By Kumudini Hettiarachchi
As bruised and battered Sri Lanka attempts to stumble back on the long and hurdle-strewn road to recovery after the devastation of the December 26 tsunami, volunteers have fanned out to the coastal districts of the south and the north-east on a heartrending but crucial mission - that of finding out how many children have been orphaned.

While the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) has received data from its volunteers doing the rounds in the Galle district (see graphic), there were hundreds of couples streaming into its office in Madiwela seeking information with regard to the adoption of tsunami children left parentless, bringing a silver lining of hope for a country that has only seen black clouds of despair.

"The children who are orphaned need immediate care and protection and our first priority is to give them safe, temporary shelter. As soon as we collect the data from a district we request the Department of Probation and Child Care to find temporary shelter for all those children who have no parents," explains Prof. Harendra de Silva, NCPA Chief stressing that the first priority is to protect this very vulnerable group. "On Thursday, we informed the Galle Commissioner of Probation and Child Care and hope by now that the 41 children without parents in that district are housed in places like Sarvodaya and SOS Villages that have offered support to us."

Another group of NCPA volunteers were due back from Matara on Friday, while others were heading out to Hambantota the same day. "UNICEF has undertaken to provide the data from the northeast while the Commissioner of Probation and Child Care promised to give us the information from the Western Province but we have not got the details," Prof. de Silva told The Sunday Times on Thursday.

The "tsunami children's census" is being carried out to ascertain how many children have been affected, who they are and where they are. In Galle, the information was collected by law students and in Matara by doctors and medical students. In Hambantota Law College students are doing the rounds from camp to camp taking down every detail they can garner. A van with 15 people is being sent to each and every divisional secretary area where the displaced are housed in temples, churches, mosques and schools.

"After the disaster some children may have gone directly to a relative's place and may not be among those in the camps. We are attempting to locate them. When we get the information from each district we are feeding it into a database," says Prof. de Silva.

Once the data is in, begins the arduous task of locating, if not the immediate family then the extended family and giving them guardianship, followed by court procedure for them to adopt the children.

The legal adoptive process for those who are unrelated to parentless children but want to provide a home for them will also be set in motion, says Prof. de Silva, adding that finally will come temporary foster care for the children who have not found homes under the first two situations. "We will keep the children in the care of temporary custodians after thorough checks, till better places are found or they are adopted."

We need a wide "ma-piya" (foster care) system where people could sponsor not only a parentless child but also one-parent families or even where both parents are alive because they have lost their livelihood and it will take awhile for them to get back on their feet," says the NCPA head.

Another priority area of the NCPA is community-based psychosocial support for all those who have been traumatized. The NCPA is hoping to train trainers who will provide support to people at grassroots level not only at this time but also during any calamity. The programme will not be restricted to coastal areas but gradually spread inland.

Meanwhile, the head of UNICEF Carol Bellamy who was on a whistle-stop tour of the disaster-struck areas on Sunday and Monday said her agency had pledged US $40 million for Sri Lanka's children. "This is not only to keep them alive but to bring some normalcy into their lives," she said.

Saying that the tsunami and its aftermath were powerful reminders not only of the frailty but also of the resilience of humans, a haunting image of the disaster for her was adults standing vigil by the sea for the bodies of their children to be washed ashore. "We will stand with you in the long haul," she said stressing that school would be the best medicine for children.

Helping the most vulnerable groups
One room in the Ministry of Social Welfare and Women's Empowerment is a hive of activity. All women employees are packing a packet of sanitary pads, a panty and an underskirt into individual bags to be distributed among the thousands of women who have been left destitute not only without home and hearth but also without a single piece of clothing.

The National Committee on Women, the Women's Affairs Bureau and the Women's Empowerment Division of the ministry got activated the very next day after the tsunami. In addition to dry rations we are also trying our hardest to provide underwear and milk food, says NCW Chairperson Swarna Sumanasekera. The UNFPA has pledged Rs. 1 million for this effort.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, the plight of the women and children was the most pathetic. Not only were they among the majority of the dead, the survivors were left without even the basic essentials such as a cloth during menstruation. The Sunday Times learns that in some temples monks had to tear their robes to provide them this basic necessity.

While grassroots level women's bala mandala are being mobilized to lend a hand in the camps for the displaced, 1,200 graduates have been commissioned to collect data for a long term action plan covering the provision of security, counselling and a livelihood.

The plea to the public is to provide the basic necessities women need. Donations are being collected at the Women's Empowerment Ministry at Narahenpita.

Child abuse: Isolated cases
There may have been a few instances of child abuse and molestation but these are isolated, NCPA head Prof. de Silva stated categorically, calling on all parents and responsible adults in and around camps to be vigilant and afford maximum protection to children.

While the perpetrators of such crimes need to be brought to book immediately, he pleaded with all concerned including the media not to take the focus away from other crucial needs such as relief and reconstruction of the devastated areas.

The same view was echoed by the National Committee on Women, while police sources disclosed that except for a rape complaint in Kalutara and a few complaints of molestation they had received no indication that the problem was widespread.

There are two policewomen on duty 24 hours a day at every camp along with a Samurdhi official or Grama niladhari, said SSP Sarath Jayasundera who is in charge of the Children's and Women's Bureau. Do not keep any child who is not yours. Please hand them over to officials and if you want to adopt one of them go through the legal procedure, he said.

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