Saturday, 04 February 2023
Speak up for children

Speak up for children

The International Labour Organization (ILO) revealed that recent global estimates suggest that nearly 120 million children between the ages of five and 14 are involved in child labour. Boys and girls in this age group are equally affected. This persistence of child labour is rooted in poverty, lack of social protection and failure to ensure that all children are attending school until the legal minimum age for admission to employment.

World Day against Child Labour which falls today, calls for free, compulsory and quality education for children until the minimum age for admission to employment.

World Day against Child Labour this year will focus particularly on the importance of quality education as a key step in tackling child labour, National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairperson Natasha Balendra said in an interview with the Daily News.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What is Child Labour?
A: Child labour is about the exploitation of the most vulnerable in our society- our children. For many, child labour is an invisible phenomenon because children work in hidden occupations, such as, domestic work in plantations and prostitution. There are children in extreme forms of labour, which are difficult or harmful to the children’s development.

This includes carrying heavy loads and using dangerous machinery, spraying pesticides, fishing in the sea and working in unclean, unsafe environments where they suffer from work related accidents.

Child labour involves different work performed by children under 18, long hours of work on a regular or full- time basis and no access or poor access to education.

Q: What are the reasons for child labour?

A: Each child has his or her own story. In some cases, poverty can leave no choice for a parent but to force their child to work, find work or be a victim of trafficking. In Sri Lanka, children can be seen begging or selling items on street, bringing money to aid an unemployed or sick parent or guardian. Poverty takes children out of schools to care for their siblings, run the household and earn an income in any way they can, despite being treated badly, overwork and, sometimes, trapped in debts. Change in the economy is vital in order to prevent children from becoming the victims of child labour.

Q: On what ground does the NCPA prioritise child assistance?
A: The NCPA works for the protection of the rights of all children in general, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized children of the society, including children affected by physical, sexual, emotional abuse within their family, schools and other, victims of child trafficking, children in conflict with the law, children abandoned by parents or guardians, children who are victims of substance abuse – drug addicts, institutionalized children, children affected by conflict and disaster, including internally displaced children and children whose families are undergoing or have undergone traumatic incidents.

Q: Are How many children victims of child labour in Sri Lanka?
A: Nearly 107,000 children have been identified. Cases are handled after the authority receives complaints. The Labour Department also looks in to the issues related to child labour. Free and compulsory education up to the minimum age for admission to employment is a key tool in ending child labour. Attendance at school removes children at least from the labour market and will lay the basis for the acquisition of employable skills needed for future gainful employment.

Q: Do you think changes in law are necessary?
A: Changes are necessary, but no major changes. The laws pertaining to Children are enough to protect their rights, but there are issues in enforcement and implementation of law. Well trained officers to handle cases related to women and children should be in place separately. The hardest part is to ensure whether these laws are implemented properly.

Q: What are the measures taken by the NCPA to protect Children?
A: The NCPA conducts events to raise public awareness, influence policies and practices that affect children’s lives and development, work together with authorities such as police, healthcare, legal, education, communication, media, political and all sectors of the society to create child-friendly systems in these spheres, sensitize agencies such as the public hospitals, schools, institutions and municipal corporations to the problems faced by the children and contribute to work towards strengthening the networking with global child protection systems to ensure that children’s voices are heard.

The ILO has started a pilot project at Ratnapura to make a child labour free district. If the project succeeds, that will be implemented in other districts as well.

Q: What are the initiatives that the NCPA is intending to take to ensure their security?
A: The NCPA is working on several fronts to prevent and respond to child abuse throughout Sri Lanka. We have proposed to the IGP to set up a Children and Women’s Division under a senior DIG, a specialist cadre with specialized training and sensitivity to issues confronting women and children.

We are working with the Attorney General’s Department, the Police and the Justice Ministry on a pilot project to expedite action on cases of child abuse in the western province.

We are working with doctors, health, probation and childcare services and the Police on a multi-sectorial approach to protect victims of child abuse to ensure that justice, medical and psycho-social responses to child abuse cases are coordinated in a way that the child victim receives a holistic response.

We are also working with families, schools and communities to raise awareness and to create self-monitoring and empowerment mechanisms to ensure that instances of abuse do not occur in the first place.

Q: What is the stand of the NCPA on the issues pertaining to sexual violence against women and children in Sri Lanka?
A: The National Child Protection Authority’s mandate focuses primarily on two things, advising the government on legal and policy reforms in relation to child abuse and monitoring the implementation of such laws and policies and monitoring the activities of government institutions involved in the investigation of child abuse cases.

Q: What is the responsibility of the NCPA with regard to the death of Vidya Sloganathan?
A: We have been monitoring investigations into the rape incident and murder from the beginning. We will continue to monitor. What we have seen is that it is not sufficient for justice to ultimately be done. It is important for justice to be seen to be done. If the public are to trust that the state will do the right thing and bring the perpetrators of a crime to justice, government authorities have to act sensitively and in empathy with the community. In the past two months, the NCPA has been involved in discussions with the stakeholders in the North and East and will shortly be making policy proposals to the government for changes to be implemented to aim at a more cohesive, effective and sensitive response to the sexual and other violence against children.

The situation that has prevailed with regard to sexual violence against women and children is unacceptable. It has to be changed. It is the responsibility of government institutions, including NCPA, to work in cohesion to ensure changes. Sri Lanka has to place a system to prevent sexual violence against women and children to respond to such violence in an effective, prompt, sensitive and holistic manner. People have the right and the responsibility not to take the law into their own hands, but lawfully should agitate for a legal policy and social change in this regard, should monitor the activities of government institutions and call them out when they act improperly. Communities should be educated and monitored to identify their own attitudes and actions.

Q: What is the message that you would like to give to the adults to protect children?
A: However, as responsible adults, we must open our eyes to the unpleasant reality of child labour. We must ensure that we do not knowingly or unknowingly condemn any child to a future of harassment, misery and missed opportunities.

Every child deserves a fair chance to a normal and healthy childhood. Children who fall into the trap of child labour often cannot get out by themselves. A country-wide effort to fight child labour is important. Don’t stand by and watch children’s lives being stolen from them. Speak up and speak out and stand beside our children to fight for a fair chance to grow up healthily and happily.

-Nushka Nafeel