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21st June 1998

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Working together to save children

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Two parliamen- tarians from opposing sides have established a "Parliamentary Lobby for Child Rights"- an ambitious body seeking prevention of child abuse and greater realization of their rights.

The only lobby of its kind in the entire South East Asian region, the 21 -member group was inaugurated by Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Prof. G.L. Peiris and Opposition and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe last Friday. At the inauguration, Mr. Wickremesinghe said: "Two action- oriented MPs from both sides of the divide have got together for a national cause. It is our fervent hope that their resolve and enthusiasm would not dull."

According to the President of the lobby Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene, despite the alarming increase in incidents of child related offences, lack of political will has allowed the problem to gain gigantic proportions, so much so that Sri Lanka has become notorious as a paradise for cheap child labour and child sex.

A child being "any person below the age of 18 unless achieved majority by the process of law," requires society's special care. But children's rights are being continuously violated while the fundamental obligation of the state was being observed in the breach.

Dallas Alahapperuma, the Secretary of the Lobby believes that if the 4.2 million child population had universal franchise, they would have attracted more political attention and their grievances would have been resolved expeditiously. "If they had their own political party or trade union, their views would receive state recognition. The truth is that there has been little investment in children by the politicians for they could not be politically exploited."

Sri Lanka which became a signatory to the multilateral treaty, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, subsequently adopted the Children's Charter as a policy document based on the principle Convention. Thereafter a Steering Committee was appointed. While the majority of signatories sought speedy implementation of the Convention principles, the Sri Lankan Charter was never ratified, hence never becoming a legally binding enactment with practical implications.

Dr. Jayawardene says that their group's primary objective would be to enact the Charter and propose various amendments so that problems unique to our country could be addressed. Further, a continuous programme to monitor legislation having a direct bearing on children will be initiated.

Both MPs claim that Sri Lanka being engaged in a civil war for over 15 years, it has its special problems like that of children in armed conflict. Despite the massive exploitation, sexual, physical and mental abuse and drugs, Sri Lanka's biggest problem is the increasing number of refugee children. Given the gloomy scenario in the North and East, the MPs are convinced that there should have been a thoroughly networked permanent body to monitor the incidents and take action. The archaic legislation also has to be modified to suit the present day requirements. And the Parliamentary Lobby on Children's Rights is committed to the task of raising child related problems within the legislature and pressurizing authorities to regulate, monitor and implement policies that are conducive to creating a healthy environment for children to live in.

The Lobby since its inauguration has identified several areas requiring immediate attention. Refugees, malnutrition, drug addiction, lack of basic amenities and access to education, torture and child labour and problems unique to certain localities have been recognized by the Lobby as "areas deserving prompt action."

"Certain localities have their own problems. For instance, child labour is rampant in fishing villages, urban market areas and estate sector. Similarly, incidents of sexual exploitation and drug addiction and trafficking are high in the Southern coastal belt, from Balapitiya to Hikkaduwa. In Colombo, many children were being used for professional begging while in Madhu refugee camp there are some 8,000 children sans basic facilities," claims Dr. Jayawardene.

Other problems are common to the entire country, asserts Alahapperuma. These are the break down in the family unit, parents employed abroad, lack of family planning, moral deterioration etc. Thus, the Lobby intends launching a campaign for the alleviation of poverty in a bid to minimize child labour.

Where will they go from here?

This is a special school, with special children. But the authorities at the Ratmalana Deaf and Blind School fear they might have to close it down if the financial situation does not improve.

By Chamintha Thilakarathna

It is 1.55 in the afternoon and the sound of the lunch bell echoes through the deserted corridors at the Ratmalana Deaf and Blind School. In minutes the air is filled with the laughter and voices of children, heading for the lunch room. What awaits them is a simple meal of rice, mallum, dhal curry and brinjal. But, according to school officials even this is a luxury that students may not enjoy for much longer.

Enjoying their tea - children at Deaf and Blind SchoolSchool authorities say they will have to close down the Ratmalana school if their financial situation does not improve. "We are struggling to provide the children three meals a day. We are not sure how much longer we can continue," said the Vice Principal of the Ratmalana school, R. H. Whittinton.

The school has 560 resident students presently occupying the hostel. "We can allocate only Rs.17 per person for daily meals. Occasionally we get biscuits when someone volunteers to provide tea, or fish, eggs and meat. But such donations are rare now. Earlier we used to have an almsgiving at least twice a month but now most months go by without a single voluntary meal," Mr. Whittinton said.

The only institution in the country which provides higher education facilities to deaf and blind children, the school has another branch at Kaithadi in Jaffna.

Mr. WhittintonAccording to Mr. Whittinton, they have encouraged parents to take their children home due to their financial hardship but with no success, as most parents are too poor to fund or care for a disabled child. "Most often when the students return from their vacations, we have to provide the bus fare to the parents for the journey back." Although several attempts to increase donations and other assistance have been made by the school authorities, they have been in vain, he says.

The School provides several services and has had many notable achievements. Education is similar to any normal school, with vocational training. Students are prepared for the G.C. E Ordinary Level exam and many pass. Some are sent to state schools to continue their A/L studies. Several have entered university and graduated. Before they can be taught, the blind children need to learn Braille and the deaf, sign language, lip reading and other forms of communication. The blind are given lessons in mobility and soon they are able to move about with a cane. The deaf have to be taught auditory skills, receive speech training and when useful, are given hearing aids so they could follow normal classes.

The school is assisted by the Ministry of Social Services and Education Ministry as well as the Board of Trustees of the Anglican church. The teachers' salaries are paid by the Education Ministry while other assistance is granted by the other two institutions. The administration however is supervised by the board.

But the bottom line is that according to school authorities, they may have to close down the schools in the coming years, if the situation continues. The estimated shortfall in 1998 is Rs.2.88 million. A government grant which adds to 44%, overseas gifts of 26%, local income of 23%, leaves a deficit of 7%. The government grant is their only assured income they say. Overseas gifts and local income vary. The deficit has increased tremendously over the years. What was Rs.350,000 in 1994 has increased to Rs.912,000in 1997 and Rs.984,000 by 1998.

Teachers are paid by the government and the salaries of other workers who amount to roughly 120 in the schools are paid by the grants given to the school."If we get at least five voluntary meals every month we will be able to just manage. The students grumble about the pol sambol and bread dinner and the mallum and rice lunch but we are helpless. People think we get a lot of donations and we do not need any support but we are drowning with no one left to turn to, but ourselves. We have to launch a campaign to show the importance, of the service we provide and our deficiencies," Mr. Whittinton said.

However, Social Services Ministry officials state they are unaware of any crisis. "We give a grant of Rs.300 per student a month. We are not aware of a food shortage and any need to close down the schools if it continues," said Ms. Pathirana, Director Social Services.

Secretary of the Board of Trustees, Eksith Fernando says the Church has not increased its financial aid in at least three years.

"Even the church is dependent on donations and fund raisers for their own investments and so are the schools as a result. This is only one of the church's many commitments. The financial situation is bad but we are trying our best to upgrade it. We are now encouraging commercial donors to provide regular support."

School authorities maintain they have informed the Social Services Ministry and the supporting NGOs and the Church of the situation. Head of the Anglican Church, Bishop Kenneth Fernando, who is also the Chairman of the Board of administration said it is true that the schools have been running a deficit for years but added they would underwrite it.

"We will underwrite the deficit. Although we cannot expand the schools to accommodate more children and although the government funds to the schools are little and the church is burdened with the responsibility of finding aid to maintain them, the general public and several private companies have volunteered to assist the schools in many ways. Therefore, there will be no question of not being able to overcome this crisis," the Bishop said.

Such assistance is no doubt, the urgent need if this school is to continue its work with the many blind and deaf children who deserve every help they get.

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