Tim Sutton, Country Representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)
- Sri Lanka has an alarming nutrition deficit
- Beating children with canes and sticks won’t help
- Country aims to end violence against children by 2030
- Conflict has a lingering effect on society, especially children
We need to be working in a far more joined up effort, so that families and children are better supported. We need to be targeting some of our investments better.
Creating a healthy generation of children with potential is a vision of any country. As observed and mentioned, children should be nurtured to take the mantle of the society forward and in the right direction. But whether they have the proper environment to develop to their fullest potential remains a question. In a world where cases of child abuse, violence and neglect get reported every other hour, the opportunities to succeed are often hindered. This violence can affect the brain which can impact the ability of a child to learn and develop knowledge, with lifelong implications. As a country that places much emphasis on the family unit, Sri Lanka is trying to make progress in giving more value to the lives of children. As vulnerable as they have become, it is important to educate parents, relatives, schools and other institutions to protect these children. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Tim Sutton, Country Representative of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) elaborated on a few key aspects that Sri Lanka needs to immediately focus on.
Child protection in Sri Lanka
Child protection has been a main area of concern with the increasing rates of abuse, violence and neglect. “The formation of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) was a major step taken some years ago,” Sutton said. “The issues relating to exploitation and abuse of children in Sri Lanka were relatively well-known in comparison to other countries. The abuse that takes place in association with the tourism sector has drawn the attention of the authorities. In 2016 Sri Lanka joined the ‘Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children ‘and we worked closely with the Government to operationalize this partnership which is based around seven proven interventions. We know what to do, we know how to do it and Sri Lanka is one of the 13 ‘pathfinder’ countries that are committed to end violence against children by 2030. That’s all good news. That violence, exploitation and abuse of children continue is not good news. That cases are being discussed is good news. But if we can’t quantify the problem it’s very difficult to deal with it. I don’t think we still understand the scale of the problem in Sri Lanka. We therefore need clear data, so that we can address this in the best possible way” added Sutton. He believes that cases of violence against children aren’t permitted, but is ‘almost’ accepted, as in the case of corporal punishment, in society and that norms have to change. Therefore it’s important to work with the society to promote ‘positive discipline’ which is non-violence with regard to children. “We know violence does lasting emotional damage and what we now understand is that it impacts a child’s development” he added. “Exposure to abuse and violence over several years brings about a chemical reaction in the brain which stops or impedes development. Prolonged exposure impacts on the brain development and it can cost several IQ points. This in turn costs the country and children lose the ability to earn more financially in adulthood, all because of the violence, abuse and neglect that they have experienced. Therefore changing those social norms are important and this is something that every household needs to do. It should no longer be acceptable to abuse a child. We need to extend this to our public institutions, particularly schools. We need to support schools and parents need to demand from schools that physical discipline isn’t what their children need to develop the inquiring minds that will drive Sri Lanka’s social and economic success in future,” he added.
Immediate role of parents
Parents play a pivotal role in moulding the future of children. Without the necessary support, a child will not progress through the developmental stages. Placing emphasis on the newly launched Eat-Play-Love campaign, Sutton pointed out that children should obtain nutritious food in the right amounts at the right time. “We have a nutrition deficit in Sri Lanka which we need to address,” he stressed. “It is the responsibility of every parent in particular to make sure that their children are well fed and well nourished. We need to play and stimulate our children. Five minutes of play can develop 300,000 neurons and these neurons make the brain work. And during those first five years of life the brain is developing and adding these connections at a rate that is never repeated. Protection from abuse and neglect and giving children the best possible environment to grow up in – loving, nurturing and stimulating- is what parents need to do. Parents need to demand that they don’t allow violence against children in any form. A simple way is to ensure that schools don’t use physical modes of punishment to discipline children. The Government has shown leadership and we need to support them to ensure that it becomes even more effective,” he said.
The need for a value-based education system
School is the first place where a child interacts with society. Therefore, treating children with dignity takes them a long way. Cases of physical abuse in schools have made headlines in rural areas and the Government is yet to address such issues. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey done by the Census and Statistics Department, only 48.7% of three to five year olds attend preschool. This, when of good quality, helps to foster cognitive and language development, social competency and emotional development. According to Sutton the Ministry of Education is equipped with ideas on how to change the mainstream education system. “But there’s a heavy emphasis on exams and reaching certain pass marks which are entrenched in society. We need to look at the curriculum – what children learn and how. What often happens in classes is that teachers teach those who can understand and those who can’t are left behind. So it’s important to support and educate teachers to teach to all levels of children,” said Sutton.
Strengthening the family unit
Research suggests that the first five years of life are critical to a child’s future. However the ‘Ending Violence in Childhood : Global Report 2017’ reveals that 73.4% of children aged one to 14 experience corporal punishment at home by parents including children under the age of five.
Therefore too many children are entering adulthood at a disadvantage. In most instances, mothers in rural areas in Sri Lanka travel abroad for foreign employment and leave their children with grandparents, uncles and other relatives leading up to cases of incest, neglect etc. In response to this issue, Sutton said that the Government has taken a regulatory approach to this and if the child is under five years of age the mother cannot leave. “But we need to make sure that families are supported. Foreign employment is a great income earner for Sri Lanka, but as we develop, everyone would hope that income-earning opportunities will prosper within Sri Lanka and that industries will develop and employment will increase, so that people don’t have to travel abroad to earn.
- Sri Lanka is one of the 13 ‘pathfinder’ countries that are committed to end violence
- That cases are being discussed is good news
- Parents need to demand from schools that physical discipline isn’t what their children
- It is the responsibility of every parent in particular to make sure that their children are well fed
Prevailing nutrition deficit
According to the Demographic Health Survey conducted in 2016 by the Department of Census and Statistics, 17% of children under five are risking development due to stunted growth, resulting from poor nutrition. This survey also revealed that 15.1% of children under five years of age are suffering from ‘wasting’ and if untreated could lead to chronic malnutrition. “The figures are a little alarming and have been for some time,” said a concerned Sutton. “We have quite high levels of stunting and wasting in Sri Lanka and there are pockets where it’s high as well as low. But across the country the figures are worrying. What worries UNICEF is that these figures haven’t improved for the past 10 years which means that we need to be doing things a little differently. Therefore we need to take a far more integrated approach to dealing with poor nutrition in Sri Lanka. It’s not just an issue of health and agriculture but it’s an issue for everyone. We therefore need to support the Government to bring about a concerted, cross-cutting programme to improve these figures.
Sutton further said that this nutrition deficit is costing Sri Lanka as well. “In the first five years of life, when a child is developing, 75% of the energy that they take in from food goes to developing the brain,” he added. “Children who are malnourished, or not receiving the correct foods aren’t getting enough energy for brain development. That costs IQ points which limits a child’s ability to develop to its full potential, and ultimately to reach full capacity in adulthood. During the past 20 years the dependency ratio has halved when comparing the number of people working compared to those who are not. What this means is that Sri Lanka is getting over its demographic dividend when it has a huge pool of young people that it can pull it to the workforce for cheap labour. This has happened throughout Asia in China, Vietnam and other countries. They have stimulated growth by pulling in this huge mass of workers and employing them in factories and other places. We don’t have a huge pool of young people coming into the workforce anymore. Therefore our population pyramid too is distorted as of today. This means that in the next 30 years the dependency ratio will halve again. But for Sri Lanka to maintain its current status in 30 years’ time, people need to be twice as productive. Therefore we need to help this generation and the next generation to increase their productivity. We need to do that through education. We need to educate families and communities and make sure that children get the best possible start. This takes us back to the eat-play-love idea. If you get these correct they will be more productive and that’s what Sri Lanka’s future depends on,”he stressed.
Sutton agrees that the 30-year ethnic conflict has an impact on the development of the present day child. “The conflict cost the country around USD 200 billion. That’s a huge deficit to makeup and Sri Lanka has compromised a little bit on the high levels of debt therefore it doesn’t have as much physical freedom that other countries have. But peace has been made and as we move forward in the reconciliation and rebuilding process we should stay on course and build a secure, prosperous Sri Lanka. There are many people who have lost their families and it’s an enormous cost to those families and society. But now we need to move forward. There are no scientific studies that look at the linkages of conflict and the violence in society, but undoubtedly there is a lingering effect. This history is part of what makes Sri Lanka today. Therefore we shouldn’t deny that history, but we need to acknowledge it and move forward,” he added.
Sutton also acknowledged the services extended by people working in the Government sector to support children. “It’s important to improve those services and make them more responsive to children and families. I know that there is a commitment to make those services better. The fantastic thing about Sri Lanka is that we have those services. Many countries don’t. We have the universal house system, education system and we need to make them better and stronger. When we talk about early childhood development the critical thing is to improve those services that reach out to families and children in an integrated approach, so that people are talking to probation officers while the education officers are setting their standards for early childhood education. We need to be working in a far more joined up effort, so that families and children are better supported. We need to be targeting some of our investments better. We hope this would be one of the critical things that the next Budget addresses. There needs to be a holistic approach that covers areas including the justice system to ensure that cases are taken up in courts more quickly. We have a good system in place and it’s just that we need to make it better and responsive to cater to the needs of all children,”concluded Sutton.