To ensure the safety and well-being of women and children in the country, interministerial collaboration is paramount, as the contribution of every ministry is important. A country’s development is determined by how women and children are treated, State Minister of Women and Child Affairs, Geetha Kumarasinghe said.

In an interview with Ceylon Today, Kumarasinghe explained plans to address problems that affect women and children amid the economic crisis.

Following are excerpts:

Sri Lanka is presently facing a food crisis. Women and children are the most affected by this. What are your plans to ease this burden?

A: I am in grief seeing the plight of the public, especially children during this crisis. Food prices have skyrocketed. Teachers complain that many children faint during school time and some children do not bring lunch to school. At the end of the day, women have to take over the burden of feeding their children and families.

We have already increased the value of ‘Poshana Malla’ (nutrition package) granted to pregnant women. Also, I want to increase the amount provided for lunch given to selected schoolchildren as well. At present, the amount is Rs 60. This is not even enough to buy an egg. This should be increased. I hope to develop a programme in collaboration with the private sector, NGOs, and the international community to address this nutrition crisis among children.

It is my personal view that before doing anything, we have to make sure that the people, especially children are fed. We cannot progress while our people are starving.

Period poverty is a burning issue at present. Many cannot afford sanitary pads due to inflated prices. Have you taken steps to resolve this?

A: Absolutely. That is the first thing I did when I assumed duties at the State Ministry. Before President Ranil Wickremesinghe left the country to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, I had a lengthy discussion with him. I explained how women have been burdened with increased prices of sanitary napkins. The President lent an ear and instructed the Treasury to abolish taxes imposed on sanitary napkins.

At present, there are three types of taxes imposed on sanitary napkins. Those are VAT, Ports and Airports Development Levy (PAL), and Cess. Total amount of these taxes amounts to 42.8 per cent.

Sanitary napkins are an essential product for women aged 10-50 years. Such items should be available in the market for low prices. It is true that the prices of sanitary napkins has become unbearable for most women in the country. Girls are keeping away from school during menstruation. This should not happen. Imagine there are three girls in a family who need this. How can parents afford them? Also, mothers sacrifice the money they have set aside for sanitary napkins to fulfil other family members’ needs. We cannot go back to the old times where women used alternatives.

We will abolish the taxes on these products in a way that local manufacturers are protected.

I hope the Gazette notification regarding that will be issued soon. After that, the sanitary napkin burden will be lessened.

Crimes against women and children are on the rise at present. How do you plan to address this?

A: I am horrified by recent crimes reported against women and children. There should be strict laws to handle these things.

In the coming days, I will speak to the District Secretaries to implement a programme to protect children. I will also speak to the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) in this regard. I assumed duties in the ministry a few days ago. So, I hope to get views     of every stakeholder, including the private sector, NGOs, Police, Children and Women Bureau, Minister of Public Security, and Minister of Justice.

Legal amendments should be introduced to conclude Court cases on child abuse, rape, and other crimes against women and children. One of the main issues at the moment is conclusion of a Court case takes more than a decade. The victim suffers for an extended period as a result. I hope to discuss this at length with the Minister of Justice.

Do you have any other plans that will benefit children?

A: I have a plan to increase the allowance given to preschool teachers. They were paid only Rs 250 back then and now it has been increased to Rs 2,500. In my view, this amount is not enough either. A preschool teacher plays a vital role in child development. In a developed country, it is difficult to become a preschool teacher. But in Sri Lanka, the situation is different.

Also, there should be good training programmes for preschool teachers. Right now, a foreign institution has agreed to provide training for preschool teachers with an allowance. About 500 teachers will be selected for this programme.

Also, I hope to launch a special programme focusing on children with special needs. I will hold discussions with authorities to check whether there is a census regarding children with special needs. We cannot implement any programme without having data. So, that will be done as a first step.

What are your future plans in politics?

A: I was appointed to a State Ministry. I do not have the powers of a Cabinet Minister. But as this subject comes under the purview of the President himself, it is easy to work.

I did not enter politics to earn money. Before my political career, I was an entrepreneur and earned enough to live comfortably. I pay large sums in taxes to the State. Therefore, I do not benefit from politics. I just want to bring about change and implement solid policy decisions that will benefit women and children of our country. I am committed to that cause. 

By Methmalie Dissanayake