The images and videos are distressing. Non-consensual sharing of intimate images and privacy breaches began to cause problems several years ago. But, it has never been this bad. Sexual content of Sri Lankan girls, even as young as 15 years old, keeps growing exponentially on the internet, preying on countless victims.
In a disturbing trend, WhatsApp groups, closed Facebook groups, Dropboxes and pornographic websites are devoting themselves to sharing images and videos of Sri Lankan women and girls. These predators have turned the illegal practice into a lucrative business.
“This racket is becoming more and more sophisticated. These predators are generating content, exploiting young Sri Lankans including schoolgirls and boys through an economic module,” said Hans Billimoria, the Director of The Grassrooted Trust - an organization that works on sexual and reproductive health education.
According to the Cyber Crimes Division (CCD) attached to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), criminals are using advanced technologies like encryption to stay ahead of the police. Offenders cover their tracks with the help of virtual private networks, which conceal their locations. They publish these posts on the dark web, which is inaccessible to conventional browsers.
In the meantime, the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing have led to an increase in such cases that are generally identified as cyber exploitation. Information Security Engineer of the Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT), Ravindu Meegasmulla said the problem had always been there, but the pandemic made it more apparent, and an easier place for predatory sexual exploitation.
In an interview with Daily Mirror, a victim described in heart-wrenching detail how her life had been upended by one intimate photograph. She had sent it to her ex-boyfriend but after the breakup, he blackmailed her and later published it on a pornographic website. “I don’t really know if someone out there still has my photo. I live in fear of being recognized from the photo and being humiliated again,” said the woman who, at age 19, had become a victim.
Databases of girls’ naked content categorized by schools and price lists advertising body parts
In most cases, the person distributing the pornographic images or videos is a former partner, but it can also occur when hackers break into victims’ technical devices. There are thousands of members in these disturbing networks. Hans Billimoria who has investigated Sri Lanka’s nude culture for several years said, the entire racket of non-consensual sharing is organized and capitalized by perpetrators who distribute the content to groups of paying customers.
“There are databases of naked pictures and videos of young Sri Lankan women and girls categorized under names, schools, description of the picture and/or video. We have also come across price lists advertising body parts.”
During his awareness programmes and projects carried out throughout the country, Hans has come across perpetrators who have taken this racket to extreme levels. In order to expand the circle of networks, the perpetrators approach young men in relationships with requests for naked pictures of their girlfriends, with the promise of free access to the entire database as a contributor.
In another worst case scenario, several older schoolboys have been found offering smartphones to young girls with the promise that they get the phone for free if they provide their nude photos and videos. “They tell the girls that they don’t have to show their face. Some schoolgirls are known to do it for the pocket money.”
Hans, penning a piece on Bakamoono.lk, had shared another extreme incident he came across in 2018. “A 14-year-old boy chatting with what he thought was a young girl online, sent her a nude photo on the understanding she would reciprocate. What followed was the demand for a nude picture of his sister. If not, the perpetrator threatened to make his nude go viral. Petrified, he managed to capture his sister in her bra and sent this on in the hope of ending his torment. The perpetrator contacted the sister claiming to have her nude picture, courtesy of her brother, and demanded for more.”
Many pornographic websites contain exclusive Sri Lankan content, the majority being filmed within relationships. Girls as young as 15 years old, appear in some videos, pleading with their partners not to record their intimate moments. Some are recorded inside three-wheelers on the side of a byroad.
Hans is of the view that Sri Lankans have to stop pretending that in our culture these practices are not happening. “This is not an issue in Colombo. Wherever there is a smartphone with a camera and internet, this happens and will happen.”
Undertrained law enforcement agencies are not helping victims
It goes without saying that the lack of a strong support mechanism is one of the main causes of this pandemic. It causes the victim’s hesitation to report the crime. At the same time, Sri Lankan law enforcement agencies devoted to the problem, being understaffed or undertrained, is also not a surprising fact.
A 27-year-old girl who had gone to a police station to report a cyber-exploitation incident had to face another type of harassment again from the police. She spoke to the Daily Mirror on the condition of anonymity. Sharing her unpleasant experience, she said the police sergeant who took down her complaint had found her mobile number from the complaint log and started harassing her by texting messages.
“I answered the first call thinking it is an update of my complaint. Then, he made multiple calls and tried to add me on Facebook. After this incident, one of my male friends pretended to be my boyfriend and escorted me to the police station. We managed to stop him harassing me.”
With the purpose of strengthening the response mechanism on the ground, Women In Need and The Grassrooted Trust worked closely with Sri Lanka Police Women and Children’s Bureau and the CID Cyber Crime Division to develop – Standard Operating Procedure for The Sri Lanka Police. The guide outlines existing laws and also focuses on the sensitivity required when recording complaints on cyber harassment.
“Sri Lankan does have laws to combat cyber exploitation. With the majority of victims and survivors being women and girls, the role played by the Police Women and Children’s Bureau is vital. That is why we are trying to train them so that officers in Women and Children’s Bureau in every police station in the country will be able to handle the cases properly,” Hans explained.
The shame associated with a naked body and sex education
According to UNICEF’s 2018 Report ‘Keeping Children Safe and Empowered Online’, 52.8 percent of young people in Sri Lanka access the internet – with the average age of first access being 13 years. This online proliferation does come with increased risk.
As always, every social problem in Sri Lanka is rooted in the lack of a strong and more inclusive education system, the cyber exploitation matter too is no different. Deemed as massively inappropriate, Sri Lanka’s cultural norms and values teach that sex should never be talked about. Talking about it and writing about it, are still associated with shame.
“Demonizing social media is not a realistic approach. Teach your children what can potentially happen to intimate pictures and videos if they send them to others. The shame that we have associated with the naked body has really forced us to not have this conversation. Young people are unable to talk to their parents about these issues.”
“Social media is a reality. At this moment, there is absolutely no preventive education in schools and universities on cyber exploitation. Both rural and urban kids should be provided with preventive education modules by the national institutes of education through textbooks,” said Hans.
There are ways to fight back against cyber sexual abuse
Non-consensual pornography is never acceptable, and it is not your fault. You have a right to stop the abuse and hold the person who shared images without your consent accountable
The violation is not sending these photographs to their partners, the violation is publishing it without consent and blackmailing
Attorney-at-law Tarangee Mutucumarana, Director of the Yeheliya Foundation said everyone has the right to expect private images to remain private. “Non-consensual pornography is never acceptable, and it is not your fault. You have a right to stop the abuse and hold the person who shared images without your consent accountable.”
She said the more the victims and survivors remained silent, the more the perpetrators will think their behavior is tolerated. “The violation is not sending these photographs to their partners, the violation is publishing it without consent and blackmailing. We need to encourage people to come forward and seek justice,” Tarangee said.
Consequences of cyber exploitation are as severe as physical sexual harassment
It can be speculated that the doer may be attempting to: 1) Seek a misperceived sense of justice or redemption; 2) Intentionally harm current/potential relationships of the victim; 3) Socially degrade the partner; e) Establish dominance and 5) Exhibit entitlement, are a few to be named
Raneesha de Silva
As it is one of the highest forms of violation in terms of trust and personal relationships, these unpleasant incidents can leave victims with lasting psychological scars, says forensic psychologist Raneesha de Silva.
Explaining the mentality of former intimate partners who choose to do such acts, she said that many dysfunctional personality traits (e.g., lack of empathy/remorse) and existing mental health difficulties (e.g., delusions and/or paranoia) may contribute (or not!) to this act.
It can be speculated that the doer may be attempting to: 1) Seek a misperceived sense of justice or redemption; 2) Intentionally harm current/potential relationships of the victim; 3) Socially degrade the partner; e) Establish dominance and 5) Exhibit entitlement, are a few to be named.
“Whether it is a calculated or impulsive action, no civil society can nor should justify such acts”.
Although the viewing of and distribution of pornography in Sri Lanka is still against the law, pornography sites have exclusive Sri Lankan content. They include non-consensually published content and consensual home-made videos through which the 'producers' or 'contributors' are making money. Above is a screenshot of an income-generating profile of a popular porn site.
Eye - Porn and Nudes
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