In the middle of a crisis – pandemic and all else, Have we forgotten the plight of our children?

Child Abuse, the CoViD-19 Pandemic and Sri Lanka

(Written by: Hashir Naufer, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo)

The world is facing a raging viral pandemic to which Sri Lanka has been no exception. Curfews, lockdowns, isolations and quarantines have become norms. CoViD-19 has impacted the lives of Sri Lankans in more ways than we would imagine. The pandemic has been confining people to their homes, but along with it has arisen a worrisome trend of increase in domestic violence and child abuse. Physical, mental, sexual and emotional abuses along with neglect have not been uncommon in the island nation over the years, but recent trends post-CoViD-19 see an alarming rise in complaints of child cruelty around Sri Lanka. What has gone wrong? Why has there been an alarming rise? The onus falls on us to identify and rectify this crisis.

CoViD-19 has not been kind to most of the Sri Lankan public. While the infection itself hasn’t majorly harmed people, its repercussions have been felt in every household. The economic hardships have been palpable, with many losing out on their jobs and livelihoods during the pandemic. With very low income, families have been forced to face an economic stress which hasn’t been adequately alleviated by relief measures. Staying at home and being exposed to information and misinformation about restrictions, curfews, lockdowns and disease progression has not helped people’s mental well-being either. Add to that, the challenges faced by caregivers, boredom and increased leisure – you end up with a population that is stressed, anxious and irritable at the same time.

Schools have been closed for long periods, necessitating parents and caregivers to educate their children online and otherwise, which has caused increased workload and inefficient education due to the impracticality and lack of facilities around Sri Lanka. Increased time being spent among relatives and family members, intensified marital conflicts and deteriorated parent-child relationships have become commoner in households. The lack of community support including that of teachers, physicians and child welfare workers too has affected children adversely during this pandemic.

These factors have comfortably added up to cause severe repercussions in various sectors of the Sri Lankan society, but in the forefront of them remains the alarming increase in child abuse and cruelty. Contrary to popular opinion, child abuse includes everything from physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse, child labor up to neglect, all of which have adverse effects on the upbringing of children. Any hindrance to the child that causes harm or injury in any of the above means falls under child abuse and needs to be addressed promptly.

During CoViD-19, children haven’t been immune to common despair, having to face boredom, poverty and deprivation of facilities due to economic stress. Families have been irritable and vulnerable, as pointed out earlier. Children often become victims of increased rates domestic violence and alcoholism of their family members. Stay-at-home girls are expected to fulfill daily chores and responsibilities the society has traditionally been imposing on women, causing them distress. In addition, children have lost the precious time they had spent interacting with their peers and gathering with their friends due to schools being closed. Non satisfactory follow up and treatment for existing mental and physical conditions due to the restrictions of the pandemic has made situations worse too. The probability of children having to undergo physical and mental abuse that is beyond them has increased manifold due to the current pandemic.

Child sexual abuse statistics have always indicated that children are sexually abused more often than not by their family members and close relatives. In times of the CoViD-19 pandemic, the exposure children have to their family members and relatives has increased drastically. While it may spell happy times for many children, it is a nightmare for some as they constantly face increased threats of being sexually abused, knowingly or unknowingly. Increased exposure to the internet for educational and leisure activities leaves children at the risk of falling prey to online sexual exploitation. Child sexual abuse has, as such, been on the rise during the CoViD-19 crisis.

The economic and social situation of communities and the country has also meant that needs of children are not being met, leading to neglect. Some families are so hard hit by the current pandemic that they have had to employ their children to work, forcing children into child labor and the hardships associated therewith. Not all children have been able to enjoy the leisure in the comfort of their homes, with many being deprived of their basic children’s rights. The list can go on and on, but the fact remains that child abuse has been occurring in increased frequency over the last few months owing to the trends that have developed in Sri Lanka.

Stats don’t lie. According to the Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority, Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana, the number of reported cases of domestic violence and child abuse has increased by 33% during the curfew period. The NCPA (National Child Protection Authority) also indicated that there is a rising trend of child abuse occurring as days passed by on curfew: 12 sexual abuse cases were reported form the 1st of March to 31st of March this year, which was followed by 65 reported cases during April and more than 100 reported cases during May. Reports also point out that 3500 reported cases of child abuse have been received by NCPA during the period between the 16th of March and 16th of June, 2020 (during which time curfews were implemented in many areas of Sri Lanka) which is a 40% increase compared to reported cases in the first quarter of the year.

We are in the middle of a crisis – one that includes a pandemic and everything else. Child abuse has been one of the most critical among those affected in this crisis. Understanding and accepting the fact that CoViD-19 has impacted Sri Lanka in many ways and has been instrumental in increasing incidence of child abuse would be the first step to solving it. Children are around us. Let us start by ensuring that those children in our communities and societies do not undergo child abuse in the current pandemic. Join hands with us at the Voice Against Child Abuse (VACA) movement to put an end to child abuse in Sri Lanka once and for all. We are determined that we could make a change. We need you with us, so we can make a change around you too!



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