Cases without solutions
There is a bright young girl aged nine somewhere in Gampaha. She should be attending Year 5 at her school, but is prevented from doing so by the school authorities. Her biological mother, who had her admitted to this school five years ago, is no longer with her. It is reported that she had been tested for HIV and that she took part in HIV awareness activities. The girl has been looked after for some time by her mother’s sister and husband who are her de facto parents now.
- The degradation of a human being in society is the degradation of all
- First of all, what is referred to as ‘child maltreatment, abuse or neglect’ must be understood as a threat to the child’s proper development
- The State intervened when things went wrong but was not there to help in the first place
- More powers rest with the police, court, health and education while service providers who must take care of a protection case from the beginning to the end remain marginalised
The scenario that developed at school is familiar. Some ‘smart’ teachers got wind of the mother’s associations with HIV awareness and immediately perked up their antennas. Overnight the little girl became a ‘threat’ to everyone’s well-being. This is a typical ‘village scenario’ rather than what we expect from an educational institution. But then, quite a few governmental institutions too are socialised in the same manner with prejudices, snitching and favouritism running rampant. Other children started calling this girl names and most teachers and parents ganged up and made common cause against the ‘enemy’ who had to be hounded out. Only the girl’s class and English teachers continued to care for and support her, but with the principal taking the path of least resistance, they were helpless.
First of all, the problem must be fully approached from the ground level. Social rejection is a serious concern. Whether right or wrong, it happens within a cultural context where personal, human and relational dynamics matter
In 2015, we remember a similar incident in Kuliyapitiya where social pressures defeated public policy in the absence of an organised child protection response. A leading school in Kandy, sufficiently secular and inclusive, fortunately came forward to admit the boy to Year 1. This only solved the immediate case, and as we can see now – the problem remains. Sadly, no lessons were learnt by the authorities who are paid by the public to do precisely that. It was alarming that HIV awareness had not penetrated our officialdom whose attitudes seemed to mirror those of the less-educated and irrational parents.
It would seem that in this type of case no one is really responsible. The parents of a child in this kind of predicament must go from pillar to post and rely on the kindness and sympathy of individual officials. The actual policy looks like ‘everyone for himself and devil take the hindmost.’ This cannot be – but it is! What should be in place for the child?
First of all, the problem must be fully approached from the ground level. Social rejection is a serious concern. Whether right or wrong, it happens within a cultural context where personal, human and relational dynamics matter. Service providers must be well aware of the ground situation – not blissfully ignorant. Decisions to be made must surely be based on such awareness. Secondly, whatever view society within a specific locality takes, the State must always clearly articulate where it stands. State officers must deal with the issue professionally, giving first place to the best interests of the child. Politicians who generally have an eye on numbers and votes may be inclined towards the view of the majority. But this should never be allowed to be the approach of our schools or education administrators. The question is whether we have dedicated and empowered officials to safeguard the child who is in a minority of one? The answer is an emphatic ‘NO!’
A dominant criminal culture has also distorted child protection and turned it negative. We need to make child protection positive and happy work for resilient children to bounce back from adversity
We hear of a National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) with a set of officers who claim to work on the subject of child protection. But what is the reality? The authority has yet to develop its own definitions and procedures within the governmental system. As a result, they must rely on a combination of informal actions combined with assistance from police and probation as well as established services such as health, education, social services and the Kachcheri system. Those systems operate in separate compartments and have their own language and logic. When there is no clearly-accepted protection procedure (as in this case) for education authorities to take responsibility and ensure continued schooling for the child, the three categories of officers handling protection – Probation, CRPO and NCPA officers – become equally helpless.
A proud service provider is the life and soul of any service. They are more secure and empowered within a clear procedural environment when they are conferred with both power and responsibility for child protection. Today, more powers rest with the police, court, health and education while service providers who must take care of a protection case from the beginning to the end remain marginalised, de-professionalised, unrecognised and under-resourced without proper communication, transportation and office facilities.
Three messages to set up a procedure
To view this governmental system as a whole, extricate the requisite human resources and put together a child protection team that would work solely for the child was the mandate given to the NCPA in black and white vide Act No. 50 of 1998. For various reasons, but specifically due to a lack of capacity, this did not materialise.
The ICCPR Act of 2007 introduced the child’s right to protection from “maltreatment, abuse, neglect or degradation.” These words are wide enough to include the psychological harm and discrimination the girl in Gampaha is now facing. After the NCPA Act this was the first reminder for Sri Lankans to get together and develop a protection mechanism. What is the point of a right on paper, when the remedy is out of reach? How can a remedy be provided without a service? And how can a service be provided when it is not resourced and organized?
The writer, Sajeeva Samaranayake, was a child rights activist with 14 years of full-time experience in child protection and served as the first Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF Sri Lanka from 2003 to 2008. He was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease and passed away on April 15, 2018. Being an attorney-at-law, Mr. Samaranayake also worked at the Attorney General’s Department and served as the former Deputy Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) and has immensely contributed his knowledge and expertise to secure the rights of children. His sudden demise is an irreparable loss to the nation.
Years (and tears) rolled on without the NCPA policy materializing. When a document was submitted to the Cabinet in 2014 as a Child Protection Policy, there was another reminder and clarification from our highest collective executive body that work must be done to develop a common agreement between the relevant government services on a preventive and protective mechanism for children. A dedicated set of professionals have already worked to develop National Guidelines on Management of Child Abuse cases which saw the light of day in 2013. But further progress got stuck. For this to move forward considerable relationship building and cooperation must be achieved so that a sector divided into government, INGOs and NGOs, Centre and Provinces and elite professionals and social work officers become one unified sector with one agenda for protecting children.
Attitudes that need to change
First of all, what is referred to as ‘child maltreatment, abuse or neglect’ must be understood as a threat to the child’s proper development (over and above the applicability of criminality). Any such threat is also a threat to the development of the country. Therefore, child protection has to be an essential (not peripheral) part of our developmental plan. It must no longer be considered as ‘charity work’ with ‘madame lamayi’ or ‘parivase lamayi’ who are not ‘ape lamayi.’ Indeed, the demand for quality services has not come precisely because these children are considered unequals who can be managed with a glass of milk and a nutrition package and other handouts.
The officials who spend their time distributing these handouts must also reconsider their true vocation; that they too have a right to a proper system in which they can progress as child protection professionals. A new procedure must not be a conceptual paper exercise of an expert in Colombo but a humane exercise of learning and sharing and consolidating real experience and knowledge gained in working with children and families. Finally, the children and parents must find their voices and engage equally with services as it is their experience and ideas that must be the foundation for identifying problems and remedial actions.
A dominant criminal culture has also distorted child protection and turned it negative. We need to make child protection positive and happy work for resilient children to bounce back from adversity. Child protection started out on a very aggressive footing to punish all abusers and it relied heavily on police and prosecutors. After some time, it became clear that the continuing needs of children who came into the Government Probation system demanded more attention and that this was perhaps the real work of child protection. Criminal justice would protect the State – not the victims, and victims needed their own system. Taking care of troubled children and helping them with their needs is an arduous task which needs competent service providers, emotional resources, networking and institutional support. Locking such children as if in a prison which shuts them away from society as well as the resources that society can provide is not protection.
Aggression to be replaced with non-violence
Patriarchy and established power in families, communities, homes and schools began to see child protection in negative terms as a judgmental and insensitive approach. The State intervened when things went wrong but was not there to help in the first place. Meanwhile, the surroundings where the child lives and learns and plays – communities, preschools, schools and playgrounds, where the culture and experience of childhood is lived out was not valued and used as the first tier in a child protection system. Work was done in places – both by the government and NGOs – but this was patchy, uncoordinated and unsustained. However, what is noteworthy is that 20 years after the NCPA Act, this country possesses the expertise and experience to develop a system - if the ‘political will’ can be mobilised and supportive political leadership is provided. This work however must proceed in a non-violent manner as an essential part of peace-building in the country. It cannot be over-emphasised that building a system needs strong communication skills and emotional adults – not just adults having formal power.
Give all children social citizenship - For peace in our time
What our neglected and abused children need is not any more laws and policies (that promise them all the rights under the sun, but deliver the same old attitudes) but EQUAL STATUS AND SOCIAL CITIZENSHIP. This equality is learnt and practised at home and in classrooms. What parents and teachers fail to embody – society will not know. If we were practising hierarchy, our children will continue to perpetuate this and the society will remain divided, without peace and happiness. Courage is the value that enables all other values. It requires political courage to champion this minority subject and we await a wise and brave legislator to step forward to accept this cause for the future of this country. Denial of social equality is demotion and degradation. The degradation of a human being in society is the degradation of all. While the oppressed child and family suffer, the oppressors in school are also diminished by their actions. The State and society which looks on share the same fate. This is why the protection of this one child is both a moral and legal duty.