Focus on child protection crisis
- All forms of child abuse on the rise amidst Covid-19 pandemic
- 35% of abuse complaints from Colombo, Gampaha, Kurunegala, and Galle
- Role of NCPA under scrutiny; failures and ineffective performance noted
- Despite financial allocations, capacity and scope expansion not done
- National Database on Child Abuse not formulated for past 20 years
By Yoshitha Perera
Setting up and following better safeguarding policies and procedures for children has been of national importance in Sri Lanka for many years.
As a result of recent incidents reported on child abuse and sexual exploitation, the topic of creating policies, laws, and frameworks to protect children has again formed a discussion.
All organisations that come into contact with children should develop protection policies and procedures to ensure that all children, regardless of age, disability, gender, redistribution, race, religion or belief, gender or sexual orientation, are entitled to equal protection from harm.
Moreover, the Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions have further exposed children to more sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and neglect. Closure of schools, the rising level of poverty within low-income families, and the lack of social support has made children more vulnerable.
Within this situation, there is an immediate necessity for grassroots level reforms to strengthen child protection and multi-level stakeholder co-operation to ensure community awareness, early detection, and effective management when it comes to child abuse cases.
Lack of progress by NCPA
In Sri Lanka, the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) is the main government institution advising the Government on the policies and laws on the prevention of child abuse and the protection and treatment of children who are victims of such abuse.
The institution also has to co-ordinate and monitor the action against all forms of child abuse.
However, with the recent incidents of child abuse, many urged that structural changes and reforms have to be implemented within the NCPA mechanism.
As per the special audit report released by the Auditor General’s Department in June 2020 on the role of the NCPA relating to child abuse in Sri Lanka, the necessity of ensuring the protection of children had arisen through the failure and ineffective performance of the role assigned to the authority.
It also mentioned that there were many financial allocations to the NCPA to expand its capacity and scope for the prevention of child abuse, protecting such victims as well as developing a monitoring mechanism.
However, the NCPA had failed to implement such procedures for nearly two decades.
Preparation and maintenance of the National Database on Child Abuse has been mandatory for the NCPA under Section 14 (m) of the Authority Act, but for the past 20 years, it has been not established by the authority.
The report mentioned that the total contractual amount of Rs. 1.2 million had been paid to the School of Computing in the University of Colombo to initiate this project and the hotline service of 1929 had been established initially, but the fundamental features and the structure of the data system had not been changed.
Recently, the NCPA also highlighted inadequate staff and field officers to manage grassroots level monitoring in relation to the child abuse cases.
As per the audit report, 30% of secondary level posts of the authority, amounting to 486, remained vacant by 19 September 2019, and 410 posts were of district child protection/psychosocial officers and divisional child protection officers. The report also indicated that the posts of field officers had remained vacant during the previous five years.
The report also pointed to the implementation of the National Policy on Child Protection, for which approval had been granted after 20 years of the establishment of the authority.
Sharing his views with The Sunday Morning, State Minister of Women and Child Development Piyal Nishantha said that the Ministry had already implemented initiatives to toughen the laws related to child abuse and sexual exploitation.
He said that the Ministry had decided to establish nine children’s courts covering all the provinces in the country, with the aim to expedite the hearing of cases pertaining to the physical, mental, and sexual abuse of children.
The State Minister said: “At present, there are only two children’s courts in the country and that was a key reason for the delay when it comes to the case procedures. Our Ministry already had an initial discussion with the Justice Ministry and decided to implement nine such courts, covering all provinces.”
Explaining the need for ground-level development and a mechanism to monitor all forms of child abuse cases, State Minister Nishantha said that recruitment of qualified officers to the NCPA as field officers and for the management of the authority for discharging, supervising, and directing the functions mentioned in Act, will commence immediately.
“By strengthening the mechanism of the NCPA and developing a close system with the Police, we are trying to identify the geographical areas in the country that are hotspots for child abuse cases. We will implement necessary measures accordingly.”
The Sunday Morning learnt that as per the special audit report released in 2020, 35% of the total number of complaints received to the NCPA were from four districts, namely, Colombo, Gampaha, Kurunegala, and Galle, but the authority had not paid additional attention to these districts.
Responding to The Sunday Morning’s query, the State Minister said that funds were already allocated to establish evidence collection centres covering all nine provinces in collaboration with the NCPA, and added that the Authority is also in the process of preparing an Official National Database which would be announced in August.
Meanwhile, last week, Senior DIG Ajith Rohana was appointed as a member of the Board of Directors of the NCPA by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for a period of three years.
Releasing a media statement on 25 July, the Stop Child Cruelty Trust (SCC) said that it had commenced the #JUSTANUMBER campaign to raise awareness and urge authorities to take urgent action to prevent the alarming escalation of child abuse.
In June 2020, the Police confirmed a child is sexually abused every two hours. International data confirms that Sri Lanka is in the abysmal 10% of countries considered least safe for children against violence.
The child protection crisis is prioritised by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and One of the main criteria in gaining the European Union’s (EU) Generalised Scheme of Preferences-plus is ending corporal punishment of children.
The #JUSTANUMBER public campaign focuses on implementing the directives of the landmark Supreme Court decision of February 2021, denouncing corporal punishment, a result of unwavering advocacy efforts of the SCC. Physical abuse is the most common form of abuse in Sri Lanka and globally.
The SCC conducted a public survey where an overwhelming 83% of citizens were of the opinion that the current laws were insufficient to protect children and 76.3% voted to change or renew the laws. Although 89% were aware there were some laws to protect children, an alarming 76% of citizens were unaware of them.
SCC Chairperson Dr. Tush Wickramanayaka stated that child safety is a collective social responsibility.
“We cannot have national security unless the true beneficiaries of the future, our children, are safe first. We are appalled that nothing definitive is implemented to protect 25% of Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable citizens, even when they are physically and sexually abused to death. Your child is just a number,” declared Dr. Wickramanayaka. The SCC’s indefatigable efforts to hold the relevant authorities responsible and accountable are gathering tremendous support.
Sharing details with The Sunday Morning, Dr. Wickramanyake said that there is an increase in all forms of child abuse in the country and the most powerful authority to protect child rights, the NCPA, is dysfunctional.
“The primary guardians of a child are the parents, but the ultimate guardian of a child is the State. In the State, the Judiciary, as a key pillar, has the eventual guardianship of a child.”