15th April 2001
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Let them be children

By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
Gro Braekken has 'radi-cal' views on child la-bour. "Children have always worked and they should be allowed to work as long as their health is not endangered or they are not involved in illegal activities. What must be ensured is that they are allowed to be children, allowed to play and allowed education while working." 

When one comes to think of it, is she being radical or just facing reality? "A generation ago children in Norway also worked. It is a fact of life and cannot be ignored. They worked on farms and they did minor chores at home. But our concern is that children should not do anything that harms their health, mentally or physically. They should not do illegal things like child prostitution and working as slaves," says dynamic Ms. Braekken, Secretary-General of Save the Children, Norway.

"Our work is to ensure that even if they do work, they are able to be children, play with other children and have an education. We work and negotiate with companies and look at issues like what a child is doing, how many hours he/she is working and ensure that children are able to grow up as children. Then we get into a dialogue with the company. We have worked with companies in many countries on this approach and in Norway with the labour unions also."

Ms. Braekken spoke to The Sunday Times during a visit to Sri Lanka to review the local activities of Save the Children, Norway and also address the country's business community on the need for corporate responsibility with a social and child rights perspective.

The Norwegian agency's Sri Lanka work is mainly focused on promoting the rights of children and trying to rehabilitate children affected by the 17-year conflict. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) recruits scores of youngsters to its ranks and sends them to the frontlines. Thousands of children have been killed or maimed in the war while another 300,000 children have been displaced by the conflict. 

Aid officials say that in addition, in the impoverished provinces, between 30 to 50 percent of the children are malnourished while a recent survey by Org Marg, an international market research agency, showed that 55 percent of the children are afraid of the future because of the conflict.

"We believe the rebels have children in their ranks but it is difficult to prove it, as there is inadequate data and little statistics on the issue. Many of the reports we get on child soldiers in Sri Lanka are anecdotal," said Save the Children's Sri Lanka Representative Gunnar Andersen.

UNICEF and other international aid agencies have accused the Tigers of using child soldiers, a charge repeatedly denied by them though many aid workers in the war-torn northern region have reported the presence of young children carrying guns amongst older Tiger cadres.

Ms. Braekken, during a speech to Sri Lanka's business community, said that a weakened economy could result in a greater number of adults and youngsters out of work, increased migration, more children on the streets under more abusive conditions and probably increased social unrest. "This is a threat to both children themselves and to the need for a stable and secure environment for business," she told a meeting of the Sri Lanka Institute of Directors.

Save the Children, Norway is one of the world's largest independent movements for children, working in more than 100 countries. In Sri Lanka its mandate also includes promoting early childhood development programmes and improving access to quality education.

Ms. Braekken said it was a crime against humanity for children to be used as child soldiers. "They get traumatized to such an extent that they get wounds that cannot be healed. When this happens to a majority of the war-affected children, then the country loses thousands and thousands of Sri Lanka's potential future people."

One of the common bonds that draw war-affected children together from all over the world is their dire need to go to school and get a proper education. 

During a conference in Africa recently to discuss the issue of children affected by war, a simultaneous but separate meeting for "young" victims - run by children themselves - was also held.

The conference organized by Save the Children, Norway brought together authorities and NGOs from war-affected areas in the region to discuss common problems, while children, many of whom had been forced into rebel armies, but had later escaped, ran their own parallel discussion.

"It was interesting to see how children were dealing with their own situation and coming up with solutions the way they see it," recalled Ms. Braekken. The African meeting drew participants from Sudan, the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda for a pre-Christmas parley in the Ugandan capital of Kampala in an attempt to look for ways of protecting the children from war and conflict.

All these countries are at war with thousands of children being forcibly conscripted to rebel armies. No estimates are available of the total number of child soldiers in Africa except for an unofficial number of 6,000 abducted child warriors in Uganda. 

Some 20 of them between the ages of 10 and 18 years were among participants at the children's conference in Kampala. 

A boy of 14 spoke of his experiences as a child soldier, saying he escaped after being in captivity for a month and forced to carry a gun. "He did not go to school anymore as he had been badly traumatized by the experience. You could see the hurt in his face when he spoke about his experience. He was not even allowed to talk to others in the rebel camp," Ms. Braekken said.

At the Kampala children's forum, the participants were asked to name their most important priority. "They said they wanted medicines, school and an education, to listen to the radio and view television and play with other children. But out of all this they listed education at a proper school as the top priority," she explained.

Save the Children officials said that for the children, education also symbolized being together with other kids, being able to play with each other and involvement in a whole range of activities in school.

"It is important for the children to be on their own, to be together because the parents are very depressed. It's good for both the parents and the children that the latter are able to have some form of normalcy in their lives," Ms. Braekken noted.

One of the issues that came out of the Kampala meeting was for a group to go to Sudan and rescue children abducted by rebels, while some of the other lessons learnt by participants was how to gauge the crisis through the eyes of the children.

"We look at children's issues as an emergency problem and come up with emergency solutions, while the children look at their problems as part of their lives. We saw the need after the Kampala conference to strengthen NGOs there by looking at the crisis from a children's perspective," said Ms. Braekken. Girls are among the children forcibly conscripted into African rebel armies. They are ordered to work in households and look after other kids. "Some of these girls become pregnant (through rape) even before their bodies are developed. It is terrible ... what is being done to these children," she said.

One of the groups that took part at the meeting was an organization of parents whose children have been abducted by rebels in Uganda. Despite possible repercussions to their children, the group has publicly raised the plight of child soldiers in international forums and the need for urgent action to rescue such victims.

"It must be a difficult thing for these parents not knowing whether or not they are endangering the lives of their children in highlighting the crisis," Ms. Braekken added.

School is top priority

Education is what children worldwide yearn for the most and Sri Lanka is no exception. Yes, the dream of the children trapped in a war not of their making, in Sivantheevu, 42 km from Batticaloa was to upgrade their tiny village school from Grade 6 to Grade 10. 

These children living in a pocket settlement wedged between the lagoon and the sea face many a problem. The most troubling is that their fathers, a majority of whom are fishermen, are unable to carry on their livelihood uninterrupted. 

Amidst starvation and the hardships of war, these children, who had banded themselves into the Vivekananda Child Development Club, longed for a new building for their school.

They wanted funds to buy building materials, for a temporary shed to hold classes. They would find the labour themselves, for they had persuaded their parents to volunteer for the job. 

Then Save the Children, Norway, which had met these children in 1999 through the local NGO Eastern Self-Awakening Community Organisation contributed its 'mite' towards their cause. Some months ago the children's dream became a reality, when they constructed the building and handed it over to the Zonal Education Director, who in turn immediately allocated three more teachers to the school. 

"They wanted education facilities. The children were not prepared to move to safer ground. They were ready to stay in their homes as long as they had schools, teachers and were able to play with other kids," said the Resident Representative of Save the Children, Norway, Gunnar Andersen. 

For the children of Sivantheevu too, schools and education are at the top of their list of priorities.

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