The Sunday TimesPlus

24th November 1996



PEACE prevents beach dwellers' children from going astray

Catching them young

By Hiranthi Fernando

"Good morning, Ladies! Good morning, Gentlemen!" chorused the little group of children assembled in a classroom at the church premises in Ratmalana. Their English class had just begun. The children, mostly girls ranging between nine and thirteen years of age, were drawn from among the beach families of Ratmalana and Mt. Lavinia.

It was evident that they enjoyed the class and appreciated the opportunity to learn some English. They sang action songs and nursery rhymes with gusto. They spoke individually, a few sentences about themselves, their families and their country. They answered our questions somewhat shyly and asked us questions in turn. They were proud to show their neatly kept exercise books.

Every Thursday afternoon,these children tidily dressed and hair neatly combed, would troop into the room eagerly. They were not only taught English but also coached in preparation for the Grade 5 Scholarship Examination. This could give them an opportunity to gain admission to a good school.

Thirteen-year-old Samira Perera lives with her mother and two younger sisters in a little wooden shack by the beach at Ratmalana. Her father, a fisherman, was away fishing in Galle. He comes home once a week. Sometimes he has a good catch and earns enough money but there are days when he comes home empty handed. The girls and their mother living in these surroundings were exposed to various undesirable elements.

Eleven-year-old Shermila Silva is the youngest in a family of four children. She has two elder brothers and a sister. The family lives by the sea at Ratmalana. The eldest, her 19-year-old brother remains at home unemployed while her 14 year old brother earns some money repairing TVs and cassette players. Shermila's father is a fisherman and goes out to sea each evening, returning in the morning with his catch. He sells his fish at the Dehiwela market.

Like these two girls, most of the children attending the class live in dwellings along the narrow strip between the railway track and the sea. The houses are huddled close together with little privacy. The beach dwellers are often seen lounging on the rail track or on the beach. Drug addicts, drunkards and pimps are found in plenty. Living on the beaches, in these surroundings, the children of beach families are often exposed to the dangers of drugs, prostitution and sexual exploitation by both locals and foreigners.

In an effort to help the beach families and especially to prevent these children going astray, the PEACE Campaign (Protecting Environment And Children Everywhere) has started a series of projects. Concentrating on groups of beach families living along the coastal stretch between Colombo and Kalutara, classes are conducted for the children as well as the mothers.

While the children are tutored in English and other school work, the mothers are given practical lessons in general, sewing, appliqu work, patchwork and handwork. The idea is to enable them to engage in self employment by giving them facilities to develop their talents and acquire skills. Lectures on relevant topics by visiting lecturers are also arranged for the mothers.

"The mothers are taught about care of the environment, child care and nutrition, family planning, AIDS and the risks of contracting it, first aid, proper treatment of infectious diseases and such useful topics, said Deepa Perera who co-ordinates the projects at Ratmalana and Moratuwa. A trained social worker, Deepa is employed at a school for special children. She devotes Thursday and Saturday afternoons to the project work.

Speaking to the mothers, we found that they were extremely happy about these programmes. Premaseeli, the mother of Samira and her sisters said she has learned a lot through the classes. She now makes cushion covers, table mats during her free time. The mothers have also learned about personal hygiene, and the prevention of diseases,says Indrani Jayasuriya the mother of four children. Indrani who has graduated to be a helper in the project makes bridal bouquets using paper and stockinet flowers. She also dresses brides. They find consolation in the counselling given them in their family problems.

"We are trying to prevent more people going astray, through this projectÓ, said Mrs. Jayasuriya who handles the children's class. ÒIt is very difficult to stop those who are already involved in drugs and prostitution because of the money it brings in. Fortunately the children in this group have not fallen prey to sexual exploitation which is now becoming increasingly common in these areas." Mrs. Jayasuriya said the children are given some moral instruction in an indirect manner through the different religions. They impress upon the children the ill effects of earning money through immoral means. They are encouraged to equip themselves to earn a living by obtaining a good education.

The PEACE Campaign handling this project was launched in 1991 against sexual exploitation of children by both locals and foreigners, against child sexual abusers commonly called paedophiles. The organisation is affiliated to ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism) based in Bangkok. It works closely with ECPAT branches in other countries in Asia, Europe, North and South America and Africa.

It carries out its objectives through a five member core committee headed by Chairperson Ms. Maureen Seneviratne. The organisation strives through their projects to create awareness among the community of the problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children and to prevent children from being lured into prostitution.

The PEACE Campaign has selected mainly these beach areas for their projects since studies have shown that children living in the periphery of the beach resorts are specially vulnerable to fall prey to prostitution and sexual exploitation. A study sponsored by the International Labour Organisation stressed that the growth of the tourism industry itself is not the cause of child prostitution in Sri Lanka.

The activities of PEACE have met with some success. The 112 year old Penal Code of Sri Lanka was amended with effect from October 13 last year to bring in and enforce legislation, on child sexual abuse and incest. The government has established the Child Abuse Desk at Police Headquarters, Colombo with similar facilities in several other police stations especially in high risk areas of child sexual exploitation.

The raising of community awareness of the problem resulted in vigilant citizens tipping off the police on the activities of paedophiles and their subsequent arrest.

The RCCI reaches out to imporve the quality of life of the speech handicapped

Voices in harmony

By Shelani De Silva

The Rehabilitation Centre for the Communication Impaired, the only centre of its kind in Sri Lanka gives new life for those suffering with communication impairment.

The centre which opened its doors in 1993, has been able to reach out and bring about an improvement in the quality of life of the speech handicapped in Sri Lanka. Speech disorders are not limited to those born with a handicap, they could happen to any one.

The centre provides therapy for language handicapped children. It also carries out programmes to teach social skills to slow learners, people suffering from brain injury and voice problems.

The most shocking fact is that though speech and language disorders are prevalent Sri Lanka has no proper programme for such patients. With over one million people- children and adults affected by communication disorders the need for such a centre was long overdue. The mastermind of the Rehabilitation Centre for the Communication Inpaired is Ms Shiranee de Saram, speech and language pathologist.

"If a person is suffering from a voice problem, cancer of the throat, a cleft lip, palate problem,or language disorder due to brain damage, cerebral palsy and stammering the RCCI provides help. "

We take speech for granted but anything could happen. Apart from those with defects from birth, there are patients who come for treatment for voice and speech disorders.

"The biggest problem is that the stigma connected to this handicap prevents people from seeking help. Our main aim is to send out a message that a person should not be despised simply because he is suffering from a communication disorder. We have to break all barriers and give a place in society for these people. Bring them to the main stream, showing them that they too have a right to lead a normal life", explained Mrs de Saram.

The RCCI is a non governmental organisation funded by "Terre Des Hommes" a Netherland NGO. Though it is three years since the RCCI inception, starting such a project had not been easy.

"When I returned to Sri Lanka, I found that there was no such programme, but there were enough patients. I appealed to the health authorities to start a programme. But things did not go as planned.

I realised that no one was taking any interest in this field. Fortunately, I owned a large ancestral home and since there was no choice I converted it to the centre. But I have no regrets. Finally after one year we appealed to NGOs and they volunteered to fund us", she said.

Looking back Ms de Saram says that she was determined to set up the centre, despite the many setbacks.

"For me life is a challenge, so everytime we had a problem I was determined to go forward. My policy is that if one door closes, knock on another door, and that's exactly what we did. At first it was a difficult period as we had a tight budget, but the patients kept flowing", she said.

The centre has started a pre-school, catering to the needs of speech and language handicapped child, since most schools refuse to take such children.

"The main aim is to improve social and communication skills in order to help the child to lead an independent life. Toddlers and older children are provided with speech and language therapy . Hearing testing is provided free of charge. We emphasise on total communication that is speech, lip reading and the use of signs and gesture", explained Ms de Saram.

"The centre also provides therapy for hoarseness This is found in children who tend to scream and shout. In adults the excessive use of their voice in the course of their work can cause degeneracy of the larynx.

The patients are referred to us from the ENT clinic from the National Hospital and the Children's hospitals. There are people suffering from allergies resulting from throat irritation. We also have clinics for stammering", she said.

Another common discorder is the lack of communication due to brain damage. This is mainly prevalent among the soldiers. "I also conduct group therapy for our soldiers. There has been a lot of improvement and change among them. It is a very slow progress but with patience one gets good results," she said.

The stigma surrounding the handicap is another problem. Ignorance on the part of parents to realise that their child needs help in the form of therapy could prevent him or her from leading a normal life.

When 13 year-old Suresh Sampath was born, he had not shown any outward signs of being handicapped. Strangely his parents had not discovered any disorder, until, he was one-and-a-half years old, when Suresh had not responded to them. With no therapy he was kept at home till he was ten years. Finally, the parents had put him to a school. Within months he was taken back home.

And today a well-built lad, Suresh had come to the centre in the hope of getting help so that he can join in with his friends in playing his favourite games, cricket and cycling. Suresh's mother K.L. Dayawathi said that it was mainly due to the financial constraints they had to keep Suresh at home. "We put him to a rehabilitation school in Mahaweva but it was not satisfactory. Once my daughter came to Colombo we heard about the centre, and I am positive that my son will be able to hear," she said.

Although there are many patients who need help, Ms de Saram was of the view that people are not aware of such a centre thus depriving the handicapped from getting any assistance. "This is sad as we have trained assistants to help the people, but there are so many who need the assistance. For example, if a person is suffering from a throat problem he seeks medical treatment but a few therapy sessions will bring him back to normal", she said.

In order to create public awarness a poster exhibition emphasising the difficulties faced by speech and language handicapped, organised by the Centre will take place on November 25 and 26 at the Lionel Wendt Art Gallery.

The exhibition titled "Talking about Talking", will have on display greeting cards done by the children and also drawings together with posters indicating the different communication disorders.

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