By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
It seems to me that the depth of our concern about children being abused is equally matched by the depth of our stupidity in responding to this problem. By stupid I mean that we are following a beaten track, like sincere pigs, without looking left or right.
As ignorant adults we neglected these helpless children before they were abused. When there is a hue and cry about abuse we rush in with the police and drag the child into a criminal process which the child and his or her close relatives have no control over and cannot really understand. Sometimes the police themselves are not sure whether they should protect the child or the suspect. It all depends on the influence possessed by the suspect. In such cases (and they are not rare) there is a lot of confusion and disorder inside the police station because such suspects and their supporters are much more comfortable inside the station than innocent people.
If the suspect has no influence the law proceeds on its long course. Statements are recorded, JMO’s are harassed for medical reports and the file ends in the Attorney General’s Department to join thousands of similar companions pending disposal. By this time the child is forgotten again. Many other victims join the child in this state of misery. Starting with the child’s family and loved ones, the police officers, doctors, state counsel and finally magistrates and judges find themselves locked into a system where there are too many cases and too little time to finish their work. It is a baton relay that never ends – and this is no fun to run. The whole process has moved far away from the child – the original cause. Sensitive officials may suffer thinking of the seeming irrelevance of what they do. Mercifully none of them get to see too much of the child. There is simply no time for that.
I am not saying that the criminal process is irrelevant. It has been made irrelevant by a lack of independence, courage and a sense of direction by those at the helm.
When I referred to our ignorance above I was being neither derogatory nor Buddhist. Ignorance is our normal state until we start speaking to the avowed subject of our concern. When our interactions with the child are defined and shaped by the criminal process we give ourselves very little space and time to have a dialogue with the child. Having a video interview is good, but that is also in the service of the criminal process which has embarked on a long journey to punish the offender. Who is paying attention to the child whether s/he has injuries, whether s/he is hungry or thirsty, whether s/he is scared and lonely and wants to have a loved one with them? Many sympathetic police officers, doctors and magistrates do this – but they do this because they are sympathetic human beings; not because they are directed to do it by any law or procedure. Ultimately they can only do very little – because the child is NOT a case; the child is a human being.
After being abused the child and all the very important and powerful people (VIP’s) who have to do this and that with regard to the case come to a junction. One road is our beaten track that leads to the Police Station, JMO, Magistrate’s Court, Attorney General’s Office and finally the High Court. I must remind those who have forgotten that we took this road in 1995 by amending the Penal Code. The NCPA established in 1998 set up a dedicated Police Unit and made a great effort to stop the tide. It is honourable to try and fail. But it is dishonourable to take the same road again. The children suffered enough in the last 17 years as the adults bungled with their game of ‘justice.’
The road less travelled is of course the road taken by the child, most of the time ALONE. This may be to a Remand Home, a Children’s Home or to the child’s own home. Wherever the child is placed possibilities of further abuse and attempts to change the child’s version of the story can be made. There are many, many other issues to be looked into relating to the child’s health, schooling and future. Family members have to be advised to stay in touch and support the child. Most of this is very ordinary, human and social work. And it is not newsworthy for the press or the big institutions set up spending millions to ‘protect’ children. It will only become so if there is another allegation of abuse in the Home and then we will have the ‘child protection people’ coming in with their guns blazing, arresting and remanding people, getting their pictures into the press and going through that largely meaningless charade again.
We have to ask the children what they think of all this….
The real heroes of course are those who befriend these children in their time of dire need. The people who need our support are those simple officers and individuals who spend their time, day in and day out doing things to help the child. This work needs a lot of patience, kindness and thoughtfulness. It is a different way of being ‘tough’ on child abuse.
It is quite understandable for governments to show criminals who the boss is in this country. Governments have been trying to discipline people for centuries but they will never come across a better way of doing this than setting a personal example of good behaviour to others. If, and only if this standard of exemplary behaviour can be achieved by all the law enforcers and their god fathers the criminal law can be a serious exercise in our society. Not until then. So we will have to continue to struggle to keep the abusers away from children and struggle to help individual children in the future as well. My point is that if we cannot punish the offender or we have to wait years to do that we can still help the child TODAY.
In most of the ‘big’ cases which made the headlines recently if you take the road less travelled you will find that the child is still alone, still sad and neglected. Not only that; you will find that the poor man’s services like probation and social services are fighting a lone battle to help children with very little resources. The Probation service has to be re-organized. Some officers have too much work and some have too little. They are paid a travelling allowance of Rs. 2000 a month to visit families and carry out social inquiries. Like the midwives do today most of them simply get the children and families to come to them.
One day I was passing the Mirihana Police Ground to see about 50 nice blue Indian jeeps waiting to be sent to the police stations. We have more police officers today in the country than we have ever had. We must ask the children if they feel better protected.
This is the way to invest in suffering. The Ministry of Finance must ask itself what its role and function is in a society struggling to close the chapter of hatred and conflict. All forms of development that ignore children and families are suspect. A society cannot move one step forward without adults disciplining themselves to provide an example to all children. Till then our adults will remain children and children as a result will have to grow up much faster. Very soon they will be on the streets.
Recently when I spoke to a group of young adults they were very clear that the solution lies in better education to address our hearts and minds. They suggested that the best medium to use is the arts. We must keep talking to them because we have so little time left to live and they have so much more. It is their world we are destroying.
Going a little deeper into our ignorance we still believe that water flows from top to bottom. This is so in ignorant societies. In a society that starts learning the water goes from the bottom to the top; from children to adults; from the weak to the strong. When we start investing in learning about each other in this way this society will move away from all forms of violence.
* Sajeeva Samaranayake : Attorney at Law and consultant on child protection