The rape: We almost forgot

rapeBy M.A Sumanthiran                                                     

“Stones were pelted at police stations and the courts in Jaffna. The LTTE too began in a similar fashion. This is a dangerous situation.”

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, (as reported in the Daily Mirror (online), Police should act urgently on Jaffna incidents: MR, 21st May 2015)

“The JHU said it was evident that another agenda was behind the violent protest campaign carried out by angry mobs by raising black flags, obstructing roads and staging a hartal by hiding behind this incident. JHU media secretary Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe alleged those angry mobs were threatening the Sinhalese in Jaffna and forcing them to leave that area…He said racist, separatist and terrorist groups were trying to raise their heads again…He said the government and security forces should take steps without any hesitation to implement the law against those who were behind the hartals and resorting to violent acts without allowing separatist and racist groups to disrupt the civilian lives in the North.” (Daily Mirror (online) on 20th May 2015)

On the 22nd of May 2015, Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapakshe and State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardena were questioned by a journalist at a press briefing as to what steps were being taken regarding the violence that had taken place in Jaffna, in this ‘Sinhala country’ where ‘no Sinhalese person had ever thrown stones at a Court’ (It is noteworthy that Minister Rajapakshe, commendably, responded by first pointing out to the journalist that his question was racist, and that as a member of the press he ought to act with more responsibility, and that further, he was misrepresenting the facts concerning the incidents that had taken place in Jaffna).

These were some of the statements that were made mere days after the body of Vidya Sivaloganathan – a young school going girl – was found on the 14th of May 2015. Vidya had been brutally gang raped and murdered.

It was as if Vidya’s rape had been forgotten.

Many others were forgotten before her – some named, like Saranya Selvarasa, but many others who were never named and will remain so. And by forgetting them, we stood by and let Vidya be raped.

Ever since the conclusion of hostilities in May 2009, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) repeatedly warned the Government of the time of the deteriorating state of law and order in the North, largely due to the activities of military and paramilitary groups supported by the then Government. The TNA specifically and repeatedly voiced grave concern regarding the issue of sexual abuse in the North, a part of the larger issue of the breakdown of law and order there. Their concern was echoed from various parts of the international community, time and time again. These warnings however, fell on deaf ears. The Government of the day refused to listen, refused to even acknowledge the increasing levels of sexual abuse in the North. The Rajapaksa regime was far more interested in keeping up the façade of ‘reconciliation’ that it claimed had dawned and refused to acknowledge the truth of anything that occurred outside that narrative. Even more sinisterly, the Rajapaksa regime was determined to maintain an iron grip on the people of the North, and was prepared to use any weapon in their arsenal to do so. Even rape.

And so, the women who were raped were forgotten. In addition to being silenced by the shame and stigma of rape, these women were now silenced by yet another spectre – politics. They were deliberately blotted from the public consciousness, for petty political gain. Over the years, allowed to infest unguarded and with impunity, the culture of rape and sexual abuse became more and more entrenched in the peninsula.

And so, rape became a little more frighteningly normal in the North.

That was why Vidya was raped.

And like the others before her, Vidya’s rape too, was nearly forgotten for the sake of politics. In the wild maelstrom of fear mongering, rumours of racial tensions, and accusations and allegations made, we nearly forgot what had actually happened.

That a young girl, just 18 years old, with her whole life before her, was raped and killed. That while she was on her way to school, some men took her, gang raped her, and then killed her. That she left behind parents, family, friends, who must now bear the heavy burden of that knowledge, and their grief.

Many decided to forget this.

The protests in the North in the wake of Vidya’s brutal rape and murder was the result of a genuine and justifiable outpouring of shock, grief, and anger by a community over this outrage. Those who acted violently – stoning the court and prison vehicle and attacking police – did so using this justifiable peaceful protest as a cover for political mileage.

Others decided to use this brutally violent violation and death of a young woman to engage in their old ploy of fear mongering. They attempted to make political mileage out of the brutal rape and murder of a young girl. Their rallying cry of ‘racial riots’ is the same as it has always been, and is still just as false.

Of these, the response of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is perhaps the most disturbing. One expects better of a former Head of State. It is his regime that ignored, even encouraged, the deteriorating law and order and escalating sexual abuse in the North despite the repeated warnings of the TNA and the international community. Thus, it is his regime that allowed Vidya, and many others before her, to be raped. For this, he should apologise. Not only does he refuse to do so, his behavior following this heinous crime is such, that he should now also apologise for that. He unabashedly claimed that he had no reason to apologize to the women of this country, asserting that his regime ‘provided jobs for women more than men and introduced special loan schemes’.

His facile response, referring to jobs and loan schemes in the face of such a tragedy, is no less than deeply offensive. All this, after his attempt to use Vidya’s tragedy for his usual ‘racial conflict’ politicking. Apart from the political desperation and bankruptcy of it, one expects, in the least, some degree of sensitivity to the suffering Vidya faced in those last terrifying moments of her life, and to that which her family, her people, and her country face in the aftermath of her gruesome end. Mahinda Rajapaksa however, sadly, had no hesitation whatsoever in engaging in his usual ploy of calling on the bogey man of the LTTE. His statement was deafeningly silent on the rape itself. It failed to even condemn the act. For his action and inaction before and after her rape, Mahinda Rajapaksa should apologise to Vidya, her family, her people and the women and men of this country.

Enough rapes have been forgotten. Because we, as a nation, turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse taking place in the North, Vidya Sivaloganathan was raped and murdered. Let her not be just another forgotten rape, blotted out for the sake of someone’s political gain. As a nation, let this finally be the juncture where we refuse to be distracted by those falsely shouting ‘racial riots’ and ‘terrorism’.

It is only when we recognize what the real crisis is, that we can begin to act. The issue must be tackled from the level of law enforcement, right down to creating awareness at the grassroots level. When Vidya’s parents, frantic with worry and fearing the worst, complained to the police of her absence, the police glibly surmised that she must have run away from home and did not begun searching for her till several hours later. Law enforcement authorities and agencies need to be educated and sensitized on sexual abuse.

This education needs to extend to the rest of society as well, through advocacy and awareness raising. We need to recognize that rape is not just ‘women’s problem’, that it is a human problem, that it is everyone’s problem. We need to recognize that all forms of sexual harassment and abuse are morally reprehensible, and that it’s not acceptable to brush it off with anything from ‘boys will be boys’ to ‘she was asking for it’. We need to understand that before we teach our daughters how to dress, we should teach our sons not to rape.

The real threat that our nation faces in the North is not separatism or race riots, but rising levels of sexual abuse and the deterioration of law and order. Let us not waste our efforts fighting an imaginary enemy, while the real one grows stronger.

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