Colombo, Sri Lanka – Recent allegations that a naval officer in the northern city of Jaffna raped an 11-year-old girl have cast a spotlight on the growing problem of sexual violence in Sri Lanka.
According to police statistics, incidents of rape have increased by nearly 20 percent in the last two years, with 4,393 cases registered during 2012-2014 as compared to 3,624 in 2010-2012.
In the Jaffna case, police confirmed they had apprehended and brought before the courts a suspect attached to the navy, but refused to comment further.
“While this particular case has received significant media attention, thousands of others do not,” said professor Savithri Fernando, who counsels victims of sexual abuse.
“Sexual abuse is rampant,” she told Al Jazeera citing the Asian Human Rights Council research on rape in the island nation.
Preethi (name changed) said she was raped while working in a garment factory in the capital, Colombo. A few male supervisors at the factory treated the mostly female staff as “personal attendants”, she told Al Jazeera, adding that the verbal abuse led her to lodge a formal complaint with factory authorities.
“An inquiry was held, but many women employees refused to comment against these men. Finally they decided to transfer me to another section,” she said.
“It was a week later that two of the men who I had lodged a complaint against raped me,” she told Al Jazeera. Preethi said she was afraid to report the incident for fear of losing her job, although she left the factory several months later.
“I am in search of new work, but I am afraid to take a job at another garment factory. There is no protection for women,” she said. “I was not the first to be raped and I am scared that it will happen again.”
Buddhika Fernando, manager of the Star Clothes Merchants where Preethi worked, told Al Jazeera that it was an internal matter and “was dealt with”, refusing to comment further.
Poor conviction rates
According to a 2013 UN Survey, which explored violence against women throughout the Asia-Pacific region, nearly 15 percent of Sri Lankan men said they had committed rape. Of those, 65 percent said they had done so on more than one occasion. But of all the men surveyed, only five percent said they had been arrested and jailed for their crimes.
Accoding to article 365 of the country’s penal code, those found guilty of grave sexual abuse can face rigorous imprisonment. Perpetrators can be jailed for up to 20 years and must pay compensation to the victim.
“Cultural norms in Sri Lanka have contributed to the unwillingness of sexual-abuse victims to report these crimes,” said Fernando, who teaches at the University of Colombo. “Very often, a woman will be shunned by her local community when they learn of such an act,” she said. “If a woman is unmarried, it will be near impossible for her to find a husband if it becomes public knowledge.”
Very often, a woman will be shunned by her local community when they learn of such an act. If a woman is unmarried, it will be near impossible for her to find a husband if it becomes public knowledge.
Police spokesperson, Ajith Rohana, told Al Jazeera that police have established a children’s and women’s bureau to investigate acts of sexual violence. He could not confirm the frequency of rapes in Sri Lanka, but noted: “Any time a rape is reported, we immediately investigate and arrest the perpetrators, who will then be produced before the courts.”
Fernando says existing laws in the country have encouraged domestic sexual violence, noting it is not illegal in Sri Lanka for a person to rape their spouse.
Many rapes in the country occur between spouses, leaving the victims with no legal protection, she said.The penal code in Sri Lanka only criminalises marital rape if the wife and husband are legally separated. Otherwise it is not recognised as a crime.
One woman who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity said she was raped by her husband, a part-time labourer, on several occasions.
“Our finances are tight and often he resorts to alcohol when he cannot find work. When he is drunk he attacks me,” she said.
“I must now either divorce him or endure this, [but] if I divorce my husband I will be forced to leave my home… I have little work here and do not think I can get any elsewhere.”
In April, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Child Development and Women’s Affairs, Tissa Karalliyadda, proposed that a rapist be bound by law to marry their victim, provided the victim consented in court. Karalliyadda told Al Jazeera that this would “discourage perpetrators from such acts, and of course the victim had the option to refuse to marry”.
He has also proposed tougher sentences for rapists, though the proposal has yet to come before parliament.
But Sepali Kottegoda, the executive director of the feminist group Women and Media Collective, said such a law would not “dissuade” rapists.
“No victim would want to marry a person who has sexually abused them. It will amount to nothing,” Kottegoda told Al Jazeera, adding the minister should resign for suggesting such an anti-rape law.
“This is not the first such comment made by the minister. It demonstrates that he either does not take his job seriously or is unable to perform his duties effectively,” she said.