Child Protection is a National Crisis in Sri Lanka. 30 years after signing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1991, a child is sexually abused every 2 hours and Sri Lanka has fallen to the abysmal 10% of countries least safe for children against violence. The Stop Child Cruelty Trust (SCC) headed by Dr. Tushara Wickramanayaka therefore initiated the formation of Sri Lanka’s FIRST ‘Child Protection Alliance (CPA)’ comprising credible organizations passionately committed to protect and promote the rights of children in September 2021. The Alliance firmly believes that working cohesively towards focused targets will help achieve greater success, especially in the advocacy work with relevant to State institutions.
In a candid interview with the Daily Mirror, Dr. Tushara Wickramanayaka - the first Sri Lankan to be recognized as a Global End Violence Champion, spoke about several concerns with regards to child protection in Sri Lanka while suggesting some key changes that need to be implemented at policy level.
Q Congratulations on being recognized as Global End Violence Champion of 2021. What does this accolade mean to you?
Thank you – I was recognized as one of three Global End Violence Champions by the Global Forum for Children and Youth 2021 (CY21), which was convened by UNICEF and expected to be the most authoritative platform attended by many world leaders and international activists. This is the first time a Sri Lankan was recognized. Many activists turn adversity to advocacy as did I when my 11-year-old daughter was subject to physical punishment and mental abuse in an international school in 2018. Our commitment to the cause is pure passion and we do not work expecting awards. But, being recognized for the indefatigable efforts is energizing me to greater heights. Activism is not for the faint hearted, we have to overcome many hurdles and constant criticisms and it can become very isolating.
Being the ‘Global End Violence Champion’ has offered me incredible opportunities to participate in the international forums, enlighten myself on how the rest of the world is ending violence against children, empower the youth of our nation and rally enthusiastic troops to protect and promote the rights of children in Sri Lanka.
Q One of the main concerns with regards to child protection is with regards to the law and policy decisions. Even certain appointees in key positions don’t have a background in child protection. What are your observations on these matters?
National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), which was established via parliament Act No. 50 of 1998 is the most powerful institution to protect 25% of our population, 5.2 million children. It is disappointing that NCPA has received its fifth Chairperson in just six years. As with most other State institutions, NCPA has become dysfunctional in bureaucratic lethargy as evidenced at the COPE committee report of March 2021. It was frustrating when the subject Minister at the time, Prof. G. L .Peiris confirmed in Parliament on October 6, 2020 that he was unhappy with the slow speed in which NCPA was handling the record breaking cases reported each year. It was shocking to hear the revelation by the last Chairperson that the National Child Protection Policy, which was passed in Cabinet after 19 years in 2019, was sitting with a committee at NCPA for 16 months without moving an inch forward. NCPA has insisted on following the five year implementation period as suggested during the drafting stage many years ago when there was no crisis. However, any child protection officer with common sense should realize that there are certain aspects within the Policy that need to be implemented more urgently to avert a catastrophic situation in the near future. NCPA requires a Chairperson who has expert knowledge and experience in child rights, youthful, courageous and decisive individual who is not a political henchman. Furthermore, NCPA must be allowed to function independently as was originally established and per the recommendations of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) during the last assessment in 2018. These were two key action points that the Child Protection Alliance recommended to The President.
" In the past 16 months, EIGHT children were physically and sexually abused and murdered in our paradise island. Yet, nothing progressive has been achieved and not a single official twitched to protect 5.2 million children. I tend to think some of these cases are manipulated to hide the truth relating to politicians and public figures"
Q How do such appointments impact the overall decision-making and law enforcement process?
The impact is huge. What most don’t realize is that child protection is NOT a project oriented task; it is a sustained national process to achieve measurable and timely targets. There must be transparency and accountability. In the absence of such national targets, each time the Minister or Chairperson is appointed they undertake frivolous projects for maximal publicity with limited benefit to the most vulnerable children. Let me explain of a simple example – one of the reasons for delay in progress of cases is the total lack of communication with NCPA and the special child unit called the CH Unit at Attorney General’s Department. Whilst we appreciate NCPA officers are overworked and thinly distributed, it does not help the victim when they attend court barely knowing anything about the case, not liaised with AG Department and simply nods off to postpone the case for six months.
Soon, this adds up to an average of a decade before a case is heard during which time the young victim and the family has suffered unimaginable trauma and the child has forgotten the crucial evidence. In fact, NCPA has the Authority to take over a case from any Police Station or represent any child victim at any court if they feel the case is mishandled by the original organization. With over 20,000 cases of child abuse back-logged at the AG Department and with overwhelming statistics of the severity of child abuse our children are just a number. A swift decision maker would have the capacity to recognize a simple remedy or adopt a more pro-active method to expedite these cases with enhanced networking with Police and other relevant authorities.
Sierra Leon, an African nation battered by war has put women and children at the top of their new national agenda to stop violence, Jamaica has dedicated every month of October as support month for parents and Japan has put children at the centre of its human security agenda. Ultimately, it requires capable visionary leadership with passion and commitment to resolve humanitarian issues.
"Sri Lankan media thrives on sensationalizing tragedies. Social media has become a lucrative business opportunity by promoting click-bait headlines without realizing the devastating consequences to these young victims who are exposed to secondary and tertiary victimization"
Q You have been voicing for a change in the terminology used in describing certain actions (distinguishing between ‘Apachara’ and ‘Apayojana’) for example. What are your advices and/or warnings to the media?
This is a common mistake that many child rights advocates and even NCPA seem to be doing either by ignorance or by common practice. Although the English words are straight forward there appears to be an error in translation in Sinhala. Child Abuse is commonly interpreted as ‘lama apachara’. However, this is completely wrong. The word ‘charaya means behavior. ‘Apachara’ mean misbehaviour. Hence ‘lama apachara’ is the misbehaviour of the child, falsely denoting that the child is to be blamed. The correct terminology is ‘apayojana’, which is abuse. Similarly, the word ‘dushanaya’ suggests a sense of pollution or impurity. Many women and child victims are rejected by their own families and society because of ‘dushanaya’. They cannot get jobs, married nor have any meaningful relationships. We struggle immensely to re-integrate these victims into society. The global recommendation is to use ‘apayojanaya’ instead.
Sri Lankan media thrives on sensationalizing tragedies. Social media has become a lucrative business opportunity by promoting click-bait headlines without realizing the devastating consequences to these young victims who are exposed to secondary and tertiary victimization. In many civilized nations, the media are not allowed to identify the child victim by any means – photo, name, school, address to protect the privacy and confidentiality. In a high profile case in UK of the tragic death of ‘Baby P’ in 2007, the court issued a gag order of three years after the verdict was given. ‘Baby P’s mother and step father were found guilty of his murder but the Court wanted to maintain anonymity to safeguard his siblings and also to protect the lives of the accused inside the prisons as there was intense public anger. ‘Baby P’ was finally identified as Peter Connelly and his beautiful blue eyed single photo was published with the images of the murderers. The State took every measure to protect his siblings so well that Peter’s own sister objected twice when their mother applied for early release. During the Covid period there have been two more tragic deaths of children in UK.
I recall last year the Chief Inspector of Police mentioned these cases at a news conference, and then everything went quiet until the verdict was given last week. There were no juicy revelations from relatives or dirty denials from officials or a constant barrage of statements made while the investigation was ongoing. Several child protection authorities including Social Services and Police had failed to protect these children who had multiple encounters raising alarm bells at the time. Once the verdict was given, the Court ordered two separate independent inquiries; no doubt there will be dismissals and scalps on the plate for the failures. It is imperative that we maintain the same high standard of moral professional conduct in Sri Lanka.
Child Protection Alliance has already commenced work to establish a specialist Code of Ethics for Media when reporting on cases relating to children. We appreciate the support from Minister of Mass Media, Dullas Alahapperuma in starting the process with a workshop held for media personnel. We hope we can work collectively with print and electronic media partners to establish a self-governing simple practical code that will not just remain on paper.
"Being the ‘Global End Violence Champion’ has offered me incredible opportunities to participate in the international forums, enlighten myself on how the rest of the world is ending violence against children, empower the youth of our nation and rally enthusiastic troops to protect and promote the rights of children in Sri Lanka"
Q The media has a huge role to play in strengthening the child protection mechanism. But the media also tends to sensationalize this subject. Your comments...
Whilst we applaud media’s attempts to highlight cases of child abuse, we totally reject the sensationalizing of these stories. The click bait headlines are focused only on attracting hits on YouTube or Social Media and disregards the detrimental effects on the child victim or witness. It is unfathomable why Sri Lanka Police would allow private TV channels to accompany them when they do their State duties. Defenseless children are exposed on public media, their confidential crucial evidence relating to a crime is divulged to society putting them at risk from harm and rejection from their own families, compelling them to withdraw their statements in fear of their lives. Decades later the cases collapse. We struggle to re-integrate these children and their siblings who are branded unscathed and unharmed back to society. It is a criminal offence to divulge details of victims of rape and sexual abuse as per Penal Code Section 365C. Sri Lanka Police are in direct violation of the Penal Code and they act as secondary/tertiary abusers. Ministry of Mass Media or National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), the most powerful institution responsible for child protection has the power to prosecute these abusers. It also highlights the dire need to establish a special code of ethics for the Media, including Social Media on reporting cases involving children as per international guidelines and universal principles of child protection.
"It was frustrating when the subject Minister at the time, Prof. G. L .Peiris confirmed in Parliament on October 6, 2020 that he was unhappy with the slow speed in which NCPA was handling the record breaking cases reported each year. It was shocking to hear the revelation by the last Chairperson that the National Child Protection Policy, which was passed in Cabinet after 19 years in 2019, was sitting with a committee at NCPA for 16 months without moving an inch forward"
Q There were several reported incidents of child abuse that happened during the year. But after sometime the government goes silent on these reports. Most of these incidents are reported so that the public would be distracted for some time. In a way, these cases are being exploited for political benefits. Your views on this....
There is no national security without child protection. In the past 16 months, EIGHT children were physically and sexually abused and murdered in our paradise island. Yet, nothing progressive has been achieved and not a single official twitched to protect 5.2 million children. I tend to think some of these cases are manipulated to hide the truth relating to politicians and public figures. Unfortunately, what really happens is that the evidence becomes more convoluted, the investigation becomes more complicated and justice delayed becomes justice denied. Of the eight children that were murdered there has been more international condemnation than from our own law makers. I have not heard the Head of State of Sri Lanka or the Minister for Children’s Affairs acting purposefully to avoid another death. The most recent tragedy of finding the body of a fifteen year old girl child believed to be sexually abused in Mullaitivu is proof that the unprecedented message given out by pardoning a convicted child murderer two years ago is that a child’s life is worthless. The perpetrator has no fear because he knows the system is crippled so much that justice will not be served.
I am convinced that measures taken to prevent child abuse and actions taken to deal with the aftermath require a much higher level of Government participation in both Sinhala and Tamil languages across all ethnicities and geographical borders. I am confused why politicians within and without Parliament, the new breed of politicians, those craving for a better country for our children, completely and utterly ignore to speak up to protect the beneficiaries of the country and FAIL to put them at the core of national security. How sad it is that we may have all lost vision and passion because child protection is a collective social responsibility that is beyond our imagination.
“There is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”
– Nelson Mandela
"With over 20,000 cases of child abuse back-logged at the AG Department and with overwhelming statistics of the severity of child abuse our children are just a number. A swift decision maker would have the capacity to recognize a simple remedy or adopt a more pro-active method to expedite these cases with enhanced networking with Police and other relevant authorities"
Q If you were a policy maker what key changes would you introduce to protect children?
1) Constitutional amendment with special section for children; implement within three years as Nepal
2) Put child protection at the heart of national security agenda; Allocate funding
3) Make the NCPA independent; appoint a competent Chairperson as the rest of the world
4) Educate, empower, energize children; global citizenship/human rights, law and order and sex education are compulsory as per Scandinavian countries
5) Cabinet Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion; cancel the useless State Ministry as Rwanda
6) Work with NGO’s and international agreements; reap financial assistance and technical expertise as per all developed countries.