A childhood robbed
In 2013, a TIME Magazine article titled ‘Sri Lanka Struggles to Contain a Growing Epidemic of Child Abuse’ reported that three to five children are raped every day in Sri Lanka and that “the total number of all crimes against children — which besides sex crimes include crimes of violence, abduction, trafficking and other offenses — increased by a dramatic 64% between 2011 and 2012.” Patriarchal values within Sri Lankan culture and misplaced religious beliefs bring shame and stigmatisation to these girls and their families. Research shows that perpetrators of sexual abuse are often known to the victims, and are often part of the family unit. Often, many instances of such violence go unreported. Sexual abuse, whether once or over a prolonged period of time, has a profound impact on the cognitive and physical development of girls. Survivors of sexual abuse are placed in shelters owned and managed both by private sector institutions and by the state until arduous court proceedings end. The number of girls currently residing in such shelters across Sri Lanka is unknown. In the discourse on prevention of gender based violence, an issue which is often overlooked is the challenges faced by the girls who are courageously testifying in court. The Picture Press together with Emerge Lanka, and the kind collaboration of one such institution, caught a glimpse into their lives. We were not allowed to speak to the girls about their ongoing court proceedings or their abuse, and were instructed to only listen in the event it was discussed. We were also not allowed to provide any responses or advice.
Young girls who have been removed from their homes due to past abuse or the threat of abuse, and are in the midst of court proceedings, are placed in state and privately owned and managed shelters. Often, they are not given any explanations on why they have been placed in a shelter, and their present situation. Their emotional state is exacerbated by being suddenly thrust into a new environment away from familiar surroundings and a sudden restriction of their freedom. The lead state entities responsible for the placement, care, and protection of survivors of sexual abuse are the Department of Probation coming under the purview of the Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs and the National Child Protection Authority.
The shelter we visited housed women from all walks of life and varying circumstances. Some were pregnant and unable to keep their children, while others had escaped domestic abuse or were disabled or suffered mental illness. A small group of approximately 19 young teenagers were survivors of sexual abuse. As we walked through the shelter, the older women hid from us, covering their faces, shutting doors and windows fearing they would be recognised. The younger girls suspiciously watched until we were given a nod of approval by their matriarch, fondly called ‘Loku Miss’ – a retired Women Police Constable who had spent 30 years at the Welikada Prison. What is heart-breaking to see is that these girls are confined to such shelters and robbed of their childhood for no fault of their own. They have no contact with the outside world, have limited or no education, and live in isolation until their court proceedings are finalised. Yet their strength and resilience in overcoming abuse is evident.
THE FEELINGS OF SURVIVORS REFLECTED ON A SHELTER WALL, SRI LANKA, MARCH 2014. For these female teenagers, overcoming difficulties in a group home is not easy. The difficulties, practical and otherwise, are complex. It seemed that most of these girls come from poverty, and are from broken homes or unconventional family units. Each one has their own story. Each one externalising or internalising their trauma in different ways. Often left undiagnosed and untreated, trauma manifests in diverse ways among these girls – ranging from suicidal tendencies, self-mutilation, guilt, and shame, to aggressive and violent behaviours. They form attachments to staff and volunteers very quickly as they have rarely experienced positive human interaction, love and affection. What many often fail to understand is that these girls are teenagers, growing up with little or no skills to cope with adversity because of their abuse. Those who work at the shelter often see violent tantrums, which largely stems from how they felt they were mistreated or disrespected.
What is perhaps most evident is the need for mental health professionals with the capacity and experience to deal with the varying circumstances the girls face everyday. However, the reality is that many of the shelters struggle to provide such psycho-social support – sometimes due to conservative views and belief systems, but most of the time due to a lack of resources. While every shelter is provided with a counselor by the state, such positions are often a stepping-stone for more lucrative private practices. This perpetuates the inconsistencies with which this essential service is provided to the girls.
Survivors of sexual abuse are often groomed by their abusers to not speak out. The girls often blame themselves for the abuse. “They are made to feel that they provoked or deserved the abuse. Helping the girls realize that they were disrespected, wronged,abused, and helping them to overcome the trauma is an almost insurmountable challenge.” says Mumtaz Aroos Faleel, Country Manager, Emerge Lanka Foundation.
Living among dozens of others, their bed is often the only private space the girls have. They are keen to personalise it and make it their own. Dormitories are lined with steel cupboards – some brightly painted and most missing doors or locks. Violent outbursts are commonplace and each others’ belongings are usually the first target. Some cupboards were bashed in and doors hung off their hinges. Beds were dotted with soft toys and rubber matting. Some mothers did their hair the same way they did their daughter’s hair, and often mothers and children had their toys lined up next to each other.
At the time of our visit, a very young mother was holding a four day-old baby. Other mothers, some even younger than her, instructed her on how to support the baby’s neck when carrying her. She was raped by her mother’s boyfriend and came to the shelter when she was 3 months pregnant. She is 15 years old and didn’t hesitate to show off her new baby to us. This was their first photograph as mother and child.
While the respective institutions governed by the state manage the day-to-day activities at these shelters and is primarily concerned with the protection of the girls until their court proceedings conclude, organisations like Emerge Lanka Foundation partner with the shelters to build the girls’ future. Their core programme – ‘Beads-to-Business’ – is based on a self-paced workbook where survivors of abuse complete a curriculum which include business acumen and life skills that are intrinsic to their future independence. Shelters are essentially transformed into entrepreneurship hubs where survivors of abuse focus on their future while simultaneously building a financial foundation. Currently, Emerge Lanka works closely with the management of two shelters in Colombo and Negombo with the hope of beginning their programmes at another shelter in Wattala.
Topics ranging from business planning, product development, managing and saving money, professionalism, quality management, liaising with suppliers, and sourcing raw materials are comprehensively covered. A bank and a supplier are simulated in stations, and by the end of the programme the girls are able to successfully make their own jewelry, manage their finances, and develop their own business plans. According to Emerge Lanka, beading allows the girls to make choices, pair colours, and achieve small tangible goals. In the long term it helps develops their social skills and contributes greatly towards their self-worth and overall healing process. The girls’ savings from selling the jewelry they make are deposited into a savings account set up in their names. Upon leaving the shelter, some of them used their savings to set up their own small businesses, fund education, child care, professional training and even build small homes.
‘Life Skills’ and ‘Mentorship’ make up two other components of the Emerge programme. Mentorship takes the form of 12 lessons and cover topics ranging from maturity, relationships, values, responsibilities, alcohol and addiction, mental health, and childcare. It is built around the individual needs of each girl and the programme seeks to reinforce their learning of life skills, explore their own values and ideals, and provide an opportunity for the girls to ask questions, relate difficulties, and seek advice. Long-time mentor Charuni started working with Emerge as a volunteer shortly after her father passed away in 2009. She was a qualified architect but yet sought to devote her time to something “more fulfilling”. She feels that the most common thread among the girls was resilience and courage. “We position ourselves as role models and in their journey to eventually transitioning into a part of society, and discuss goals and ways to go about achieving them. In doing this, it is very important to be approachable,” says Charuni.
“After spending months of isolation in shelters, being questioned and your abuse being discussed publicly and openly can be very traumatic for these girls,” says Mumtaz. Their court proceedings are almost always dismissed or unsuccessful. Aggressive defence lawyers appearing on behalf of their abusers subject the girls to nothing short of vilification, even blaming them or suggesting provocation. This results in the girls becoming further introverted and more withdrawn, often setting back months or years of recovery. Through its programme, Emerge tries to show them that they have a choice – to either go back to square one, or survive. “In some ways this programme prepares them for this, we try our best to manage their expectations as it is not in our control. What we do have control over is helping the girls understand, restore their confidence, self-worth and plan for the future when they leave the shelter,” says Mumtaz.
Having recently piloted a reintegration programme, Mumtaz speaks about the importance of not hiding from the girls the realities of life beyond the shelter. “There have been instances where girls have fallen into sex work, or have been unable to look after themselves and their children”, Mumtaz says. On the more positive side, girls who have reclaimed their lives successfully are invited as guest speakers, to encourage the girls and also contribute to the curriculum. Their talks discuss how to balance vulnerabilities and opportunities. “We also have a Peer Educator Internship Program for past participants who are welcomed as empowered survivors of abuse, role models who send very powerful messages to these girls.” says Mumtaz.