24 July 2012

The imperatives of protection

In 1978, Sri Lanka was devastated by a cyclone, especially the East Coast.  Anton Jones, given to highlighting in song all kinds of satya siddheen’ (true events), naturally, put together words and music.  Two lines are etched in my mind:
‘Madakalapuwa, ampare, polonnaruwa, samanthurai…e hema nagarema diyen yata une
Mannarama, kanthalai, pothuvil, kalmunai natambun vage aethata penune’

[Batticaloa, Ampara, Polonnaruwa and Samanthurai – flooded they all were
Mannar, Kanthali, Pothuvil and Kalmunai – reduced to ruins they all were]

All those name roll off the tongue like a melody and that has to do with the lyricality, if you will, of language, both in the Sinhala original and Tamil re-invention.  Anton Jones has placed them well and thereby enhances, not creates, the melodious configuration of syllable and place name. 

The truth is that we can string together many names and create a lilting melody, which I am sure is not something that is Sri Lanka specific.  The names that roll off the tongue today, lyrical as they are, are as marked by tragedy as those of Anton Jones’ song: Kahawatte, Tangalle, Akuressa and Kirulapone.  In 1978 it was of ‘natural disaster’ that Jones sang; what we have now is not natural, it is man-made and ‘man’ is not a gender-neutral term. 

In 1978 strong winds brought down trees, swept away rooftops, unleashed floods, destroyed crops and communities.  In 2012 we are taking of innocence lost, childhoods ruined, vulnerabilities preyed on and households that will forever be marked with trauma, fear and the irrecoverable.  That’s nice-speak.  What we have is breaking into houses, assault and battery, sexual molestation, rape, gang rape and murder.  The stories have made headlines on consecutive days.  It’s a ‘breaking story’ that keeps breaking again and again.  

And yet, it would be erroneous to tag ‘recent’ to this phenomenon or associate it with the infrequency and randomness of a cyclone.  It is quite possible that the word ‘phenomenon’ was spawned by unusual frequency of reportage, the rape that is and not the gruesome murders in Kahawatte.  The most pertinent and disturbing element of rape is under-reportage, especially when it comes to child abuse, date rape and sexual violence in domestic situations. 

Last week there were two demonstrations in Colombo, one about violence against women and one about child abuse, especially sexual molestation including rape.   An online poll conducted by ‘The Nation’ (www.nation.lk) showed that over 80% recommended the death penalty for those accused of raping children.  This indicates that people consider this the ultimate crime and as such deserving of the maximum punishment.  ‘The Nation’ has editorially expressed grave concern about the fact that politicians, their henchman and public officials have been implicated in such dastardly transgressions.  Power and association with power are clearly related to the perpetration of these crimes.  This fact alone is not enough, of course; what is pertinent is the notion that power and power-association are seen as getaway clauses by these criminals. 

The first step then is to punish.  For this, law enforcement should be freed of the fetters of political interference. Easier said than done.  There’s always a someone who knows someone who knows someone who has his fingers on strings that can pull the law this way or that.  It has happened and is happening.  Joolampitiya Amare is only the most recent beneficiary of strings.  Law-enforcers, like law-makers, have been implicated not in complicity but in perpetration.  And those who are clean are handicapped by political interference; each ‘let-off’ further incapacitating them.  Strong words from the President and the IGP are just not enough.  Political culture rebels against justice and sides with perpetrator.  It overrules institution and mechanism. 

Even if the guilty are brought to book, this will not ensure that others will not get raped, will not be murdered.  Deterrence stops some, not all, and where social and emotional factors help hide crime, innocence will be destroyed, children scarred and women raped.  Familiarity is not, therefore, insurance and comfort but something that has, unfortunately, become reason to warrant wariness.  That’s a sad indictment on society as a whole.

It means that not only is the state not a bulwark against these kinds of aggression, the household itself is not safe for it is a site of violence.  How does the state police a household?  It cannot be done.  Parents have to be vigilant, but parents and family alone, won’t deliver security, especially since a large number of child abusers happen to be ‘family’.  There has to be education all around, not just of children but of adults.  Parents have to learn to read the signs of threat and assess vulnerability of an entire range of situations.  It is a sad thing that no one can be fully trusted, but we have come to that and for this reason only full vigilance by everyone about everyone can combat this threat.  

The cyclone arrived, devastated and blew away.  This, however, is not a phenomenon that will blow over.  It will blow over the particular household whose inmates will cope as best they can, but threat is a hooded thief prowling the streets 24/7.  Like terrorists, they prey on the slightest error. 

The Government must do its part and this involves re-hauling the entire law enforcement apparatus; yes the re-establishment of an effective independent police commission or its equivalent.  The citizen must do his/her part.  That’s you and I.  The lyric has been taken out of name and life.  We have to recover it.  Together.  

[published in 'The Nation', July 22, 2012] 


DJ said...

Well said Malinda. I hope and pray that the Govt. will asap attend to this matter, before more children are attacked and abused.