Protest in front of NCPA
- A COPE Report published in February 2021 revealed that the national child protection policy hasn’t been implemented for 21 years
- Official statistics also reveal that the Authority has received 228 complaints relating to child labour and 82 complaints related to trafficking in 2020
- Trafficking estate sector children for domestic labour isn’t a new phenomenon as observed by plantation-based gender and child rights activist Saumya Vilashini Muthulingam
Child rights activists have started questioning the government’s definition of national security as it is quite evident that a defenseless child is no longer safe in this country. The recent incident of an underaged domestic worker who is said to have allegedly set herself on fire at a politician’s house is just one of a few reported cases. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Last week, the Attorney General’s Department revealed that estate workers’ children have been trafficked to work at households of wealthy people as domestic servants and that it is an organised human trafficking racket. But this shouldn’t come in as a surprise. While this practice has continued for years one should also question whether justice has been served to any of the victims, let alone bailing out perpetrators due to lack of evidence. The mounting number of unresolved cases at the National Child Protection Authority, inaction by authorities and the deafening silence maintained by mainstream political parties on this particular matter speak volumes about how the country is governed by not one, but many laws.
Hence the Daily Mirror takes a look at the recent incident, progress of investigations and steps taken to address grassroots level issues relating to estate sector children.
More action plans, draft bills and hopes
Even though the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) is the apex body dedicated to protect children in the country, many are of the view that the Authority has neglected its priorities. A Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Report published in February 2021 revealed that the national child protection policy hasn’t been implemented for 21 years. Moreover, it was also revealed that the Authority has received as many as 89,405 complaints between 2011-2020 and as at January 31, 2021 the number of unresolved complaints brought forward was 40,668. Official statistics also reveal that the Authority has received 228 complaints relating to child labour and 82 complaints related to trafficking in 2020.
“We took over in May 2020 and under my authority we had discussions with 10 stakeholder ministries,” said NCPA Chairman Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana. “The ministries included Defence, Labour, Justice, Media, Tourism, Children and Women, Disaster, Health and Education. By June 3rd we completed initial discussions and have drafted a five year national action plan. This will be sent to the Ministry and subsequently to the Parliament. The objective is to end all types of harassment against children and we are working hard to achieve this goal.” said Prof. Vidanapathirana.
"There’s a list of 52 hazardous occupations and this has now been increased to 76. Therefore no child between 16-18 years of age can be employed in any of these occupations. - NCPA Chairman Prof. Muditha Vidanapathirana"
When asked why there are mounting number of unresolved complaints Prof. Vidanapathirana claimed that many vacancies that have existed must be filled first. “There are vacancies for 131 child protection officers including district child protection officers and district psychosocial officers. Altogether there are around 200 vacancies to be filled. We have filled around eight vacancies in the higher management. At the beginning we couldn’t function because we didn’t have a higher management,” he said.
Responding to the issue of child labour he said that discussions have been held with the Department of Labour and the Ministry to include domestic servants into the list of hazardous occupations. “There’s a list of 52 hazardous occupations and this has now been increased to 76. Therefore no child between 16-18 years of age can be employed in any of these occupations. This is now at the draft bill level and has been sent to the Legal Draftsman’s Department. We expect it to be passed within another two month’s time.” added Prof. Vidanapathirana.
Protest in Jaffna
One country many laws?
At the onset of the incident people around the country took to the streets demanding justice for the deceased. Protests were staged in Hatton, Nanu Oya, Yatiyanthota, Trincomalee, Jaffna and also in Colombo. “Children below the age of 18 should be schooling and should be with parents,” opined Samanmalee Gunasinghe, member of Women for Rights movement. “It is very clear that this girl was not in a safe place. Successive governments have given fake promises and have led the country to bankruptcy and in turn the children of this country end up as domestic servants in households of the privileged.
The government is bailing out criminals and children are falling prey. It was only after these protests that four suspects were arrested. The matter is likely to be swept under the carpet because the government has to remain in power. There’s one law for those with political powers and another law for the people.
Elected leaders are fooling the public, but it is the public who gave them such executive powers. With this incident people representing Ishalini’s community have to think twice about their rights.” said Gunasinghe.
Estate sector children: Discriminated, abused and neglected
The Malayaga Tamil community of Indian origin was brought into the country by the British to work in tea estates and has braved a history of discrimination and oppression for two long centuries. This discrimination and oppression continues to date and is quite evident with incidents such as that of Ishalini’s. They were disenfranchised and denied of basic rights, but continue to work in estates and live in dire conditions. For long years many non-governmental organisations and certain mainstream political parties have underscored the conditions in line rooms and the safety of women and children. Sanitation facilities have been one key issue that usually makes it to manifestos during election time, but no proper solution has been given to date. Pilot projects to issue sanitary napkins for girls and women have been implemented, but the sustainability of such projects have always been in question. Common toilets, packed rooms, unsafe structures that often catch fire are threats that have been normalised within this community. So is domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape.
One of the consequences of receiving low wages is that children in the estate sector tend to dropout from school when they reach grade eight. “The highest dropout rate is among girls in the plantation community,” opined Saumya Vilashini Muthulingam, plantation-based gender and child rights activist. “This is because the daily wages earned by parents are not sufficient to fund their children’s education beyond the eighth grade. Another issue is that schools that provide higher education are not in close proximity to most estates. Therefore girls have to walk 4-5km up and down on a daily basis. Buses don’t function in these areas. As a result, children have to leave home early in the morning; say at around 5.30am. And usually there’s no proper lighting on the roads. Parents cannot accompany their children to school as they have to report to work by 6.00am.” revealed Muthulingam.
"It was only after these protests that four suspects were arrested. The matter is likely to be swept under the carpet because the government has to remain in power. - Samanmalee Gunasinghe, member of Women for Rights movement"
Therefore commuting isn’t safe for girls. The option of taking a school van too isn’t practical given the cost factor and given the fact that the roads are in bad conditions. Apart from commuting these girls are burdened with the lack of sanitation facilities which is observed as another factor that hinders their progress. “Once girls reach puberty they need proper facilities to change sanitary napkins. But most schools and line rooms don’t have water and girls feel uncomfortable given this situation. On the other hand teachers tend to treat slow learners in a harsh manner. Slow learners are often discriminated against and this is another reason for them to dropout from school,” said Muthulingam.
Another glaring issue is the safety of line rooms. A 8x8 or 10x10 space is allocated for a room and all family members stay cramped up in this space. Children sleep with parents and there’s no privacy. Once girls reach puberty mothers discourage their spouses from sleeping close to them and this ends up in arguments and fights. Therefore domestic violence has become a normalized phenomenon within the estate sector. “When mothers leave for work, either within the country or to the Middle East, Children are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their own family members,” she added.
Trafficking estate sector children for domestic labour isn’t a new phenomenon as observed by Muthulingam. “In 2009 two sisters from Hatton were killed and their bodies were recovered from a canal in Bambalapitiya. Nobody knew of this incident. Children who join the domestic Labour force are highly vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation. But it is not only children from the estate sector who end up as domestic labour. Just after the war many children from border villages in Polonnaruwa, Puttalam and Moneragala also joined the domestic labour force. So if we are talking about child labour we need to talk about them as well.”
She further said that teachers need to play a more active role in ensuring the rights of children as they act as intermediaries and since children place their trust on teachers. Muthulingam also questioned why the Government hasn’t appointed a woman as the Minister for Children’s and Women’s Affairs and why there is no separate ministry like in previous regimes while stating that inaction by both the NCPA and designated police officers will have grave repercussions on the future of all children in the country.
Protest in Hatton demanding justice for Ishalini
Progressive decisions awaiting implementation
One of the suggestions to resolve financial hardships of people is to provide more self employment opportunities. But many activists are of the view that certain trade unions that govern the estate sector are against such moves. This is because once people become self-sufficient they may tend to leave work in estates and focus on their ventures. A majority of plantation workers are staunch supporters of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), the party that has traditionally represented Sri Lankan Tamils of Indian origin.
In his comments, State Minister of Estate Housing and Community Infrastructure and CWC General Secretary Jeevan Thondaman said that several decisions have been taken following discussions with institutions coming under the line ministry. “In order to prevent these incidents from continuing we are in the process of gathering information on the number of children who have dropped out of school and their whereabouts and information about brokers and agents in the communities who acts as intermediaries and takes contracts on child laborers. We have also planned to setup two vocational training institutes in Kandy and Badulla for students and youth who haven’t progressed with their O/Ls. Here we will be issuing a NVQ certificate as well and for that we need the cooperation from parents as well,” said Thondaman.
Thondaman added that the laws that govern child labour are ancient and need redrafting. “We need to introduce a system of registering people sent for domestic labour along with the Police department and this has to be renewed annually. We have also introduced a ‘Prajashakthi’ programme as means of providing welfare and self- employment for people,” he said.
“There’s a common misconception that the issue of child labour is frequent within the estate sector, but a significant percentage of people are living below the poverty line. Many educated people have singled out the plantation sector, but this isn’t the only community that is facing such issues. But be it a politician or any other person, the law should be equal to all and we are closely following up on this case,” he added.
"In order to prevent these incidents from continuing we are in the process of gathering information on the number of children who have dropped out of school and their whereabouts - Jeevan Thondaman"
Responding to claims on trade unions restricting economic growth of people Thondaman said that these are false allegations. “People have to realise that we recently came to this country. We were disenfranchised shortly after independence. We were lagging behind for 30 years. But our party leaders have setup vocational training institutes and have worked for the well-being of the people. If we were stunting the economic growth of the plantation community we won’t be in power today. “The minimum age for employment should be increased and the Ministry has agreed to it. But it also has to be enforced. Over the past one week we saw that a girl from Dayagama was exploited, then a 13-year old girl from Nawalapitiya was exploited and recently a girl in Badulla was exploited. The first thing is we need to change our mentality. We need to call things for what they are. This is not exploitation, but rape. As ministers of this Government we hold complete responsibility and accountability for this incident and we will make sure that such incidents will not take place in the near future.” he said.
Several attempts to contact Rishad Bathiudeen’s family proved futile.
My sister’s death is 100% suspicious : V. Miruprasad
The late Jude Kumar Ishalini comes from a family of six. While the family continues to grieve Ishalini’s loss the Daily Mirror contacted
V. Miruprasad, her brother, who said that no amount of campaigns would bring back his sister. Excerpts:
Q Tell us about your family.
My elder sister and Ishalini are my stepfather’s children. I have three siblings and altogether there are six in my family. We lived in Avissawella, but came to Dayagama around four years ago.
Q What was the reason to shift to Hatton?
It’s my mother’s hometown.
Q What do you do?
I work at a restaurant in Avissawella.
Q What about your siblings and parents?
My elder sister has completed her studies, but Ishalini studied only up to grade eight. Two other siblings are schooling and one is just two years old. My parents are unemployed.
Q How did your family come to know of this incident?
My mother has obtained a loan from this broker and she had to settle it. According to my understanding this domestic helper job was offered to my mother. But because there’s a toddler in the house Ishalini had asked my mother to stay back and in turn she had volunteered to go to Colombo.
Q When did she start working?
In October 2019.
Q How old was she back then?
Q Certain news reports state that she was 15 when she was sent for employment. Is that right?
That is because my mother has mixed up her birthday.
Q Did she communicate with the family after she left to Colombo?
She used to call my mother every Saturday, but later on there were hardly any calls from her.
Q Was there any indication about the harassment she was experiencing?
A month prior to the incident she had called my mother and complained that she can’t stay in that house.
Q Did the accused’s family contact you after the incident?
Yes. When she was in ICU they bore all the expenses and even spent for the funeral as well. They also gave Rs. 50,000 for other expenses.
Q What is your message to the society?
My sister will never return. But this shouldn’t happen to another Ishalini. We have started a campaign to raise awareness on child labour. We call upon parents to refrain from sending their children for domestic work if they are under the age of 15. We have also filed a case as my sister’s death is 100% suspicious.