All for Our Children
By Priyangwada Perera
“In the best interest of every child” is a phrase we have often heard. It is often overused. Yet, how many of us even understand the meaning of what it is?
Public Health Veteran Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne has come out with her autobiography titled the same, this alone speaks volumes about her remarkable journey and years of service. It is not often one can produce an autobiography where your life has been a journey for the masses, reflecting your unmistakable ‘personal touch’. That is what she has added to the public health sector of Sri Lanka.
Contributing her professional expertise for 27 years to UNICEF Sri Lanka, she has made a mark on the lives of many children. Serving in the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, (CRC) Geneva, her story is also an echo of the voice that is often denied to a child.
Unknown to many, her work spans the years during the civil war and also both pre and post war days. Her untiring efforts to cater to the oft forgotten children’s rights to the best possible healthcare gets highlighted here. When asked what made her work in the public health sector so challenging, she said she mostly focused on prevention of illness.
“My work also included support for children and mothers, who are among the most vulnerable where certain illnesses are concerned. This was thus the main focus of my work, rather than curative care.” She explained how her work made her realise that in developing countries like ours, prevention should be the emphasis. “Where diseases are not prevented and curative care is needed, developing countries like ours find it both expensive as well as complicated since the hospital system of care is often needed.” If you remember the constant plead by the health personnel during the height of the pandemic, Dr. Wijemanne’s answer harps the same. It is not hollow boasting when we speak of our public healthcare. “Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to adopt a well formulated system of primary healthcare which had a wide outreach to even the poorest of families.
“Such services were well received by families living in the rural areas. They relied on the medical officers of health posted to such places. Their main focus is pregnant women and children,” she elaborated. If you ever wondered how Sri Lanka reached great heights in terms of public healthcare, Dr. Wijemanne has the answer. “Providing free healthcare was another important reason which contributed to the steady decline in infant and growing child mortality as well as maternal mortality.
The use of vaccines for prevention of illness was important as it is cost effective. Sri Lanka has eliminated polio because of a vaccine. It is similar to many other diseases.” She emphasised that this is the path all developing countries should take as hospitals, drugs for illnesses are expensive and not cost effective for them.
Next is promoting health education. “It is essential that families are constantly made aware of how they should prevent illness and promote their health, with the adoption of healthy practices.” Dr. Wijemanne emphasised the importance of starting this from childhood itself. Hence, children need to be educated on the important health practices. “Today, we use media because the promotion of health is useful and can occur even in the remotest villages as most of the population watch TV or listen to a radio.
“All these are challenges as convincing the public to be more aware of preventive health and the acceptance of healthy living practices can make a big difference to the health of our nation.” Working for UNICEF, she has done the same with great success, particularly the islandwide polio eradication campaign and the elimination of diarrhoea in children.
Even though we say Lankan children are better in a better position, have we done enough, we asked Dr. Wijemanne. “Some children still live on streets, drop out of school and have no contact with their own families. There are also children with undetected disabilities who have not been properly examined and action to remedy the defect.” She added that although banned in schools, corporal punishment still occurs.
“This is yet to be fully addressed. No violence should be used on a child in the name of punishment. The practice should be effectively banned. Thus, I have some regrets that we have not done enough for the promotion of child rights, although Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Children according to the CRC are supposed to have a voice, which means getting an opinion from them regarding matters which affect them. I don't think we have done enough on this. We still believe to some extent that children should only be seen and not heard. This is contrary to the CRC and our attitudes must change in this regard.”
Dr. Wijemanne wants us to remember that free healthcare has contributed to a systematic decline in infant and child mortality and mental health in Sri Lanka. Health services were always free and the majority of the people had access to such services. She believes that we have progressed to some extent as we provide the children’s rights to education which is free from the Primary to even Secondary and Tertiary levels. Dr. Wijemanne also spoke on the issues those without parents have, who are often put into childcare institutions.
“Quality of care is often poor and it is well-known that in some of these the rights of such children are violated. Even when abused and neglected, very few child care protection officers are known to visit homes and take action against perpetrators. The NCPA [National Child Protection Authority] does a good job but cases heard are often delayed and prolonged,” she said before further stating that we need to give priority to child rights in not only words but in action.
Twenty seven years in the public health sector is no easy feat. But she only vibrates positivity. “My insight in relation to the public health sector has been positive, where children are concerned and even where adults are concerned. Having worked in various parts of Sri Lanka, I can state without any doubt that the programme on public health including immunisation, regular growth monitoring and the care and the safe delivery of babies have led to continued decline in child mortality and morbidity.”
However, she added that while the right to healthcare was assured and successful, there are other areas of child rights yet to be fully addressed. These include the continued use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline in some schools and even at homes. She was firm that in no way can violence on children be used as a form of discipline. Dr. Wijemanne’s insight in the public health sector has always indicated that Sri Lanka has a well-developed system of reliable services. “As I have visited all parts of the island I can state this with confidence.
We were among the first countries in the world to eradicate polio following a successful immunisation campaign, headed by one of our iconic activists, former UNICEF Chief, Jim Grant. In my visits to the field, the work being undertaken by health midwives and medical officers of health was tremendous.” Her candid expressions at the UN in terms of poorer countries being bullied in the UN, and Sri Lanka’s political ideology that our sole focus on being in the ‘good books’ in the eyes of the UN cannot be forgotten. “The UN system meetings I attended certainly gave me great satisfaction as I was able to talk in a forthright manner on issues related to Sri Lanka. I kept emphasising that all of us are the UN including Sri Lanka, and the developing countries like Sri Lanka must be given their due place to articulate their views.
“Recognising the increasingly common phenomenon of passing judgments on countries like Sri Lanka with no real knowledge of the country or its people, I decided the truth should prevail." Dr. Wijemanne's belief that Sri Lanka's victory over a brutal battle against one of the most dreaded terrorist organisations in the world is of no mean proportion she says in her presentation. "I have articulated amid a war, priority was given to help and support the people of the country; especially families and children and uphold their best interest." Her experience in working amidst of a conflict is what makes it even more special.
The purpose of the UN is to support, help and promote more developing nations like ours which has more problems as opposed to more wealthy countries. Such countries do not need the UN. It is still the developing countries which need the support of the UN. Each individual country has to be analysed on an individual basis to address the factors. “Another important issue which has been brought forward at UN meetings is law delays. Where children are concerned, this is an even more serious problem and is yet to be fully addressed in Sri Lanka as well as other developing countries,” she said, stating it acts as a barrier to reporting of offences and needs urgent action. Dr. Wijemanne has been invited to UN Meetings where she spoke on the importance of child rights.
“Sometimes children were invited as they could express their rights. They need to get the opportunity to express their rights and their own opinions. I believe there needs to be a culture change to enable children to articulate their problems and issues. An independent and confidential reporting system could help address these issues.”
Speaking of her autobiography, Dr. Wijemanne said that she hopes the book will initiate interest to take action to remedy the problems of children that still occur. “Every issue regarding children needs priority and can be solved. My intention in writing the book was to stimulate action to address the existing problems for children in spite of the ratification of the CRC. I believe that with the required interest and concerns as expressed in the book, this could be possible," she said.
Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne holds a medical degree from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo and a Master’s Degree in Public Health from the Harvard School of Public Health in the USA. During her remarkable career, she has contributed her skills and expertise to Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat, the National Child Protection Authority and the Department of Probation and Child Care. She was also one of the 9 candidates elected to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 2010 to serve in Geneva. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is celebrated on the 20th of November annually since its adoption in 1989.