Child Welfare Simply Forgotten | Daily News

Child Welfare Simply Forgotten

Children’s health and education should be given priority.  Picture by Sulochana Gamage
Children’s health and education should be given priority. Picture by Sulochana Gamage

In 2019, we experienced the Sri Lanka Easter Bombings, from 2020 to the present we are fighting against COVID-19 and from 2022 to the present we are facing an economic crisis. With such political, social and economic upheaval, are we forgetting about our children, the most vulnerable segment of society? Have we been so preoccupied with these disasters that we have unwittingly overlooked the welfare of our children? The Daily News spoke to Chairperson of Stop Child Cruelty Trust, Co-convener of Child Protection Alliance and first Sri Lankan recognized as End Violence Champion at Children & Youth 2021 (CY21), the largest platform of world leaders and international activists, convened by UNICEF, Dr. Tush Wickramanayaka, on the challenges, dangers and difficulties that our children are facing today.

Dr. Wickramanayaka pointed out that child protection is a national crisis in Sri Lanka. Over the last 24 months 16 children have been physically/sexually abused and murdered in our island paradise. This has dragged us to the abysmal depth as a country least safe for children against violence.

Dr Tush Wickramanayaka

“Children are the most vulnerable and often overlooked community in any country, especially in Sri Lanka where the child is not recognized as rights holder. The situation has got acutely worse during the various disaster periods that we have faced from 2019 to date. Despite ratifying the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1991, not a single person of authority has done anything meaningful to resolve the crisis,” said Dr. Wickramanayaka.

Her favourite humanitarian is Nelson Mandela who said, “there is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.

Dr. Wickramanayaka believes that children should be empowered from an early age. The UNICEF statement of April 8, 2022 states “Children’s rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, including in peaceful protest, are enshrined in the UNCRC. In exercising these rights children must not be manipulated. They should be given the opportunity to meaningfully voice their concerns and participate in matters that affect their futures, and they need to be listened to.”

“However, parents and guardians must ensure the children are in a safe environment. Whilst I was fully supportive of children voluntarily participating in peaceful protests at the outset, I was deeply concerned of their safety in the heart of the ‘Aragalaya’ site, in front of barricades amidst a highly volatile atmosphere later on. One young girl was regularly used as a sign language interpreter during media discussions on a platform of verbally aggressive adults. She was not expressing her own views and her presence was an unnecessary risk whilst the heat was rising. Hence, I objected to the event organizers using children as pawns of the ‘Aragalaya’. We conducted many events at GotaGoGama, actively encouraging children to recognize their rights and embrace the hallmarks of global citizenship. What people failed to appreciate was that ‘Aragalaya’ was not simply about chanting a slogan. This was a golden opportunity to expose children to inspiring change makers. Children’s voices are powerful and must be heard,” explained Dr. Wickramanayaka.

She added that the number of cases of child abuse reported to National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) and Sri Lanka Police have rapidly increased since 2019 resulting in the highest number of child murders. There is no national security without child security. Whilst the parents are the primary guardians the State is the ultimate guardian. The State includes the judiciary, the Government and its citizens. Let’s focus on the Government here. Unless we have visionary leadership to protect the true beneficiaries of the future, the future will remain bleak for us all. “Many civilized societies around the world are making landmark decisions to protect children. Japan has included child protection in the heart of the national security agenda allocating a large amount of annual budget funding. Bangladesh adopted a separate section to the constitution giving special rights and privileges to their children. South Africa, dedicates the month of October for family empowerment and non-violence. Pakistan has implemented the ban of corporal punishment in all settings, including homes and schools in Islamabad. They are focused on eliminating violence, a key contributor to ethnic discord. Most recently, the newly elected President of Kenya has introduced many historical policies on child protection and implemented them within six months. It is heart-warming to see the world moving at lightning speed giving priority to children and gut wrenching to see Sri Lanka moving in reverse gear to the dark ages.”

Child protection is a collective social responsibility. Many make the mistake of trying to fix a problem when we should be spending our energy on preventing the problem from occurring in the first place. Professional bodies and individual citizens who look away are accessories to the crime of child abuse.

“For example, whilst I endorse the peaceful protests and public dissent against the corrupt regime, I do feel it is hypocritical that the members of the Teacher Unions are vehemently protesting against the brutality unleashed on the protester when they fail to implement Ministry of Education Circular No 12/2016 banning corporal punishment. In 2018, Ceylon Teachers Service Union, one of the most powerful trade unions, protested against a landmark decision which convicted a teacher for child cruelty, Penal Code 306A (physical abuse), demanding their right to use physical punishment to discipline students. In February 2021, Case No SC /FR/97/2017, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka gave a historic decision banning corporal punishment, but the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) has been lethargic to support the implementation of it. NCPA, the most powerful authority to protect children remains inactive to obtain necessary Cabinet approval to seize the opportunity provided on a golden platter to implement the long awaited critical and urgent recommendations of UNCRC and UNHRC to end violence against children, SDG 16.2. Parents must never adjust to injustice. Our children deserve the same equality, justice and hope as adults,” she explained.

The sixteen children (mentioned before) were abused and murdered by those whom they loved and trusted within the home environment. Children are incredibly intelligent and amazingly adaptable. One of the key factors leading to an increase of child abuse is the loss of connection and communication between parent and child.

“In a world of technology and unhealthy competition our lives are focused on electronic devices and platonic social media relationships. Parents must re-connect with their children and rebuild the trust. Power cuts are an ideal time to sit together as a family reflecting on the day. It is a simple start to the conversation. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic we were encouraged to engage in gardening and eco-friendly exercises. We must continue these family activities. Encourage children to share their solutions to common problems. Allocate simple chores to the children -giving responsibilities can take away the domestic pressures. Teach children to live within your means, because some luxuries are non-essential. Most of all, reassure them that good times will be coming soon. Educate your child about the globally recognized traffic light system, ‘red -stop, yellow -run, green -tell’. This will help them whenever they feel scared or unsafe anywhere. Establish the ‘security circle’- at least three people the child trusts that they can reach out to. Energize the ‘neighbourhood watch’, which is a great community effort to be alert and supportive to not just your child. Be the system changer,” she added.

Child abuse is commonly categorized into four – physical abuse, sexual abuse, mental abuse and neglect. Physical abuse aka corporal punishment aka cruelty is the most common form of abuse in Sri Lanka and worldwide. Cases of cruelty reported to NCPA have increased by 30% since 2010 to 2020. According to WHO, nearly 3 in 4 children or 300 million children aged 2-4 years regularly suffer physical punishment and/or psychological violence at the hands of parents and caregivers.

Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, Colombo North Teaching Hospital, Ragama, Dr. Nilanja Warsapperuma pointed out that for the last few years, we have been through extremely hard times - the 2019 Easter Bombings, COVID-19 and the present economic crisis.

“Indeed, in the past three to four years, Sri Lanka has been through great difficulties. Millions of children and adolescents have experienced long-term unresolved states of fear and stress, their values being questioned among many other difficulties over this period. Many parents also struggle with their own traumas, grief and losses,” said Dr. Warsapperuma.

She pointed out that direct consequences of being home bound during the larger part of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond are readily seen now. Many children have had difficulties in maintaining routines and structure and setting goals for themselves. This in turn creates deficits in being autonomous.

“The school closures created physical separation and minimized social relatedness. These will not only have a direct impact upon the personality development of the child, but also on their academic successes,” added Dr. Warsapperuma.

Dr. Warsapperuma also added that online schooling was not consistent in major parts of the country, during and after the COVID-19 outbreak, many children have missed out on greater parts of their education. This would lead to bleak outcomes in their academic accomplishments. This creates anxiety in the child as he/she struggles to build on the concepts that he/she has missed out over the years.

“With online schooling, children and adolescents have had access to mobile phones and unsupervised internet usage. Many children have been referred to child psychiatry clinics with screen/gaming addictions and gambling. Research evidence shows that characteristic pathological brain changes are seen in children with screen/gaming addictions. Access to social media like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok has boomed in the adolescent population in order to make up for the social isolation. They attempt to build their social identity via the acceptance generated across these channels and engage in mindless scrolling as a getaway from internal stress,” she explained.

She went onto explain that the effects are largely accompanied with negative mental states and poor self-esteem. They can also be easily swayed with false reporting and manipulated towards adverse outcomes. Many reports of adolescents being sexually groomed and exploited via the internet are being investigated. Exposure to pornographic material is another concern in the absence of sex education. Pornography speaks of aggressive sexual acts, with no consent between partners. The child or adolescent with such exposure would not know his/her boundaries, and thus becomes vulnerable to exploitation and may become perpetrators.

“A recent study done in Sri Lanka has found that children and adolescents commonly exhibit irritability, disturbed sleep, anxious behaviour and are reluctant to attend school. In addition to mental health, the lack of physical activity, irregular sleep times, prolonged screen times have led to concerns in physical health parameters. The pandemic has disproportionately affected children with disabilities and special needs. They have faced obstacles when it comes to reintegration to education and have poor access to health services, leaving significant concerns about their development.”

The socio-economic status of the family has an impact upon the development of the child. Malnutrition is a concern now, where many families fail to provide three meals for their children. Chronic malnutrition leads to poorer weight gain, illness and poorer development in all aspects. Adding to these, pregnancies with low birth weight shall lead to birth deficits and children born within stressful pregnancies go on to have developmental and mental health difficulties over time.

“Studies show that parental substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, mothers leaving for foreign employment, commercial sex work, shows an increase in times of crisis and Sri Lanka is no exception. Especially within vulnerable family systems, the effects of the above factors become multifold with poorer outcomes for these children. Indeed, learning loss has been greatest in disadvantaged families. These children and adolescents with these adverse life experiences may drop out of school early to support the family. They would engage in illegal forms of employment, substance abuse, with greater risk of being sexually exploited. There is also the danger of adolescent pregnancies and engagement with law enforcement agencies. The female child maybe worse affected. Her education maybe compromised first to meet the family needs,” pointed out Dr. Warsapperuma. The child and adolescent would struggle to explore, create, innovate and relate to others through empathy, compassion and kindness. This will create more separation and trauma. This trauma carried across time, shall burden future generations to come.

October 1st is Children’s Day. With education, nutrition, health and protection in calamity, there is little to celebrate in 2022. Dr. Tush invited all to contribute to the ‘Child Protection Mega Month’, an ambitious campaign empowering children starting from Jaffna on Children’s Day. For further details visit or email [email protected]

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