Before she burned to death last month, Jude Kumar Ishalini spent her days in a small, dingy room outside the palatial private residence of Rishad Bathiudeen. Ishalini, 16, was a domestic aide at the house of the parliamentarian and member of a major opposition alliance in the island nation of Sri Lanka.
“It was a dark room, with no power and electricity,” recalled Suren Perera, the lawyer for Ishalini’s family. “She didn’t have a mobile phone with her either. She wasn’t allowed to use phones or communicate with her family regularly.”
“She spent her time after work alone in the room where it is now believed she was abused by the perpetrators,” Perera told VICE World News.
The death of a domestic worker drawing so much public outrage is rare and has lifted the lid on Sri Lanka’s ambiguous child labour laws and the scale of child abuse that thrives under them. The National Child Protection Authority of Sri Lanka recorded 12,165 child abuse complaints in the last 18 months. However, cases of abuse involving marginalised children from tea plantations like Ishalini usually go undocumented.
On July 3, Ishalini was hospitalised for burn injuries. Despite 16 CCTV cameras watching over Bathiudeen’s house, the police claimed they didn’t find any footage to suggest who set her on fire.
Ishalini succumbed to her burn injuries on July 15. In the following weeks, amid protests, gory details emerged about long-term sexual abuse of the girl in Bathiudeen’s house.
The death of a domestic worker drawing so much public outrage is rare and has lifted the lid on Sri Lanka’s ambiguous child labour laws and the scale of child abuse that thrives under them.
Employment brokers brought Ishalini to work in Bathiudeen’s property in November 2020. Her mother is a plantation worker – among the most marginalised labourers in Sri Lanka – while her father is unemployed. Perera said Ishalini told her parents about being assaulted by a male co-worker.
Police interrogated at least 11 women who used to work at Bathiudeen’s estate. One of them alleged sexual abuse by Bathiudeen’s brother-in-law, prompting the police to suspect a pattern of abuse.
“Ishalini also said it was difficult to work at the parliamentarian’s house,” said Perera.
Ishalini’s death has triggered a national scandal over the last month. As it is, Bathiudeen is a controversial politician. He was not at his house at the time of her attack, because he’s been in jail since April, as police investigate his involvement in the 2019 Easter bombings, which led to 250 deaths. Bathiudeen has not been formerly charged for the bombings, he denies any involvement and claims the allegations are politically motivated. Bathiudeen is a Muslim minister in a Buddhist-majority country. News of Ishalini’s death on social media has been rife with anti-Muslim sentiments.
Sri Lanka police’s special investigation team promptly arrested Bathiudeen’s wife, brother-in-law and father-in-law. They also arrested the broker for what they suspected to be child trafficking in the plantation estate.
In his statement to the court, Anil Silva, Bathiudeen’s wife’s lawyer, said the family did their best to get Ishalini medical help when they found her on fire. Last week, Bathiudeen appealed for an independent investigation and denied the allegations of mistreatment lodged by Ishalini’s family.
At the court proceeding on August 9, VICE World News learned that a police chief inspector is also being investigated for allegedly destroying and concealing evidence in connection with Ishalini’s death. Perera, the lawyer, said the police officer told Ishalini's older brother who visited the house not to pursue the matter.
In his court statement, Anil Silva, Bathiudeen’s wife’s lawyer, said the family did their best to get Ishalini medical help when they found her on fire. Last week, Bathiudeen asked for an independent investigation while denying allegations of abuse.
The investigation has put Ishalini’s family under immense public pressure amid what they said was the “politicisation” of her death.
"Last month, the family found out that certain groups claimed that the daughter killed herself because she couldn't pay back her loans," said Perera. "All they want right now is justice, and simply to understand what happened to their daughter. That is all."
Ishalini was from Sri Lanka’s central province of Nuwara Eliye, a district known as “tea country” where large tea plantation estates contribute massively to the economy.
Most of the plantation workers are Tamils who were brought to Sri Lanka from southern India in the 19th century to provide cheap labour in the Sinhalese-majority country. Sri Lanka is the world’s fourth-largest tea exporter, but its landless workers are the most economically and socially depressed in the country, with a history of exploitation.
At the other end of the class divide are Sri Lanka’s rich. One estimate found that Sri Lanka will have 13,000 millionaires by 2026.
Early this week, Colombo’s magistrate court denied bail to Bathiudeen’s family, and ordered their detention until August 23. Bathiudeen is ordered detained until August 18.
There is no public record of Bathiudeen’s assets or net worth, but in 2019, a Sri Lankan parliamentarian demanded a probe into his assets after allegations emerged that Bathiudeen owns an island valued at 240 million Sri Lankan Rupees ($1.2 million).
In rejecting the bail plea, the Additional Magistrate stated that the Bathiudeens were “individuals with power in the society and therefore can exert influence on the investigations and witnesses.”
Bathiudeen’s arrest of over 100 days under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows authorities to arrest and detain suspects without a formal charge, is triggering unrest. There is no public record of Bathiudeen’s assets or net worth, but in 2019, another Sri Lankan parliamentarian had demanded an investigation into his assets after allegations emerged that Bathiudeen owns an island valued at 240 million Sri Lankan Rupees ($1.2 million). Bathiudeen denied those claims.
Lawyer and rights activist Nimalka Fernando told VICE World News that it’s very common for children from plantation communities to move to cities in the hopes of escaping severe poverty and the lack of job opportunities, only to face abuse at their new workplaces.
“General indicators of development such as health and education in Sri Lanka are high, but these areas are the most underdeveloped,” said Fernando. The adult literacy rate (15 years and above) in Sri Lanka is over 95 percent, but Fernando says 90 percent of children of plantation workers are illiterate. Finding work outside plantation estates is often the last resort for many families.
"All they want right now is justice, and simply to understand what happened to their daughter. That is all,” said Suren Perera, the lawyer for Ishalini’s family.
“This case is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Fernando, adding that there is no data on children from the plantation sector.
“To hide the reality, the state hides the numbers,” she said.
Last week, the country’s media division put out a statement saying a majority of children employed as labourers are from the estate sector, although no data was released.
ST Ganeshalingam, the convenor of the Movement for Plantation People’s Land Rights (MPPLR), told VICE World News that many times, children themselves don’t report what happens in their workplaces. “This is also because the plantation communities are isolated and it’s difficult for them to use government services,” he said, noting a wide disconnect between existing child protection laws and their implementation.
Ishalini’s case triggered protests across the country, as well as calls to ban domestic child labour. Sri Lankan law identifies 51 jobs that are unsuitable for children, but it excludes domestic labour. The Labour Ministry and the Ministry of Women and Child Development are currently drafting labour law reforms, which include a longer list of 76 hazardous jobs for children, and a ban on domestic work for children under 18 years.
Ishalini's first salary was paid to a broker named Shankar, who is currently in police custody on charges of trafficking child labour. As the middleman, it was Shankar who sent Ishalini’s salary to her family.
“It often takes decades for survivors of sexual assault to get justice. It’s in the hands of the police and judiciary to lead the community and give justice in a fair manner,” said Lawyer and rights activist Nimalka Fernando.
"It was revealed in court that the parliamentarian’s family had paid a large sum at first to continue to get work out of her. Until the day of the incident, she had been paid LKR 200,000 ($1,005), a figure well over her salary," Perera revealed.
T Roshani, a women’s rights activist with MPPLR, told VICE World News that brokers having control over bodies of young children is a dangerous trend in an already broken system. “There have been instances where the brokers have sold children without the parents even knowing,” she said.
Late last month, in response to Ishalini’s case, Sri Lankan police media spokesperson Senior Deputy Inspector General Ajith Rohana announced a pilot project to track children under the age of 16 employed as domestic workers, and to punish those employing them.
But activists say justice is often slow for the families of victims and survivors. Recent official data recorded 78 incidents of rape and 34 child abuse cases just in the first 15 days of 2020. Sri Lanka is one of the signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and has pledged to eliminate child labour by 2022.
Fernando, the rights lawyer, said the Sri Lankan government prides itself in being progressive on many fronts, but issues of violence and hidden exploitation are rarely discussed openly.
“I’m worried about accountability in the country,” she said. “It often takes decades for survivors of sexual assault to get justice, and such cases are often projected as isolated incidents. It’s in the hands of the police and judiciary to lead the community and give justice in a fair manner.”