case, remember she was a foreigner, an Indian. As such the protesters would catch the full attention of the foreign media, which would in turn splash it all over the world and help these self-styled women's groups to get more and more foreign aid.

Death penalty

With such horrific crimes and perversions being committed against women and children, the government should seriously consider further tightening laws against rape. And those convicted of rape should be jailed without even a slim chance of getting parole for "good behaviour" or being set free because the government of the day grants this amnesty and that amnesty to criminals, without a thought for the victims of such beasts. The other urgent need is to consider whether we should implement the death penalty.

Of course, human rights groups will start agitating and screaming about the rights of the accused and whether civilised society should resort to hanging people to bring about a semblance of a crime-free community.

Their argument would be that unlike in olden times, we should not exact an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but attempt to "rehabilitate" such criminals. Do they think that a man who rapes his own daughter or men who gang-rape women and murder them should be treated with such understanding? And what about the rights of the victims of these criminals, some of whom are dead, while others have to live with their agony for the rest of their lives? What is their plight, knowing that there is no justice in this "dharmishta" society? What also is the difference between a law-abiding citizen and a criminal, if the criminal gets away with any barbaric act?

In cases where a fair and just court has heard such cases and is convinced that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubt, the death penalty should be considered. That would be the ultimate deterrent.

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