Hishalini: only for political and media consumption by M S M Ayub

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On 15 August 2009, the bodies of two girls were found floating in the Torrington canal at Baudhaloka Mawatha, Colombo 07. How many of us remember this incident now?   

They were 13- year-old Maduveeran Jeewarani and 16-year-old Lakshamahan Sumadhi from Maskelliya, and they had worked as domestic helpers in the houses of two businessmen at Baudhaloka Mawatha. Some reports said that they had been working in the same house.   

The police who initiated investigations into these mysterious deaths claimed they found a suicide note signed by the girls, yet the families of the victims stated that the handwriting of the purported suicide note did not match their daughters’. They also noted that the water level in the canal is too low for drowning.   

The huge outcry over the incident prompted the authorities to arrest a businessman. Women’s organisations issued statements and demanded protection of rights of children, domestic workers and women. It prompted the state agencies responsible for the rights of the children and domestic workers to act for few days.   

 

National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairman Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana had said that steps would be taken to inspect wealthy households closely in the Colombo area to check whether under-age children are being employed as domestic helpers. Accordingly they had gone with media to carry out such inspections on Wednesday

 

The incident was soon forgotten by all concerned, including the plantation community which the girls belonged to. Everything in respect of employing domestic workers and child labour continued without protests or reservations from any quarters.   

Eleven years later, interestingly in a house at the same Baudhaloka Mawatha another girl – also a teenager and from the very plantation area – has died under mysterious circumstances. She had been working at former minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s residence. Police also said that the girl has been sexually abused for the past several years. This time too, the incident has created a huge outcry over the girl’s death with estate workers launching street protests across the plantation areas. Unlike during the previous incident, the ruling coalition and the media supportive of it are also demanding justice to the girl – Hishalini.   

Rishad’s family is being accused of ill-treating, sexually abusing and killing the teenager while they seem to have told that the girl had committed suicide. Attorney-at law Gunaratne Wanninayake during a media briefing organized by the National Movement for Legal Reforms had stated that the girl prior to her death had told the doctor treating her that she set fire to herself.   

Despite it being the court that has to finally decide what fate befell this poor girl, Rishad’s family cannot absolve the responsibility of explaining what really happened, without leaving any question unanswered. If it was a suicide, a finger might be pointed at them, if they fail to explain the circumstances that led to her to kill herself.   

However, this is a tip of an iceberg of a huge social issue, concerning the domestic workers and child workers, especially affecting the Indian origin plantation community that has been unresolved for decades, if not for more than a century. It is exasperating to note the politicians who alternately ruled this country under various political parties for the past 73 years seeking political gains in the guise of protecting the rights of the victim family.   

It is also alarming to note the difference between the society’s indifference about some incidents and the overflowing concern over some other similar incidents, in spite of a whole invisible work force is languishing at thousands of houses of wealthy people, while a similar fate is hovering above them. For instance, no demonstration were seen over the selling of the 15 year old to more than 50 people just a month before Hishalini’s death occurred.   

How long will we agitate over Hishalini is the question or it can be predicted, based on the response of the society including the officials concerned over similar incidents in the past.   

The five year old Seya Sadewmi of Badalgama, Kotadeniyawa was abducted before being raped and killed on September 11, 2015. Negombo High Court on March 15, 2016 sentenced to death a man called Ilandarigepedige Saman Jayalath for the crime, thanks to the agitation by the media and the women’s organisations.   

Similarly, Sivaloganathan Vidya of Pungudutivu in Jaffna was abducted, gang raped and murdered in Punguduthievu on her way to school on May 13, 2015. The incident sparked wide-spread condemnation and protests especially in the victim’s hometown of Jaffna. Nine suspects were arrested following a campaign by the media and Jaffna High Court on September 27, 2017 imposed death penalty on 7 suspects including the chief suspect in the case ‘Swiss Kumar’ who had been accused of the crime.   

These incidents shook the society and the widespread agitations against the perpetrators provoked demands for the implementation of capital punishment which has been suspended in 1976. However, when the media obscure one issue with another, especially forgetting follow-ups of their own stories, even the victims seem always tend to forget their plight.   

It is a well-known fact that every wealthy family employs domestic workers, including women and children. Yet, despite thousands of reports on the domestic workers in the country having been issued since Independence there has not been any census on them. On March 6, 2018 the then Labour Minister W.D.J.Seneviratne had informed the Cabinet that there was “no statistics available pertaining to domestic workers employed in Sri Lanka”   
Nevertheless, as a percentage it is the Tamil speaking people of the plantation area that supply the highest number of domestic workers and child labourers to the wealthy families in Colombo and other main cities. The Kandy based Human Development Organisation (HDO) had revealed on the wake of the incidents involving Jeewarani and Sumadhi in 2009 that worker families in one estate in Maskeliya alone had sent around 30 children as labourers in affluent households in Colombo.   

State Minister of Women and Child Development, Pre-schools and Primary Education, School Infrastructure and Education Services, Piyal Nishantha de Silva, said following the incident at Bathiudeen’s residence that women who work as domestic workers will be required to register at the Divisional Secretariat, along with a recommendation by the Grama Niladhari, the Women Development Officer and the “Child Rights Officer” prior to their employment.   

National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairman Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana had said that steps would be taken to inspect wealthy households closely in the Colombo area to check whether under-age children are being employed as domestic helpers. Accordingly they had gone with media to carry out such inspections on Wednesday.   

Mano Ganesan was partly correct when he said that the plight of children like Hishalini was the direct result of poverty that had engulfed the plantation community. Another main issue that contributes to these tragedies is the lack of proper legislations or the disinclination on the part of the legislators and officials to implement available legislations. The minimum age limit for domestic workers had been 14 until last January when it was increased to 16. The hesitation to raise it to 18 at once speaks volumes.   

It was proposed at the Global Conference on Child Labour, held in Hague, Netherlands in 2010 that prompt action should be taken to nullify deployment of child labour in high risk jobs. Six years later Secretary Ministry of Home Affairs J.J. Rathnasiri informed all District Secretaries and Divisional Secretaries that a National Steering Committee was set up to achieve this end. After another five years, and 11 years after the Hague conference, Labour Department on January 8, this year said in a statement that a technical committee has been set up and it has decided to assess the child labour situation in Sri Lanka while claiming that the government of Sri Lanka has pledged to end Worst Forms of Child Labour by year 2022 and to Eliminate Child Labour by 2025.   
11 years to “decide” to assess the situation. Will they eliminate child labour in another 4 years?     

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