UNHCR protection network brings hope to abused women in northern Sri Lanka
MANNAR, Sri Lanka, November 29 (UNHCR) - A wave of relief and happiness washed over Shanthi* as she watched her grandmother walk into the UNHCR office in Mannar. After years of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her uncle, she realised that she was finally free. No more tears, no more anguish.
Sexual and gender-based violence is a major problem in this north-east corner of Sri Lanka, but UNHCR has set up a special protection network to tackle the scourge and help people like 15-year-old Shanthi.
In developing the network, it became clear that the contribution of the community was essential to understanding and finding solutions to the problem. A panel of lawyers, police officers, health officers and local support organisations was established to work with UNHCR to find a lasting solution for victims. Once the panel established itself, it invited the UN Children's Fund to become involved.
Initiated in early 2004, the network goes beyond UNHCR's usual mandate of assisting the displaced and serves the entire population of the district. As a measure of its success, the network has identified and resolved 28 cases of gender crimes - mostly child-related - since it was set up.
"Before 2004, although it was common knowledge that sexual violence was rampant here in Mannar, very few incidents were reported and even fewer were actually investigated. Now, every month the network handles at least two cases of sexual or physical abuse," a UNHCR member of staff said.
The staffer attributed this change to the numerous awareness campaigns that UNHCR has conducted over the years. "Initially the communities considered sexual violence a taboo subject and refused to discuss anything even remotely related to it," he said, adding that with time they learnt to accept it as a reality that could not be swept under the carpet.
"That in itself is a significant achievement. By accepting that sexual violence is a serious problem that needs to be tackled urgently, the communities opened themselves up to discussion," the staff member said.
The involvement of the trusted and locally respected Sri Lanka Red Cross has been crucial in getting communities on board. Once informed of an incident, Red Cross workers meet with the victim to gather details that are then reported to the panel. All information is kept confidential.
Shanthi's case was one of the most challenging for the protection network because it occurred in a conflict zone. Almost half of Mannar district is under the control of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The girl's mother died five years ago and she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in an LTTE-controlled area. The abuse began a few months later. Her uncle allegedly threatened to kill Shanthi if she told anyone. Unable to cope with the trauma, she attempted suicide on three occasions.
A non-governmental organisation (NGO) health worker discovered Shanthi's case and she was sent to the UNHCR office in Mannar. The NGO was part of the protection network so the panel was convened immediately.
The police were unable to pursue her uncle in hostile territory, a problem faced in other cases. "When a perpetrator enters an LTTE-controlled area, we are unable to follow him there. So there is nothing we can do except wait and hope that he returns to government-controlled areas," said a police sergeant in Mannar.
Eight days later, when Shanthi caught sight of her grandmother in the UNHCR office, she realised that she had an opportunity to rebuild her life. She decided not to file charges and has been gaining strength and getting over the past with the help of her grandmother and the entire protection network.
The volatile security situation is a hurdle for those trying to crack down on abuse - and it can also exacerbate the problem of sexual violence. But for the past two years, a mechanism has been in place that finally offers hope to the women of this area. The protection network is a shining example of how the courage and perseverance of a few people can change the outlook of an entire community.
By Sulakshani Perera in Mannar, Sri Lanka
* The identity of this individual has been changed for protection reasons.