On 8th March 2018 Saitha Gnanaratnam launched her first book: Steeping – a memoir of her experiences growing up in the majestic charm life of the Sri Lankan Tea Plantation culture and its impact on her later life and her inspiration to work with the vulnerable and neglected. Reflecting her heart from the oppressed, all proceeds will go towards helping children who have survived sexual abuse.
“Steeping” – in tea and in life
“Steeping” refers to soaking a solid in a liquid (usually water) to extract flavours or to soften it. This is inspired form the tea culture, which Saitha is so near and dear to. In her book, this very process is communicated through her life journey. She describes how, through all the experiences and challenges she was steeped in, the hidden virtues and gifts that played an integral part in her life,was extracted. This process was what ignited in her a passion for the lost and vulnerable.
Steeping is Saitha’s story of transformation and of how she has worked to transform the lives of those around her. Her amazing journey is one of challenges, self-reflection, revelation on life, humour, honesty, and the reality of struggles faced by most of us today.Her book will appeal to all walks of life and all backgrounds. Transporting the reader to the midst of the plantation culture, where they can almost smell the wafting aroma of the tea estates.
Reflecting her heart for the oppressed and vulnerable, Saitha had decided to let all proceeds generated by the sale of the book go towards the Child Protection work of the national NGO, LEADS. Through its child protection division ESCAPE, LEADS works towards restoring the lives of children who have survived sexual abuse. They provide residential therapy, psychosocial support, and counselling – moreover, they seek to ensure justice for children through advocacy initiatives and legal support. To illuminate the audience on the desperate needs of the vulnerable children of Sri Lanka, Saitha had invited Roshan Mendis (Chief Executive Officer of LEADS) to speak on behalf of the children.
Child sexual abuse in Sri Lanka
Explaining about the situation in Sri Lanka, Roshan Mendis mentioned that in 2015 1,723 cases related to child sexual abuse were reported to the police in Sri Lanka. He also explained, that even though this number might seem high – after all, it amounts to almost 5 cases of child abuse per day – It’s actually only showing the tip of an iceberg. Statistically, less than 20% of actual child sexual abuse crimes areever reported. Family and friends tend to hush up the rest. That makes the actual number of cases about 8,600. Meaning that every 90 minutes, a child will be subject to sexual abuse in this country! Do we ever stop to consider, what we would do, if it happened to one of our own children?
Further adding to the severity of this issue, out of the cases that are reported to the police, only very few convictions are made. A study has revealed that the average time between an indictable offence being committed and the completion of the corresponding trial against the perpetrator in High Court is a shocking 10.2 years! LEADS, who provide legal support to children who decide to press charges, has witnessed many examples of how this affects the children.
Roshan mentioned one example of a girl, whom he called Mali:
“Mali was playing the role of a mother to her four younger brothers, even though she was only 10 years old. Her father was a fisherman and went out to sea frequently. Her mother had to work hard to support the family. Mali not only played the role of a mother, but sadly the father used her to play the role of a wife as well. She was used many times to satisfy her father’s needs. Mali’s mother knew, but couldn’t do much about it. At one point, the mother decided to pursue work abroad. After that, it came to a point, where Mali decided to run away from home. The abuse was too much to endure. Mali met a kind “aunty” who took her in. But, later Mali was abused again, this time by the son of the women who had taken her in. One day she was admitted to hospital with abdominal pain. She had miscarried. At this point, she was 13 years old. The hospital reported the case to the police informed the legal authorities. Days and months passed, and the court order was granted to place Mali at a Child Development Center. At the current rate, she will be 23 before her case can be heard at the High Courts.”
This is what our legal system has to offer. How can she even begin to feel safe during all those years?
Roshan Mendis stretched that the time for new reforms have come. One such reform is the Juvenile Protection Bill. For those, who are unfamiliar with it, to address the prevailing shortcomings of the CYPO, the Ministry of Justice has drafted a bill, which attempts to address many issues related to juvenile justice system in Sri Lanka. But when? At the current rate, the approach will be outdated in terms of quality of response by the time it is put into place.
What can be done?
With the current budget of LEADS, they are able to help 200 children every year to integrate back into normal life and to help them feel safe, while their cases are pending. More than 8000 children are still in need of help – who will respond to them?
Roshan Mendis urged the audience to think about what they can do. If anyone has contacts in the legal system, will he or she press for the necessary changes to happen – and happen fast? If anyone has contacts in the ???, will he or she press for the government to take responsibility for the children who have survived abuse by improving the rehabilitation services available to them? If anyone has financial means to spare, will he or she support LEADS in helping as many children as possible here and now – while we wait for the public services to improve?