09th November 1997


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Child labour: crushing them young

By Feizal Samath

Premasiri, a five-year- old boy, was brought in by police with burns of the foot with maggots, multiple fractures and multiple scars due to whipping with a cord. He was allegedly employed by a school master.

Rani was a child servant. She did not speak Sinhalese, and the inconsistent history suggested that she had been kidnapped. The multiple linear abrasions she had, tell of the suffering she has undergone at the hands of her employer.

These startling cases are the findings of a paediatrics professor and are contained in a recent report on child abuse. Non-governmental agencies warn that this is a typical example of what is happening to Sri Lanka's child slaves - young children who are forced into labour for economic reasons.

"There are many, many cases such as this," says a worried NGO official working in the field of child care. "I don't think the public realises the extent of the problem."

"Paediatrics Professor Harendra de Silva, in his report, attributes this partly to the lack of awareness of the problem by the people as well as officials and doctors, contributing to poor detection. When detected most people including doctors "may not know what to do."

"How often do we read reports of child abuse in the newspapers? Aren't we shocked. Yes-of course but when we turn the page we have forgotten the issue," he says.

There are no official statistics on child labour in Sri Lanka. Unofficial figures vary from 100,000 to 500,000 children who are illegally employed, but government officials say this number is too exaggerated.

"Although a figure of 100,000 is mentioned, there is no survey done as to the number of children employed," contends S. Ranugge, the country's Probation and Child Care Commissioner.

He admits that sexual abuse among child servants is a serious problem but notes that the extent of child labour in Sri Lanka is not as acute as in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh where millions of children are in bonded labour.

Now, UNICEF, the United Nations child care agency, is stepping in to launch a countrywide effort to highlight the evils of child labour. "Our campaign is based on the premise that the employment of children is immoral," says M. Nizar, UNICEF's Information Officer in Colombo. He said that when a child is employed as a servant .. "whatever way you treat him or her, there is abuse or discrimination." There is no parental love and the child is deprived of his or her childhood, he said. Government officials say under Sri Lankan laws, no child under 12 can be employed. Due to antiquated laws promulgated in 1956, the maximum penalty for employing minors is a fine of 1,000 rupees and/or a jail term of six months. Thus, there is very little the authorities can do to adequately punish offenders. "It is a very small fine. They pay up and get away," said Ranugge. He says steps are now being taken to increase the fine to a minimum of 5,000 rupees, with no upward limit, and longer jail terms. He said his department carries out about 250 to 300 prosecutions a year.

The commissioner said the other aspect of child labour was the trauma a child underwent. "In most sexually abused cases, the child suffers the agony for three to four years. This is like a type of bonded labour."

Separate laws against sexual abuse of children were tightened in 1995 with the jail term being increased to a maximum 20 years, from virtually nothing, and an unlimited fine. Ranugge says there is a hotline in the police department which takes calls on child labour. Most of the complaints come from neighbours who have either heard cries for help or noticed severe bruising, from assault, on child servants, officials said. UNICEF's "Friends against Child Labour" campaign is aimed at creating a movement bringing in crusaders of children's rights and other social groups to canvass against exploitation.

The agency's senior programme officer, Dr. Hiranthi Wijemanne, was recently quoted in newspapers as saying that domestic child labour is a form or bonded labour.

"Often these domestics are abused physically, sexually and most definitely emotionally," she told a group of child activists last week. Nizar said the campaign will partly take the form of an extensive media lobby by an international advertising agency, conveying the seriousness of the issue and ways to tackle it.

UNICEF is also meeting religious heads next week for a discussion followed by meetings with television drama writers and producers, to urge them to use the visual medium to campaign against domestic labour, and other service-oriented groups like Rotary International. One of the ways to "rid society of this evil" is to make education compulsory at all levels, says Nizar.

Government officials said that proposed laws were now before parliament to make primary education compulsory. Sanath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka's best-known cricketer, has also offered his services free for the campaign, Nizar said. UNICEF officials are hoping the movement would be an ongoing one and gain momentum as it goes along. According to a recent UNICEF study, an unacceptably large number of children under 14 years work unofficially in the formal sector in the capacity of helpers at the request of adult relatives in the work force.

In the informal sectors, particularly agriculture, girls have to undertake supplementary tasks such as caring for their siblings, and carrying food for their parents who work in the fields. This deprives them of their right to leisure and play, it said.

The report said that child labour in domestic service had existed for a long time and is increasing. It is common in urban and semi-urban areas in Sri Lanka, particularly because more and more women, who used to be employed as domestics, are leaving for the Middle East for more lucrative employment.

"Some children are 'sold' into domestic service," UNICEF said. Professor de Silva argues that in addition to increasing the punishment for employment of minors, one area that is often not considered is the long 'string' of perpetrators who have aided and abetted the insult on a child, and those who have covered the incident subsequently. In the present system, he notes, attention is focussed mainly on the 'immediate' offender.

"The parents who prevent a child from schooling, and earn by the sweat of the child, and those who may give evidence against the Crown (ie. the child) to save a perpetrator should be equally guilty and punishable like a perpetrator," he says.

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