Protect Our Children, Protect Our Future
By Dilshani Palugaswewa
We’ve often heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” implying that for a child to truly thrive and grow in a society, a child needs much more than parents to reach full potential; a safe environment, trusting adults, and a caring community.
This Children’s Day (1 October), Stop Child Cruelty Trust (SCCT) launched an initiative ‘#JustANumber Child Protection Month’ to increase awareness of the fundamental rights of children through various public programmes and platforms. One of the key objectives of this advocacy campaign is to compel the Parliament to change the Penal Code on Cruelty to Children, especially following the Supreme Court’s recognition of corporal punishment of children by schools as unlawful and a violation of a child’s right.
To propel this imperative initiative, SCCT partners with like-minded civil society organisations and NonGovernmental Organisations (NGOs) to form Sri Lanka’s first ever Child Protection Alliance to ensure child protection in the country whilst empowering and encouraging young voices. To outline the specifics of this campaign, a virtual event organised by the SCCT brought together three panellists; SCCT’s Founding Chairperson Dr. Tush Wickramanayaka, Emeritus Professor of Law and former Vice Chancellor at the University of Colombo Prof. Savitri Goonesekere and former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to expound one this initiative, the work that is being done in this regard, and the work that needs to be done.
As multiple child abuse cases came to light in just past year, there is a need to now, more than ever to put an end to these heinous crimes and hold those who commit these acts accountable, to protect our future.
Our first step is to, “Pay attention to your child, pay attention to his surroundings and what he is going through because otherwise, in an instant when you least expect it, your child too can become just another number...Empower the children who will be our future leaders. Let them know they have rights and enable them to ensure their protection,” voiced Dr. Wickramanayaka, further noting, as of now there are over 30,000 child abuse cases filed by the Attorney General Department.
A staunch advocate for ending corporal punishment, Dr. Wickramanayaka for the negative long-term impacts it has proven to have, SCCT put forward a suggestion to the Parliament to enact the Supreme Court’s decision and ban corporal punishment from schools three months back but sadly, they have still not been able to reserve a date for Parliamentary debate on the matter. “We realised this cannot be done alone so we formed Sri Lanka’s first child protection alliance which now has over 20 organisations’ participation.
We hope our collective voice will be even louder and be heard more,” she optimistically remarked. Sri Lanka, although a proud signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – a legallybinding international agreement setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of every child – which we signed in 1991, hasn’t progressed as much as we should have in a time of 30 years since.
In fact, Sri Lanka is among the 10 per cent of countries among UNCRC signatory States where violence against children is the worst. In addition to that, we have another on-the-surface record of being the only country in South Asia committed to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.2 – violence against children, meaning, although we signed it in 2017, studies suggest that not a single Government has managed to report even the slightest progress in achieving this goal, since.
“There is a huge discussion going on stating that these international treaties don’t really fit well with our culture. We simply can’t agree with this. Since 1903, health-wise and education-wise the governments have introduced laws regarding child welfare. When Sri Lanka signed the URCRC it wasn’t a totally new concept to us.
Former President Kumaratunga during her tenure, renewed a few old laws to ensure child welfare, she formed National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) via an extraordinary gazette. Unfortunately, since 2005, we observe a notable slow pace in its progress. In this context, it is timely a programme like this is launched,” Prof. Goonesekere opined. She further noted, the real problem is not the framework itself but rather the implementation of laws we have in place to protect children’s rights and the accountability for perpetrators.
Where does corporal punishment from?
Much like other things our colonisers left behind, we seem to hook onto the ideas that are most damaging to our society, while they have moved on from those to form new laws to protect their own people. “Sri Lanka is a multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic country. However, none of the races or religions in the country endorse child punishment. So, where did this corporal punishment come from?... Corporal punishment never was our own practice. It was introduced by the British. If we really value our own cultural practices, then the first thing we should do is to ban corporal punishment because it is not an original Sinhala social value, rather an adopted one from the colonial rulers,” Prof. Goonesekere said.
Moreover, as societies evolve she said, the way of thinking of a society should too. If a practice is against the evolving social values it shouldn’t be continued. That is how a society develops, she reiterated. One of the key objectives of this campaign is to engage MPs to take action in Parliament to ensure child protection against abuse of children through punishment – physical and psychological – in the home and school. Prof. Goonesekere stated that one of the most crucial aspects of this initiative is to include children themselves in this conversation to ensure all the steps we are taking to protect them, benefit them in the best ways possible.
In this regard, joining in on the conversation was former President Kumaratunga who elaborated on the creative angle the campaign has taken to promote the National Art/Speech Competition involving children. “The theme is letting a kid draw or speak about what he or she would do to ensure child protection in the country if he or she became an advisor to the President.
I hope all these effort will bear fruits and our children will be able to grow in a favourable environment to become responsible citizens.” The competition aims to create a platform for children as young as six years up to 18 years to share their own perspective on the matter, whilst also encouraging them to directly get involved in the decision making related to their welfare.
Campaigns such as #JustANumber celebrated annually will not yield much sustainable change if society at large and leaders of the country do not have an attitudinal change. One of the biggest reasons Prof. Goonesekere attributes to the failure to strengthen child protection and bring perpetrators to justice, is the increased political influence on Government institutions which render them at the mercy of power.
“Lots of Heads have resigned because of political intervention. When institutes cannot act independently, no one dare to speak their mind, rendering these institutes powerless. When institutes are weak it is almost impossible to change anything let alone the attitude of the society.
For example, NCPA used to be an independent authority but it no longer is. There are many a research conducted, research well over 2,000 pages, but none of the suggestions mentioned in such research is being carried out by relevant authorities due to political intervention.” Sharing the same sentiment was Dr. Wickramanayaka, pointing out, “NCPA has total authority to oversee this matter and create regulations to ensure protection of children who are ordained at an early age but the problem is that these actions aren’t taken due to political intervention,” she said as she spoke on child abuse occurring in religious institutes. Another main issue, she noted, is the lack of resources. Although the NCPA has a unit called probation and childcare, it is practically powerless.
Even the women and child units of every Police station barely does anything substantial because they lack manpower and resources. “When Institutes are rendered powerless, matters in general cannot be solved, let alone sensitive matters.” Talking on the topic of the welfare of disabled and differently abled children who often go unnoticed, Dr. Wickramanayaka said that most teachers resort to corporal punishment because that’s the only way they know to control a class.
However, she notes there is definitely a solution to this problem that doesn’t involve violence – proper training. A suggestion has already been put forward to the Ministry of Education by SSCT but hasn’t materialised as yet, for it has only bounced between departments without getting an approval. However, Dr. Wickramanayaka stated that they intend to work with the Ministry in a more involving manner that also includes the Teacher’s unions.
Apart from that, schools already have systems in place to encourage children to go to a welfare officer to discuss private matters, if the need arises. There are two roles, there is something called educational administration which is leadership at the top. This leadership at the top in our case comes through the Ministry. However, we have a whole lot of private institutions and even the constitution does not cover private actors. But, there are areas in which the Government regulates private actors also.
“So when this bill on Corporal Punishment comes; one of the provisions should be that all education authorities have commitments under the Constitution and thus the management has to fulfil that by both setting the parameters and administrations to prohibit the use of corporal punishment by every teacher,” Prof. Goonesekere outlined.
This system is currently implemented in some schools. However, the point is to have all schools have this setup. Thus, there is a crucial role the school administration should play, as a safe environment is necessary where sympathy and understanding among teachers and students is at its core. Second, is the counselling and that is absolutely crucial.
Some Government and private schools have it but not across the board. However, this programme aims to emphasise the need to have it as a part of school management. “One of the problems we have is we have no concept of school management today. We had it in the past, we had it in central colleges, we had it in the private schools, there were principals who met each other and interacted. We now have lost that. It is now entirely up to the individual and that’s where a lot goes wrong,” Prof. Goonesekere reiterated.
Message to caregivers
Caregivers need to build trust with their children, so their children know whom to talk to when something happens. “Parents also need to inform and educate their children about sexual abuse. If the child is a girl she should be taught that the area a swimsuit covers should not be touched by anyone. And most importantly, the traffic light system; Red (scream and shout), yellow (run) and green (tell someone trustworthy), and finally, believe your children. They won’t lie, especially about something like abuse,” Dr. Wickramanayaka explained.
Additionally, create a ‘security ring’ for your child, Dr. Wickramanayaka recommended. When an emergency pops up, the child can go to one of the persons within that security ring for protection. People in this ring can be relatives, grandparents, teachers or anyone the child is comfortable with and trusting. “If we don't stand up for children, then we don't stand for much.” — Marian Wright Edelman