No greater need for a child than the need for protection

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“Our children are our greatest treasure. They are our future. Those who abuse them tear at the fabric of our society and weaken our nation.”

The above words of former South African President Nelson Mandela show the importance of children to a country and also why they must be protected. In Sri Lankan context, it is believed that children must be educated in a disciplined environment though it is somewhat unclear. For many decades, it has been a very controversial topic whether students must be punished in schools or not.

Ceylon Today looked deep into the most recent incident which is reported from D.A. Rajapaksa Vidyalaya, Medamulana where a 16-year-old student who sits for the G.C.E. O/L this year, had allegedly not been allowed to attend school for a year by the principal and some teachers as a punishment to his misconduct and the student is clarifying from the principal and teachers as to why only he is being punished when other students with the same behaviour were not. He also alleged that he was not given the school text books and had to go to Police to collect them. He has since made use of the social media network viz. Facebook to disclose this injustice to the society. It has now become a controversial issue while people are trying to comprehend the morality of this act and in the meantime, many people have started to relate similar experiences.

 We know that this is not the first time that we are experiencing such sentiments in Sri Lankan schools even though corporal punishment is prohibited. On 12 February 2021, in a judgment, the Supreme Court condemned the use of corporal punishment of children in schools. The case was brought before the Supreme Court by a 15-year-old student and his parents against teachers and authorities of a public school. Media has reported that incident as an inspirational landmark of the Sri Lankan history.

Responding to the Medamulana incident, some of the NGOs had reported the immoral act of the alleged teachers to the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) as well as to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) seeking justice to the victim. The NGOs have pointed out that the teachers in question have violated the provisions of several Circulars issued by the Ministry of Education; Circular No: 37/2012 – Code and System of Ethics on the Moral Conduct of Teachers and also they have not acted in conformity with the  Circular No: 12/2016 (17/2005) – Maintaining discipline in schools.

The United Nations can be considered as the pioneer of child protection, especially the children’s rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) which was adopted on 20 November 1989, is the main legally-binding international agreement by countries which have pledged to protect children’s rights. Sri Lanka became a signatory in 1990 being one of the first few countries which have enacted laws to protect children’s rights.

In UNCRC there are four core principles: non-discrimination, best interest of the child, right to survival and development and respecting the views of the child. Having agreed to ensure these rights, it seems that Sri Lankans do not pay much attention or pay heed to these vital principles even when the Ministry of Education is doing their utmost to ensure that there is no violation of children’s rights in schools.

Speaking to Ceylon Today, the President of Ceylon Teachers Union Joseph Stalin said teachers have a responsibility to counsel students but they cannot punish them in a harmful manner. He also said the teachers must extremely be cautious when they are dealing with children since more often than not, their approach   could affect them emotionally, too.

NCPA has also made a strong commitment to ensure the rights of children irrespective of the child’s parents or guardians’ race, colour, sex, language, religion, political and other affiliations. Hence they have been formulating appropriate rules and regulations with the relevant authorities.

When we contacted the Chairman of NCPA, Udaya Kumara Amarasinghe, his spontaneous response was they had received the complaint through a third party and have already acted on it. “We have complained to all the responsible authorities including HCRSL, Ministry of Education and Police regarding the said incident. In every division there is an official appointed by NCPA to attend to such cases. However, the NCPA always considers the best interest of the child,” he added.

Several measures such as adopting laws to prohibit corporal punishment and other forms of violence, developing and introducing code of conduct and other safeguards in schools, setting up of confidential and safe reporting mechanisms in schools could be taken to ensure the children’s rights. The Media too could act responsibly and create awareness programmes to avoid recurrence of such incidents in schools or elsewhere and thereby assist to protect the rights of the children. They could also directly help victims and their families. The good sign is that the government is now more committed than before.

Whatever the inside story is, each and every incident of this nature indicates that there is no greater need for a child than the need for protection.

By Sahan Tennekoon