As I sit across the almost-21-year-old in front of me, I feel nothing but pride—she’s a gal beyond her years, in wisdom and perseverance. Shiandra was named as one of the top 7 public speakers in the world by the English Speaking Union in 2017. Today, she’s a second-year law student and the founder of Concrete Angels, a network working towards combatting child sexual abuse in Sri Lanka.
“When I was 15, we visited a home which housed victims of sexual abuse. There, I met the youngest pregnant woman I’ve ever come across—she was so young, you couldn’t call her a woman. A 13-year-old girl in a maternity dress, nearly 7 months pregnant (after abuse from her father), stood in front of me,” she recalls, showing me the heebie-jeebies erupting up and down her arms. A memory-hard to forget. “I dashed out the instant I saw her, tears streaming down my cheeks; it took a lot of patience for my senior prefects to convince me to continue our visit. I recall comparing how she was 2 years younger than me, and while I went home every day to do my homework, in less than three months she’d be giving birth to a baby. Unfortunately, I hadn’t seen the worst yet, ” she tells me. “The horror was real, especially when I realised there were 15 more girls, some clutching infants, and others soon to follow in their footsteps.”
Shiandra first started Concrete Angels, at 15-years-old, as a project for a competition she was participating in. “But after researching and getting hands-on experience with the victims I knew I didn’t want to do it for only a couple of months. These kids needed help, and I knew I wanted to take up the task of doing something about it. Now, 6 years later, Concrete Angels has gone from being a classroom project to a registered organization actively advocating against child sexual abuse,” she gleams proudly.
To aid her with her efforts, she has a dedicated and immensely talented entourage. Together, they’re spreading awareness and making a difference. “Concrete Angels consists of a team of young girls trained by professionals,” she explains. “We visit centres for victims of child abuse and provide companionship because isolating them is the worst thing you can do at that stage. We also conduct workshops for preschool and primary school teachers so they can identify children who are suffering under these circumstances at home since most victims do not speak up when they’re subjected to violence. We also train them on how to provide a safe space for children to open up to them.”
Statistically, Colombo has the highest number of child abuse cases reported to the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA). However, this data isn’t the whole picture— many cases around the country are not reported, no thanks to the lack of education surrounding the subject. “Most of the time the children aren’t even aware that the things happening to them isn’t normal,” shares Shiandra. “People don’t realize it’s an issue because it’s all hush-hush. For example, even our statistics on the number of teenage pregnancies in Sri Lanka are undermined. It’s heartbreaking to see people not wanting to, and refusing to, comment on this issue (mostly thanks to the cultural stigmas in our country),” she tells me.
As young as Shiandra is, she’s already done plenty of good and firmly believes her work is not done. “Right now, our team mainly consists of law students, and by 2022, we’re hoping to provide full legal aid for children (of both genders) who have suffered from sexual abuse. We will have in-house psychologists and other professionals to provide aid for the victims.” She also plans to include teaching self-defence into her curriculum ensuring the kids know how to properly arm themselves. Shiandra recognizes that knowing self-defence is the ultimate weapon, be it through words or actual physical defence. To me, she’s truly a Dame-in-shining-armour in a battle with one of the biggest issues Sri Lanka is currently facing. Will she come out on top? No doubt.
Photography by Amitha Thennakoon. Art & Direction by Ricky De Silva. Videography by StoryWorks.