Today is International Women’s Day:
A frank look at Lankan girls’ issues
Early marriage is a universal issue but it is widely practised in
countries in the South Asian region. Every year, millions of girls, even
before their teenage years, are given in marriage to older men. Young
girls, most of whom are still children, are forced to take on the role
of wives and mothers and are denied their fundamental rights. Early
marriage often results in early pregnancy and social isolation. There is
very little or no room for personal development drives, such as,
education and vocational training. Thus, the girls are naturally driven
to poverty and at times are driven to sell their bodies to feed their
families. They are expected to perform heavy domestic work, demonstrate
their fertility and often face issues which demand serious
Ensuring the rights of women and
children is the path to their empowerment. Picture by Vimal
Addressing this serious problem the United Nations Population Fund
(UNFPA) and United Nations (UN) Sri Lanka held a panel discussion on the
study of 'Early Marriage and Statutory Rape' conducted by the Centre for
Women's Research (CENWOR) in partnership with the Justice Ministry to
coincide with International Women's Day theme 'Connecting girls,
The research was carried out by Prof. Savithri Goonesekera and Dr.
Harini Amarasuriya. It was organized by the team to raise the question
on how to motivate girls through education and to inspire their future
if there is high incidence of rape, incest and violence in society. The
research was backed by UNICEF.
The study is based on seven research sites in seven districts in Sri
Lanka. There were two phases of study. The first chapter comprises
interviews with the service providers, including state and non-state
officials, a secondary data survey where they looked at Police and court
records and newspaper articles. Phase two includes a more indepth study
where 10 cases of early marriage or statutory rape were chosen from each
district. Around 71 case studies were conducted with 81 interviews with
the children, their families and service providers involved with the
There were 49 cases of statutory rape. Fourteen to 15 year olds were
the most vulnerable cases, though there were victims as young as four
years. There were six cases of early registered marriage prior to the
girl turning 18. In three cases the couple waited till the girl turned
18 years to marry. Twenty one cases were early cohabitation where the
girl and partner were living together prior to the girl turning 18. This
was recognized as marriage in the community though they were not
A majority of the perpetrators were over 18 years. The oldest was
“This study originated in some of the research that we did to
indicate that even in the area of early marriage, there were new
concerns surfacing in some areas and a growing incidence of teenage
pregnancy connected to sexual violence. We had certain perceptions when
we got into this research.
We thought that there is pressure for early marriage but
interestingly our research did not surface that. We have to question why
decades go by and these stubborn areas continue to be cause of concern
in a country which has done so well for women,” Prof Goonesekera said.
She said that Sri Lanka has successfully created an ethos unlike in
the rest of South East Asia where it is recognized that early marriage
below the minimum age is a violation of law.
“It is a response to teenage sexuality, sexual abuse and freedom to
move around. This is in a sense a legitimization of sexual abuse, an
acceptance that it is ok to have sex even with an underage child. It is
a matter of serious concern,” she said.
Though the initial plan was to involve Muslim communities because of
the differences of the implemented laws, they were unable to get access
to those cases.
“One of the difficulties we faced was accessing some of the records.
Most service providers were reluctant to share confidential documents
relating to these cases. Often we had to go through contacts and field
researches to tap these cases. We tried to interview the perpetrators as
well but often this proved to be difficult. We could not contact 33 of
the men involved”, Dr. Amarasuriya said, adding that the study looks at
the experiences of early marriage and statutory rape and projects a
picture of what it is like for the girls and their families.
Another limitation was the time frame. The sensitive nature of the
study means that ideally it should be conducted long term to build close
relationships so that in depth data could be accessed.
“We were constantly aware of the very ethical issues that are
involved in doing this kind of research. Many of the girls and families
that we met were still undergoing difficulties. We had to make sure that
our research was not going to further traumatize them. We tried to link
them up with existing services whenever possible,” she said.
Early marriage is not considered a traditional practice in Sri Lanka
as it is in some parts of the world. There is a high level of awareness
in families in communities about the law relating to marriage. Families
were often unhappy that girls had to get married at 18 years.
They often regretted the situation which lead to early marriage or
early cohabitation but it was the only option available to them in the
circumstance. None of the marriages could be termed as 'forced
Interestingly the research uncovered that early marriage and early
cohabitation was primarily a response to managing the teenage sexuality
of young girls. The dominant law states that sexual relations for girls
can take place only within the institution of marriage. Even if there is
a hint of a sexual relationship between a girl and man, the only way the
girl can regain her status in the community is by entering into a long
term relationship with the perpetrator. Men who had even committed
statutory rape were summoned to the Police station and got to promise to
marry the girl.
Often the early marriage or early cohabitation was not in the
interest of the girl though families and service providers believed that
it provided her with security. Apart from a very few cases most girls
faced severe financial, emotional and other stresses. The girls’ natal
family was very much involved in cases of domestic violence or because
the men were often unemployed or later deserted the girl.
Often families and service providers would say that the statutory
relationships were consensual. Out of 49 cases, 21 cases were of forced
sex while 28 cases involved a prior relationship between the girl and
the perpetrator. Unlike in early marriage, there were very little
awareness about the laws relating to statutory rape within the
Families did not always report the cases and the circumstances
leading to the incident such as a prior relationship between the girl
and the man was a deciding factor on whether to report the incident or
not because of the mistrust they had about the law enforcement
The status and position of the perpetrator also had an impact on the
“A problematic area was the attitudes of the service providers. They
try to analyze the girls’ behaviour in terms of what it was about her
that led to the situation.
Often they were critical of the girl or her family background.
Instead of trying to find out what made the perpetrator act in that
manner. The interest was more on trying to rehabilitate the girl", Dr
Under the Penal Code of Sri Lanka, until 1995, the general age of
consent for sexual relations was 12 years. In 1995, the Penal Code was
amended and the age of statutory rape was raised to 16 years unless the
person happens to be the perpetrator's wife and they are not judicially
separated. Age of marriage was raised to 18 except for the Muslim
"Having done that there was no effort to publicize the law and this
is why we found that a serious dysfunction between the law and the
statistics. People who are aware of the minimal age for marriage falsify
birth and marriage registers and register the marriage. Even Police are
not making it clear that if you have sexual relations with a child below
the stipulated age, it is child abuse. You cannot justify the case by
taking in terms of marriage of the perpetrator," Prof. Goonesekera
Speaking about the problems relating to this issues: the lack of
understanding of why girls should not marry young, why it is referred to
as sexual abuse and the scenario of legitimizing child abuse, she said
that though the law is in place it is not understood by the democracy or
"There has to be a public campaign to make these statistics public
and get public support for the reason and the rationale on why these
practices should not be carried out.
We need to create an awareness of gender sensitivity among service
providers so that they know not to look at the girl as someone who had
been exploited and needs aid.
The strengthening of the system of registration of marriage is also
important. The age of marriage needs to remain at 18 and that of
statutory rape needs to be 16 despite the fact that some service
providers try to lower the age of marriage because we think it is
counterproductive regarding all the implications in the international
standards of child marriage.
"Creating awareness among teenagers and youths about reproductive
health and responsible sexual behaviour is important. That has to be
carried through the schools.
Even during the period that I was on the National Education
Commission, we have probed the topic and we were given various excuses
like it is not cultural or suitable. Here is a study which indicates
very clearly the problem of teenage sexuality. We want interventions to
recognize the reality and address the issues," she noted.