Let’s Talk About Incest

*Reader discretion advised: This was a difficult post to write and does not make for a pleasant read. The title of the post is self-explanatory and if you are sensitive about reading related material, please close the tab now.


Authorities in Sri Lanka are not particularly skilled in the art of making sensible statements to the press.

When I clicked on the twitter link this morning, I was confronted with this article on Daily Mirror Online.

The Police states that 1637 cases of rape were reported this year.

Emphasis on reported for posterity.

The article goes on to state: ‘SP Rohana said girls between the ages of 13 and 16 are especially vulnerable and are party to these cases… These underage girls should be taught about the consequences of their behaviour. Also the parents and their children should have a strong relationship, he added.’

What’s wrong with this picture?

I cannot help but wonder about all that goes unreported in this country. Not just rape.

And the authorities want 13-16 year old girls, victims of statutory rape, to take responsibility for their behaviour.

As a nation, we possess a remarkably short memory and more shockingly, a complacent silence that forms a shining veneer  of South Asian morality, which covers up every manner of sin we perpetrate, endure, or worse those when we encounter but ignore or look the other way. When it comes to education, we push for children to become doctors but never push for them to be educated in matters of health science that possess very real and important sway over their life decisions and more importantly, abusive relationships that exploit their circumstances and ignorance.

I do not wish to dwell on laws and definitions of rape or incest, but rather recount a couple of incidents I encountered. Unreported incidents.

A few years ago, when I was researching labour in Sri Lankan plantations, I sort of unintentionally got mixed up in somewhat of a chase.

As part of my routine, I spent much of my day with the plantation’s welfare officer. Malar* was only a few years older than I was and her job was to mediate between the residents of the plantation and the management.Healthcare issues featured very prominently in her tasks and she liaises with the clinics, dispensaries and the matronly Mrs. Selladurai who had been an estate mid-wife for over two decades.

One particularly warm day in August 2009 just before I finished up my research, Malar, the plantation’s elderly mid-wife and I spent the better part of a day trying to track down the whereabouts of a pregnant 15 year old girl who had been compelled into an incestuous sexual relationship with her father.

I am horrified to hear that this is not uncommon. Frequently occurring in homes where mothers are absent (often those who have migrated to the Middle-East or Colombo and its peripheries as domestic workers), I am also told harrowing stories of mothers who choose to ignore what goes on in their homes. The reasons for their deliberate turning away remains unclear, but is often linked to alcoholism and domestic violence.

I am extremely disturbed by the number of stories Malar, Mrs. Selladurai and the dispensary’s pharmacist Uma share with me.  The specifics of their recollections are difficult to pen down, even now. Forced incest. Older brothers and younger sisters. Daughters giving birth to biological siblings. Silent mothers. Women being violently forbidden to use contraception by husbands and relatives. Abuse and rape by fathers and brothers in-law. Alcoholism. Suicide. Murder, suicide.

The women are so matter-of-fact about this grotesque local reality. My head spins.

We trudge on winding mountainside paths trying to find this 15 year old girl. We even go to her school. She has skipped the examinations that were happening that day. Her house is empty. Her father is gruff, uninterested and does not want to speak to anyone. The neighbours cradle their faces in their palms and whisper knowingly.

By mid-afternoon we have not yet found her and the mid-wife, both tired and angry calls it a day.

‘I will go in the night and catch her. She is just hiding from me. She doesn’t want to admit that she’s pregnant! ‘ I never found out if  Mrs. Selladurai found her. 

I was naive in thinking that my encounter with such ugliness was at a close. Some days later, Uma and I are off on another welfare visit. On a lonely road, we see a boy no more than 12 with two younger girls skulking in the terraces. The boy disappears into the tea bushes and the girls emerge wordlessly.

Uma goes into a veritable rage. She screams at the boy, demanding that he comes out and face her. She chases the girls angrily.

I am bewildered.

“That boy is a dirty boy. Look at him- only 12 years old. The girls 8 and 10.’ She continues to chase him. ‘GO HOME! Have you no shame!’ She picks up a stick, as if to chase a stray dog. A threat.

That boy is from a bad family, she confides in me as we watch them disappear down the hill. He keeps looking back sheepishly. ‘See these people live in such close quarters. This boy has been caught before doing things to his sister and cousin, things that adults do- they see and they try to imitate.’

She does not need to explain further. Bile rises to my throat and I feel like retching.

8, 10, 12.

Yes, these girls should be taught. Not simply the consequences of their behaviour.

* Names changed.

P.S. : Sri Lanka’s Campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence culminated successfully with a series of excellent contributions that deliberate different facets of gender-based violence in Sri Lanka and the launch of a very useful website with multiple resources that deal with violence against women and more importantly what you can do about it: http://www.actnowsrilanka.org/en/.

1 Comment

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One response to “Let’s Talk About Incest

  1. Yes very common in the village, I’m told.


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