Legal Gaps PreventAction Against Rape
By Waruni Karunarathne
Sri Lanka continues to encourage a culture of impunity due to the lack of law enforcement with reference to sexual abuse and violence against women. Reported incidents of rape have increased drastically over the last few years in the country whereas the number of silent victims is not known.
In 2011, Khuram Shaikh, a British citizen was killed and his Russian girl friend was gang-raped by eight men in a Tangalle hotel. From 2008 to 2013, 28 women were raped and murdered in Kotakethana, Kahawatta that included three double murders. A 14 year old girl was raped by thirteen rich businessmen with political affiliations in a Tangalle hotel. Recently in Jaffna, a woman named Logarini was gang-raped and killed. Many women on Noori Estate were reportedly gang raped and sexually harassed – the list goes on but no significant measures are being taken to punish the criminals and bring justice to the victims.
Despite Minister of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment Tissa Karaliyadda denying having any details on politicians being involved in most of the cases, the majority of the above mentioned incidents were carried out either by political thugs or men with political affiliations. Last week, women’s groups, activists and youth groups in collaboration with Women and Media Collective organized a walk called “Winning Back the Night” to highlight many of these issues including the need to take immediate action on violence against women and women’s freedom of mobility without facing sexual harassment.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Attorney-at-law and Convenor of the Women’s Movement Shamila Daluwatte said, “Rape incidents and sexual abuse on women and children in the country are clearly on the rise. Most of the rape cases have gone unreported due to social stigma or due to threats from the people involved. There are many gaps in the legal system that prevent action being taken against men involved in rape cases in Sri Lanka. For example, we do not have laws in Sri Lanka to criminalize marital rape unless the wife is judicially separated. This encourages many men to engage in violence against women within marriage”. She also highlighted the necessity to stop granting suspended sentences to criminals found guilty of rape and other serious crimes against women.
In 2012, according to reports by the Women’s Bureau of the Police Department, 1,910 incidents of rape were reported to the police whereas the actual number of the incidents is estimated to be much higher. Among the reported rape incidents in 2012, 84% of the victims were below 18 years of age. Under Penal Code Amendment No 22 of 1995, the minimum age of ‘consent’ in the offence of rape has been increased from twelve to sixteen years. However there exists a problem in the fact that even though a girl above the age of 16 years girl can give consent to sexual intercourse, she cannot get married without parental consent until she is 18 years.
“There is also no unifying judicial code for marriage that applies to everyone in the country,” Daluwatte observed. She also pointed out the lack of support from the legislature in the country to legalize abortion at least in cases of rape and incest in order to avoid further discrimination against the victims.
Viola Perera, Action Networker for Migrant Workers said, “There is a dire need to expedite the process of hearing rape and sexual abuse cases in order to bring justice to the victims and punish the criminals. Cases related to sexual violence against women and child abuse should be given verdicts at least within six months of filing the case. Recently, we were informed of a case about a girl who had been raped when she was 7 years old. However the matter was brought before the court only when she was 18 years old.”
Shamila Daluwatte said that the public and the media need to push the relevant authorities in order to expedite the legal process against criminals, similar to the fast track process implemented in India after the rape incident of the 23 year old woman in Delhi. She emphasised the need to have active campaigns to speak against violence that constantly and consistently victimizes women.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader, civil society activist and Founder of the Women and Media Collective Kumudini Samuel stated, “Rape is undoubtedly a serious act of violence committed against women and girls or anyone for that matter. The minimum sentence for a rape crime varies, depending on the circumstances, from 7 to 14 years under the 1995 Amendment to the Penal Code while allowing a suspended sentence which however lessens the seriousness of the crime. From the incidents reported, the number of convictions is very low due to many reasons including delays in implementing the laws. The existing court proceedings also re-victimize women discouraging them from seeking justice. In many cases, men who committed the crime are either politically influential or someone in the family or known to the family and therefore often adversarial”.
During a debate in Parliament, Rosy Senanayake, MP, pointed out that out of men who are charged for sexual abuse and violence against women only 2% are actually remanded. It has also being reported that a woman is raped every 90 minutes in Sri Lanka while 3 to 5 children are raped every day.
A recent UN led multi-country survey in six Asia-Pacific countries namely Sri Lanka, China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia has also revealed that 97% of men convicted for rape have not faced any legal consequences in Sri Lanka.
When The Sunday Leader requested information about the rape complaints and statistics on the reported incidents from the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, the Ministry refused to divulge any data on the grounds that they received that data from a third party referring to the Police Department’s Women’s Bureau.
When questioned, E.W.F. Eric Elayappaarachchi, the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, refused to answer any questions related to ‘rape’ as if the word itself was prohibited within the premises. He was forthcoming only about the government having allocated enough funds to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs and how positive the government is about protecting the rights of women.
While the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs was extremely pleased that the government had allocated an extra 300 million rupees from the Budget 2014 to increase awareness among women and children to prevent sexual abuse and harassment, Kumudini Samuel stressed upon the importance of eradicating the sense of impunity that prevails in the country. She said, “Women are being recognized as the victims of violence. Women are being advised and forced to act in certain ways for the wrongs committed by men and that has curtailed the freedom of women. The authorities should involve the perpetrators in the process of providing a remedy to the problem. It is men who should learn to respect women and put an end to violence against women”.