Mutiny and lawlessness have taken over and even the slightest attempt to bring about a semblance of discipline unleashes a severe backlash.
The Ranmuthugala Certified School for Girls under the Commissioner of Probation and Child Care of the Western Province is a powder-keg awaiting an imminent explosion, for the inmates are doing as they please while those-in-charge look on impotently. When complaints from neighbourhood residents led the Sunday Times last Monday to the gates of the Certified School, there was what seemed like a stampede, with several girls climbing the gate to shout out whether we were from the police.
|Our photographer M.A. Pushpa Kumara captured this shot of a young girl scaling the wall last Monday.
It was only after that, a terrified watcher opened the gate, letting us into a scene of lawlessness. With a knot of girls jeering and loitering about, though it was around 11 in the morning and there should have been a schedule for them before lunch, some of the staff members were at the foot of a tall tree, with a small girl high up in the branches.
While the staff pleaded with the girl to come down, a handful of older girls had splashed water on the staff members and pelted them with stones, egging the girl to climb higher.
The tale of lawlessness unfolds, the signs of which are visible all over the premises including the office where the table is strewn with sand and pebbles.
“This is not the work of all the girls,” says a staff member, explaining that a few bad eggs are goading and threatening everyone else to misbehave.
The beginnings of the unruly behaviour are attributed by probation sources to an incident last October where nine girls ran away from the Certified School, were caught by the Minuwangoda Police and produced before the Minuwangoda Magistrate. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) had been called in to give reports on the situation.
While probation sources claimed that the NCPA came into the Certified School and spoke to the girls which resulted in the disruption of its smooth-running, NCPA sources were quick to deny these allegations, explaining that the Certified School was a hell-hole long before that and probation was unwilling to work towards its improvement.
Among the many serious allegations by the run-away girls against the then administration had been that they were assaulted, starved and some were locked up in a cell in a dilapidated circular building without toilet facilities.
This Certified School, the only one for girls in the country, has both offenders and victims ranging in age from 12 to 18 years. While some are sent to a school close-by, others are given a vocational training in spheres such as juki-machine operating, beauty culture and home science.
Six months after the runaway incident, when the Sunday Times visited the Certified School spread over a large acreage, 54 girls were seen idling or roaming around. With a severe dearth of staff obvious (which probation sources said would be dealt with soon), these girls were their own masters, eating at whatever time they pleased and doing what they wanted.
They are being instigated by a runaway girl who has been sent back, sources told the Sunday Times.
The drastic decline in discipline at the Certified School included issues ranging from minor to major among the girls.
Eating at any time they wished, not even washing their plates after their meals, not sweeping their dormitories or public areas, bathing at odd-times and not retiring to bed at the required time were evident, while the more reprehensible and dangerous behaviour even to themselves included “thappe yanawa” (climbing the wall), admitted by many girls we spoke to, stealing clothes off the lines of neighbourhood residents, breaking into their homes when they were out and smashing up furniture and destroying the water taps.
|Sand and pebbles strewn on the office table
Quietly, the neighbours murmur the more serious issues – loitering with not only boys but also old men in the surrounding areas, after jumping down from the wall at night.
The girls sell coconuts, mango, jak etc from the Certified School garden for a few rupees to people hanging around outside the wall, beg for 10-rupees from the neighbours and if refused, scold in filth or “associate” with boys or old men, the payment of which would be chocolates, ice cream or a few rupees.
“Just the other day, I was returning from the boutique when I saw two girls hanging around near a thicket and a third doing I don’t know what with an old man from the area. I scolded the old man roundly,” said a woman, with another adding that she had seen some girls and boys kaluware badagena innawa (embracing in the dark) until residents flashed torches and chased them away.
When we call the police, they are reluctant to come, saying that they can do nothing and when we call the NCPA they tell us to treat the children with sympathy. “But they are not doing anything about it,” she said.
After talking to residents on a road adjoining the Certified School, the Sunday Times turned on to the main road, to see right before our eyes four or five girls who had jumped down from the wall in broad daylight, accosting passers-by, particularly men for money.
Whenever they refused, from the girls’ mouths would flow invective most foul and two men urged us to reveal the truth about Ranmuthugala.
As we photographed them, like seasoned miscreants they covered their faces, making crude finger gestures in our direction, shouting out obscenities.
Action is needed right now to bring about order and discipline. Firmly but gently these girls need to be guided on to the right path, without allowing them the freedom of the wild ass which will only lead to their downfall. This would be in the best interests of the girls themselves.
Work together to solve problem
There have been issues of inadequate supervision and quality of care at the Ranmuthugala Certified School for a long time, said a rational voice in child protection, explaining however that there may have been a decline after October.
The need, this children’s rights activist said, a view repeated by many others, is for all groups working for the benefit of children to do so in tandem.
All encompass the Departments of Probation and Child Care at both the provincial and national levels, the NCPA and the Child Development and Women’s Affairs Ministry, the activist said.
Why has Ranmuthugala taken so long to settle asked another activist answering that all these groups are bent on a finger-pointing mission rather than joining together in the interest of the Sri Lankan child.
Whether a subject is devolved or not is not relevant. Institutions such as Ranmuthugala may be run at local level but should be according to national guidelines and international standards.