Sri Lanka copes with preteen rape victims

By Shanika Sriyananda  |  Feb. 26, 2013 at 5:55 PM
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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (GPI)-- Thilini, 13, breast-feeds her 1-month-old son. An oversized maternity blouse envelops the thin and small girl. Her long hair is plaited with white ribbons. When she carries her baby, she looks as if she is holding a doll. The baby cries if Thilini doesn’t fit her small nipple to his mouth. She tries helplessly to calm him. Thilini says that an elderly neighbor raped her in 2012 in the remote hamlet where she grew up in Nuwara Eliya, a district in Sri Lanka’s Central province. A Magistrate’s Court sent her in August 2012 to Ma Sevana, the Transit Home for Teenage Mothers, in Moratuwa, a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, to protect her while her case proceeds. Ma Sevana is a registered center under the Department of Probation and Child Care Services. The Sarvodaya Suwasetha Sewa Society, a charity organization that reintegrates neglected, disabled, socially disadvantaged children and elders into society, opened the center in 2001. This is the first time the center has granted an interview to the press. Thilini says she wants to go home so that she can continue her studies and her dancing. “I want to become a dancing teacher one day,” she says confidently. “I want my baby, but I want him to be at a children’s home.” In the meantime, she says she wants to temporarily leave her son at the center’s nutrition center, which cares for babies. “Once I study and get a job, I will take my son back,” she says. But Thilini’s family doesn’t want her to return home, as her neighbor charged with her rape is out on bail. They want her to continue her studies from a home run by Sarvodaya Suwasetha Sewa Society that offers food, shelter, education and medical care. Stigma within her community is also strong. “I am still scared when I recall how people looked at me wherever I go,” she says. “This is not my fault why people laugh at me.” Staff at Sri Lanka’s lone center for minors who become pregnant as a result of rape say residents are now as young as 12 and are too young to understand how they got pregnant. Experts attribute an increase in sexual violence against female minors to cultural changes, such as new exposure to pornography thanks to increased access to technology. Many of the young rape victims at the center say they don’t want their babies and struggle to cope with their situations. They can access counseling, education and vocational training at the center. Government ministries have proposed legislation to penalize the rape of child victims with the death penalty. Cases of sexual abuse of young girls – including rape, molestation and harassment – increased by 46 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to the Children and Women Bureau of the Sri Lanka Police. Children younger than 16 years are minors under Sri Lankan law. Having sex with a minor with or without consent is considered rape here.

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