The Sunday TimesPlus

13th October 1996




Childhood denied

by Tharuka Dissanaike and Arshad M. Hadrijin

Childhood should mean a carefree existence. But for many youngsters in our society it is a time of servitude and hard labour.

Rohan (not his real name) was a 12 year old boy employed by a wealthy household in Battaramulla. His pathetic plight came to light when his employers were taken to custody by the Nuwara Eliya magistrate early this year for inflicting grievous injuries on the child. Rohan was hospitalised in Nuwara Eliya last January , unconscious with over one hundred injuries and burn marks on his body. On admission the employers claimed that Rohan was attacked and bitten by the pet dog of the family. The doctor attending on Rohan failed in his duty to inform the police of the child's admittance to hospital, as should have been done considering the nature of injuries on the boy.

Rohan was unconscious for almost a month, preventing the police from recording a statement from him. But when he came to, Rohan spoke of terrible punishment by his employers. One day he was beaten and thrown into the dog's kennel, where he got the canine bites. But investigations on the case were conducted in the most unsatisfactory manner, and finally the offenders were acquitted from court, merely paying a small sum as fine. Rohan was handed back to his father , but lawyers for the prosecution feel that the parents had been bribed by the employers. No one knows what has become of Rohan after the incident.

This is how the law oft works, in cases of child abuse and child labour. The offenders are more often than not influential, powerful people, against whom, even law enforcement authorities are powerless. Added to that the force of the law itself is not sufficient to deal with the problem of employment of young children. Years of lethargy on the part of the authorities coupled with poverty and in some ways a justification of child labour has only served to worsen the situation.

In Sri Lanka, we boast of impressive social indicators -of literacy and schooling. The childhood limit in the country is 18 years. Some one million children under this age are estimated to be employed in various sectors. Internationally Sri Lanka's status regarding child labour is not as bad as countries who legalise exploitation of children. But as citizens we still tend to turn a blind eye to the obvious child exploitation in domestic servitude. Many of us would not notice the little boy cobbler on the street corner, the youngster "helping out" at the grocery shop or the under age bus conductor. The laws are there, but they are just not adequate to quell child labour.

The legal position is that a child under the age of 12 cannot be employed. But the punishment for child labour as such is minimal- a fine not exceeding Rs.1000 or rigorous imprisonment not exceeding two years. "This punishment is simply not taken seriously," said Kalyananada Tiranagama, Director, Lawyers for Human Rights and Development.

Cases of child abuse and cruelty to children face harsher, mandatory punishment- which means a compulsory jail term. But often cases filed under these laws, tend to fail to protect the rights of the victimsed child in the end. "Often the parents come to an agreement outside of court with the accused," Tiranagama said. "Handing the child back to those parents will not solve anything. There are no proper homes to put the children into care." Tiranagama said that state run detention homes are meant for rehabilitation of delinquents not abused, victimised children.

There is much red tape involved in the process of investigating into children in employment. The police has no power to take custody of a child without the written permission of the Labour Commissioner. Recently this power was decentralised somewhat by allowing probation officers the right to act upon a complaint immediately. "This is a long term process," ASP Noel Francis of the Child Care Desk said. "There should be further decentralisation powers so that, the police have more power to intervene in cases of child labour."

ASP Francis said there are positive moves to heighten the age limit for labour, and bring scattered legislation concerning the rights of children into a coherent act. "When the compulsory age for education is moved upto 15 years, it will automatically follow that children can be employed full time from 16 onwards," he said. Francis said that the police face a formidable barrier in parents of abused children. "When a case comes to light, parents deny that the children are employed but instead insist that they are simply kept as companions and playmates for the employee's children." The unwillingness of the parents to take children out of employment throws light on another facet of the problem. Why? Why are children forced to compromise their childhood and education to slave away for a few rupees , food and a place to sleep. The parents argue that instead of letting the child suffer through poverty, they would rather see the child fed and clothed, even in slavery elsewhere. Children in labour often come from homes, too poor to afford a meal a day. But what is really "good" for the child?

According to Maureen Seneviratne chairperson of PEACE, fighting for children's rights- especially those in labour and prostitution, in no way can child labour be justified. "The idea of child labour itself is culturally accepted- out of practice for several generations. It is hard to dispel with these ideas," she said. "The very removal of the child from his environment , however poor it may be, is traumatic for the child. It is quite better to leave the child to his own home and let him grow up there." In most cases the child has confessed of a feeling of desertion and being unloved by the parents , Ms. Seneviratne said. There is an idea in the minds of employers that they are doing a favour to the poor family by taking the child into employment. She recalls a conversation with a foreigner accused of paedophilia "You should be happy that I am taking your children out of the streets, feeding and clothing them," he had said.

Preventing child prostitution will no doubt be a long term effort. There is great necessity to give more teeth to the law and educate the public. 'But the state must intervene also. NGOs can do so much . Poverty is the root of this problem. Only the state can resolve it." Tiranagama said.

The care aspect must be developed in the Department of Child care and Probation to monitor the status of children rescued from the clutches of labour. At the moment the care and protection offered to these poor children is not at all satisfactory and in no way contributes to the elimination of the problem as a whole. There is still a long way to go, to eradicate child exploitation altogether. But what ever the reasons for child labour , it would do good for all to remember that every child has a right to his or her childhood- to play, to go to school, to play and play..

Poverty - a major factor

"Unlike in other South-Asian countries, in Sri Lanka child labour is restricted to a small area such as domestic service, agricultural fields, and eating houses. It should be noted that here, child labour does not prevail among the formal sector, like industries, factories or even in estates" the Commissioner, Department of Child care and Probation, S. Ranugge, told "The Sunday Times", Government statisticians have put the number of children in employment at a mere 15,000, although a survey conducted by UNICEF gives a figure of 100,000 child labourers ."The government would need a mammoth sum, at least Rs.150 million for a thorough research, in order to find out the actual figures related to child labour and its other components," he said. "But this is not possible for if we have such an allocation, we have other priorities like improving the conditions of children taken into custody etc.". According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) regulations, children below the age of 14 must not be employed, but this age limit can vary, and in Sri Lanka it is a punishable offense for anybody to employ a child below 12. Children between 12 and 14 can be taken into labour, provided that they work only two hours, before and after schooling hours. Those between 14 and 16 cannot be employed under rigorous conditions like at minefields or at quarries. The Department of Child care and Probation acts as a guardian to all those children who are unwittingly or willfully sent to labour. Ranugge says "We are authorised to take over such children and bring them up at our welfare centers". The department has commissioned nearly 150 officers, island wide, who act on tip-off information to warn or take employers, to courts. They also keep tabs on children who were once taken into labour and now live with their parents. Ranugge said that his department, usually takes over children, on a three-year order given by the courts. "We provide them with formal education, and vocational training if necessary, through our extensive programmes available in six different centres island wide. At any given time there are nearly 200 children waiting in our transit homes and this reflects the gravity of this issue," he said. When "The Sunday Times", spoke to several teenagers at Fort who were undergoing certain vocational training at a welfare centre, it was evident that child labour is more in abundance than is commonly realised Krishnamoorthi, 17, a youngster who had lost his father at a tender age, was compelled to take up heavy labour down the dingy streets of Pettah Bazzar. "I was even forced into dirty habits, but I had to bear it, for we were paupers," he said. Krishna's story is testimony to the widely spoken theory that child labour cannot be eliminated or eradicated but could only be minimised, so long as poverty prevails in a community. Ranugge too is of the same view. "Poverty is the main cause, and we find large numbers of children from the estate sector employed at city homes. Those who employ them are usually, the "middle-class" families who find it very convenient to feed as well as pay them cheaply, rather than a grown up man or woman." Fifteen-year-old Udaya Kumar, who was orphaned and subsequently transported to Colombo from Polonnaruwa following the 1983 riots, said that he was only fed at a house in Colpetty, and in return he had to work like a bull from morning till evening. Released from such oppression, now he has taken up carpentry and also follows a school curriculum, to keep afloat in society. "I think I should be thankful to my master at the Colpetty house, for he gave me employment when I was left penniless, and with no family to share my woes," said Udaya Kumar. But he is little aware of his lack of education. Ranugge has plenty of such examples where parents as well as their children were not made aware of the importance of education, and he propounds them as yet another reason why eliminating child labour in this country is a Herculean task. Mr. Ranugge said that in most occasions when his officers pull up people who employ children, they find themselves in an awkward position, as the employers and the parents commonly go for an amicable settlement where they are not taken to courts. "Even if they are taken to courts it is very difficult to convince most of the parents, as to why his child should study in place of doing domestic labour," he said.

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