Abused and abandoned
Halpathota is the only detention centre in the entire country for young children, who are brought before the courts for their protection, reports Hiranthi Fernando

The children's needs
Ms. Amarasiri said they would welcome public assistance in providing some of the needs of the children. Items such as soap, exercise books and school stationery, basic medical supplies, towels, food items to supplement what they receive, and clothes would be greatly appreciated. The children urgently need underclothes as most of them only have one piece of underclothing. Every donation received would be inventorised, she added.

Rani, a little five-year-old was raped by her grandfather.

*Kamala, who claimed to be 11 but looks about eight, had been kept with her aunt to look after her children and was abused by her uncle. She managed to run to the road, get into a three-wheeler and seek refuge at the police station in the area.

*Prema, six, was raped by her father, when her mother was away in hospital having a baby.

Detention centre is a harsh term for the children's home at Halpathota, which shelters 169 children between five and 18 years. Sent there by the courts, they are society's innocent victims who have been abused, abandoned or are victims of domestic violence or runaways from illegal employment.

For many of these children, this is the only home they know. Surprisingly, Halpathota is the only detention centre in the entire country for young children who are brought before the courts for their protection.

Among these young victims are 24 girls like Rani, Kamala and Prema who have been raped, in most cases by family members and relatives. Fathers, grandfathers and uncles have been the abusers. There are also horrifying cases, where the child's mother herself has collaborated in the rape of the child by a young partner she is living with, in order to keep him with her.

Another 14-year-old girl, raped by her father, was three months pregnant when she was sent to Halpathota. She was kept in hospital until the baby's birth. Provincial Commissioner, Probation and Child Care Services and Additional Secretary, Social Services Ministry, Southern Province, Irangani Amarasiri explained that they do not keep pregnant girls at the detention centre because there are very young children and they begin to ask questions. The baby was transferred to the State Receiving Home and given for adoption. The young mother, who is now back at the centre, was not even shown her child.

The Superintendent of the Detention Centre, P. D. S. Seneviratne explained that although officially the home is meant for children between five and 18, some who are older and have no place to go to, stay on. Some who have found jobs with lodging also come back for holidays. "Some of our children are now working in the armed forces, banks, garment factories and the airport, while one is in university," Mr. Seneviratne said.

Wasantha, 18, was sent to the centre by the courts under the Vagrants' Ordinance. His father had died three months earlier and he was the sole breadwinner of the family, having to provide for his widowed mother and three young brothers. The police picked him up from the road and produced him in courts as a vagrant. He has now been released and is happy to go back home.

Among the children at the Detention Centre, only 46 are from the Southern Province, Ms. Amarasiri said. There are boys and girls from all over the country. More such homes are needed in other provinces because it is very difficult to care for all these children on the funds available to them. About 100 children are attending school and three literacy classes are being conducted at the centre for children who have never been to school at all. They are being coached to fit into school. About 20 will be starting school next year.

Older children, who have never been to school are given vocational training. Classes are conducted in sewing, carpentry, handloom textile weaving, hairdressing and agriculture. The YWCA conducts weekly classes in knitting and cookery and an English class is also held twice a week.

"Some children do not even know their names," Ms. Amarasiri said. "They have been in domestic service and are called by names given by the employers. Some of their mothers are working abroad. Others have been abandoned or found on the streets and are kept for their protection until the parents can be located." Many have tragic stories to tell.

There are 49 runaways at the centre, of whom 19 have run away from domestic employment. Ms. Amarasiri feels there is awareness now among the public about laws against child labour and there have been many instances where members of the public have brought such cases to the attention of the authorities.

Kumari from Deniyaya, did not know how old she was. She had been employed in a house in Matara to play with the children there. "The lady hit me and I ran away," Kumari said. "I ran away to the seashore. A teacher from a nearby school took me to the police."

Eighteen-year-old Surangani Malkanthi, an orphan, has never been to school. She was in an orphanage in Kurunegala when she was given to a family for adoption at 16 years. "I had to work there," Surangani said. "One day, because I got late to cook, the lady hit me on the head and I lost consciousness. I was taken to the hospital." Surangani says she has an aunt at Kahawatte, who would be willing to take her in, but doesn't know her address. All she knows is that she is called 'Leela akka'.

Lack of funds to run the centre is the greatest problem the authorities face. According to Ms. Amarasiri, after the salaries are paid, the department has only Rs. 1 lakh left to manage the expenses of not only the Halpathota Detention Centre but three other government children's homes in the Southern Province. They also have to pay grants to 16 voluntary homes as well as help 80 day care centres with lunch and a payment to the manager. One hundred and seventy five children also receive Rs. 200 per month under the Fit Persons.

Assistance Scheme. One lakh seems woefully inadequate for all these expenses.

"We are spending about Rs. 26 on food per day on each child but we are unable to give them any fish, meat or eggs," said Mr. Seneviratne. For breakfast they are given half a loaf of bread with a vegetable curry or jam, for lunch it is rice and vegetable curries with dried fish or soya - occasionally when funds permit. Dinner is again rice and two vegetable curries. "We try to give them enough to appease their hunger but they do not get sufficient nourishment."

Much of the required food stocks are purchased on credit from Sathosa outlets. In addition, the children have to be given clothes, medicines, books and other necessities for school, bus fare and so much more. Electricity and water bills have to be paid. Two bowsers of water at Rs. 2750 are required weekly to meet a shortage of water. The department now has Rs. 20 lakhs of vouchers to be paid for goods and services received and no money to pay them with.

In desperation, Ms. Amarasiri, has written to the Divisional Secretariats and Secretaries of Ministries, requesting them to hold their alms givings at the centre. Now they have five, six alms givings every month. The day we visited Halpathota, members of a youth league from Kamburupitiya were cooking the lunch for the children. "This way, at least they can occasionally enjoy a good meal and a little ice cream," said Ms. Amarasiri.

Four acres of land have also been cultivated with vegetables and fruits, to supplement their diet. The children in the sewing class sew clothes for the children in all four homes and are paid for it. The handloom trainees produce the bedsheets required. Obtaining funds through donations, they even manage to take them on a trip every year.

Despite the many shortages at the home, the children seem happy because they are treated with kindness. They take pride in their environment and try to keep their rooms neat, though the walls badly need a coat of paint. They have also added little touches such as a vase of flowers on tables covered with coloured polythene. Using old sarees, they have stitched curtains for the windows. The children are fortunate that the Commissioner who visits often and the Superintendent seem to be caring. They are trying their best to keep the children fed and looked after, despite the shortage of funds.
(Some names have been changed to protect their identity)

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