Clipped Wings

A child’s world is infinite. Extrapolate that to encompass the collective universe of the world’s children and you will find yourself lost in the relevant imponderables. Nothing, it seems, can do justice to the issues pertaining to children and certainly not these pages. Worse still would be to let the fact overwhelm us into numbness. There are, after all, issues that scream for attention. Child conscription for example. Juvenile delinquency. The sexual abuse of children. The importance and inadequacy of children’s literature. Child labour. The list goes on…
Pix by Ishara S. Kodikara


Rehabilitating the future

By Vindya Amaranayake
Children, they say, are the future of the world. If they are the future, then, to ensure that they are ready to shoulder the challenge of facing the future, their present must be safeguarded. In Sri Lanka, the ultimate guardian of a child is the state. It is mentioned in the Article 13 of section 27 of the Constitution under the directive principles of state policy that ‘The State shall promote with special care the interests of children and youth, so as to ensure their full development, physical, mental, moral, religious and social, and to protect them from exploitation and discrimination.’ Commemorating international children’s day, The Nation ventured on to find out the fate of children who commit anti-social acts.
The state not only protects the rights of the child and cares for its development, but also amends the anti-social behaviour that the child engages in. Children are not treated as criminals even though they happen to be engaged in acts befitting that description.
The Penal Code of Sri Lanka states that nothing is an offence committed by a child under the age of eight. On the other hand, even a child, up to the age of 18 is not treated in a court of law as it does an adult. The ‘juvenile delinquents’ are tried differently and punished differently.
There are four juvenile detention centres known as ‘Certified Schools’ in Sri Lanka. They are maintained under the Probation and Childcare Department. Assistant Commissioner of the Department, E.K. Ariyadasa said that the four centres are in Ranmuthugala, which is a female facility and the other three in Makola, Hikkaduwa and Keppetipola.
He said that the children detained at the facilities are given all the basic requirements needed by children. Also, the department had taken very much care to make sure that the environment of the facility should enhance the physical and psychological development or improvement of the child but not its deterioration. “We are giving them boarding facilities, food, clothing and sports and other basic requirements,” he added.
“These children are given basic training in various vocations and according to their educational requirements, they are given the opportunity to attend a school outside the facility,” he said.
He added that it is difficult to give out the specific number of detained children because the number keeps changing everyday as children and taken on and released on regular basis. However, roughly calculated there are more than 100 girls in Ranmuthugala and around 80 boys in Makola and another 40 in Hikkaduwa and around the same amount in Keppetipola.
The Nation inquired from the commissioner about the fate of the children after they get released from the facility. The quality of the rehabilitation or the training provided would prove ineffectual if society is not receptive towards the child’s re-entry into a social context that caused the child to become a delinquent.
Ariyadasa said, “These children are usually released after three years, but after considering good conduct and the needs of the children we consider their release after one and a half years.”
He added that after their release, there has been set in motion a monitoring programme to supervise the reentry of the child into society. Each child after release will have to report to a probation officer for a period of one year.
Not only this, but the department have taken steps to ensure that these children are properly established at least financially. “We also help them to find employment befitting the training they received at the facility. We also have private companies aiding and sponsoring these children in their initial years after the release,” Ariyadasa added.
Apart from these four schools there is another facility in Halpathota, Galle for homeless children. These children are not delinquents; they are either orphans or street children who have no other place to go. It functions as a temporary boarding place. These children are given the opportunity to attend schools outside the facility. This detention home currently has over 200 children.
The biggest problem facing these centres is the lack of necessary facilities. “We are a government funded department, but the funds are allocated via Provincial Councils. What we get is not enough,” Ariyadasa said. There is a severe lack of clothing and food for the children and the buildings need to be regularly repaired. “These centres are for the children, delinquents they maybe; therefore they need to have the necessary recreational facilities. After all what we want to do is to rehabilitate them to be released into the social environment,” he added.


Ode to a child

A twist of the hands of a toy-clock,
the arrival of a butterfly and a kite,
an unthinking word that tore your world apart:
is this how your hours were marked?
Did you collect any colours today,
any keepsake from a pavement
a dream that flew from a billboard?
When you mixed perfume and dust
did your mind erupt in an impossible fountain
in uncontrolled mirth
or as the most beautiful smile?
Did you birth the dawn with fire
did you feel life ebb away
in the startled ways
of the traditional homelands of warfare?
Did you pause to savour
moment and moment
or was it easier
or perhaps made more sense
to let the receding wave recede
and embrace the approaching one
with open arms made of unimaginable optimism
with open arms carved from a wood
called ‘lack of choice’?
In any event,
that smile,
is it the smile of a heart
that knows generosity and nothing else
even when encountering the tormentor,
the thief that sought to rob innocence
tried to re-paint magic in adult colours?
I don’t know your ways, your world,
and this is why I ask:
‘Was your day a child’s day
or the residue left by an adult brew?’
I don’t know your ways, your world,
so I shall stop
and throw a smile
and make this request:
‘take it and twist it with yours
unleash that fairy power;
cure me of the curse of adulthood’.



Children suffer most from lack of water, sanitation

UNICEF report says progress made, but more needed to prevent the deaths of more than 1.5 million children under five each year.
More than 1.2 billion people have gained access to safe water since 1990, according to Progress for Children: A Report Card on Water and Sanitation, launched today by UNICEF.
The report charts progress towards Millennium Development Goal 7 which includes the target of halving the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Between 1990 and 2004, global coverage of safe drinking water rose from 78 per cent to 83 per cent.
Latin America and the Caribbean and the South Asia regions will meet the drinking water target almost 10 years early.
“The progress made to date in increasing the number of people with access to safe water has been impressive,” says UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. “However, unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation contribute to the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million children under five each year as a result of diarrhoea.”
Examining sanitation, the report finds that an estimated 1.2 billion people have gained access to basic sanitation since 1990, with global coverage rising from 49 per cent to 59 per cent. In South Asia, access to improved sanitation more than doubled between 1990 and 2004. In East Asia and the Pacific, the proportion of people with basic sanitation rose from 30 per cent to more than 50 per cent.
“Despite commendable progress, an estimated 425 million children under the age of 18 still do not have access to an improved water supply and over 980 million do not have access to adequate sanitation,” says Veneman. “Clean water and sanitation are vital prerequisites for improved nutrition, reductions in child and maternal mortality and the fight against disease.”
Water-and sanitation-related illness can affect children’s school attendance and academic performance. Girls, in particular, may be deterred from schooling by the need to fetch and carry water for their families, and by the lack of separate sanitation facilities.
Improved sanitation facilities could reduce diarrhoea-related diseases in young children by more than one-third, says the report. With better hygiene practices, such diseases could be reduced by two thirds.
While the world is on track to meet the water target, progress could be impaired if the provision of safe water to the world’s poorest communities is not made a priority.
Sanitation is a much greater challenge. Despite significant gains, the world is not on track to meet the MDG target for sanitation. In South Asia, for example, two out of three people still lack basic sanitation.
The report says that the benefits of improved drinking water and sanitation are evident and could be extended to many more of the world’s people, if only sufficient resources and resolve were dedicated to the task.

“30,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they ‘die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.’” — UNICEF


“Children’s literature can be a corrective”

Ratna Sri Wijesinghe, one of the foremost contemporary Sinhala lyricists and poets, finds little to celebrate when it comes to the current status of children’s literature in the Sinhala language.  He spoke to The Nation about the key issues in this genre of literature.

Q: How would you assess the current status of children’s literature in Sinhala?
A: Today we see a massive output of children’s story books but they are abysmally lacking in quality. In a recent state awards ceremony for children’s books I found only two or three works out of twenty that were of some quality.
We need to understand that a child is not some kind of dwarf form of an adult. Children have their own identities, their own realities and literature that seeks to feed them adult realities does not only failure but can be damaging as well.
Children communicate with the stars and moon, dolls, toys, the sky, trees and flowers. Literature that refuses to acknowledge this amounts to theft of their reality. Those who write children’s stories have to begin by understanding the nature of the child. They have to understand the cognitive stages of a child’s development. The needs of children and not adults need to be catered to.
Q: Is this a recent trend or have most authors suffered from this inability to understand the child?
A: This was not always the case. We have an ancient tradition of children’s stories. The jathaka katha for example were simple stories that were not out of sync with a child’s world, a child’s reality or ability to comprehend and relate. The present generation of authors is a long way off from reaching the standards set by people like Sybil Wettasinghe.
Q: Some argue that a decline in values or a lack of cultural sensitivity is to blame. What are your views?
A: Yes, something has happened to our values.  In the sixties, we had verses such as ‘Achchiye bolanne path vela varenne…’ speaking of respect and love. In the seventies the rhythm had become more aggressive, the line overstepping the boundaries of propriety: ‘aachchiye pochchiye vathura natanava, achchige moona kanna poosa andanava’ (The water in the pot is boiling, grandmother, the cat is crying to eat your face). In the eighties we had the following: ‘aachchi unath mokada hondata lau-karanava nam’ (if she is good in bed, does it matter that she’s a grandmother?). The decline is all too obvious.
  Munidasa Cumaratunga was very different: ‘mage nangige kammula vage ruva ethi me mala…’ (this flower, as beautiful as my little sister’s cheek). Children love flowers, they can relate to the sentiment. This is the way you prevent a child from embracing aggressive behavioral traits.
Consider the famous ditty authored by the Principal of the Katukurunda Training College, U.G. Patternot de Silva, ‘me gase boho peni dodam thibe’ (there is much fruit on this orange tree), where the two children are happy to claim just one each. From here it is only a simple step to teach them to the ethics of sharing, concern for others, thrift etc.
Q: What is the role of children’s literature?
A: Education is a matter of bequeathing culture and here we are not talking about archaeology and other things that can be categorized as science or scientific fact, but the bhavamaya karana or factors that speak of values and ideals.  Splashing bright colours and using big, bold fonts does not make something a children’s story book. Children’s literature has a role to play. ‘The best things are for the child,’ we often say, but what little effort and money is spent on children’s literature, the cover of a book, compared with, say, the resources poured into an advertisement!
There’s a decline in sensibilities all things considered and children’s literature can be a corrective. It is not an easy task for it requires us to see ourselves and our children differently, to see their world, understand it, and write of and from that world, that reality


The real ‘children of war’

Children were first used in the North East conflict in the mid-eighties when most of the Tamil insurgent groups used them as sentries. These children were usually armed with grenades and asked to monitor the movements of the Sri Lankan Army as well as of other militant groups. The LTTE killed several of these child combatants in their campaign to eliminate rival militant groups in 1986. These children mostly from TELO were on sentry duty at the time of being killed. The LTTE for its part started recruiting children during the occupation of Jaffna by the Indian army. Even though under age combatants had filled the ranks of the LTTE in the early phase of its campaign it was after November 1987 that the organisation was actively involved in enrolling children to replace their dead cadres. Children as young as 10 years old were used as assassins by the LTTE in a bid to paralyse life in Indian occupied Jaffna. During the middle of 1989, the Indian-backed EPRLF-led coalition enrolled thousands of under age youth for its Tamil National Army, hundreds of whom were later massacred by the LTTE.
According to a modest estimate, the LTTE has over 3000 children in their ranks. This phenomenon however is not unique to LTTE or Sri Lanka but is a global trend in insurgent groups. Currently there are well over 300,000 child soldiers, some as young as seven years, participating in the various armed conflicts around the world.
Participation in armed conflicts, even voluntarily, by children below the age of 15 is an offence, according to the Geneva Convention adopted in 1948. However the tragedy of the last decade has been the deaths of over two million child combatants’ worldwide due to the scant disregard for these international conventions by guerrilla groups.
The LTTE has continued to recruit children to their fighting units. They are mainly used for intelligence gathering purposes and for menial jobs in the supplies division and medical unit. However these soldiers have been used in many operations in the past with devastating effects. In the series of unceasing waves operations launched by the LTTE, the child soldiers have been usually the first wave of attackers. They would minimise the losses to more hardcore cadres who would enter the fight once the army positions have been softened by the younger fighters. A disturbing fact which has come to light is that as part of the training of these child combatants, they are made to massacre civilians in border villagers. The young recruits are encouraged to use sharp weapons instead of guns to carry out these brutal acts in order to “harden” them for combat.
Currently, not only the LTTE but the Karuna faction also is reported to use child soldiers in their fight against their Wanni brethren. Many child conscripts who were released by Karuna after he broke away from the main organisation have been recruited again by the Wanni faction and in some cases, the Karuna loyalists. The Tamil Diaspora which mainly funds the LTTE, has chosen to ignore the organisation’s appalling record on child soldiers while several international bodies such as UNESCO has tried unsuccessfully to force the LTTE to adhere to international norms regarding the matter. The government of Sri Lanka also has more or less used the matter of child combatants as a tool to bring disrepute to the LTTE, but has failed to show any genuine commitment to put an end to this tragedy.
However in the midst of the spiralling conflict, one fact does remind us that we Sri Lankans have much more in common than we think. On both sides of the divide, it is the poor man’s child who has to die for the “cause.” Just as not a single political leader in the south – however willing he is to advocate a military solution to the conflict - is willing to send their children to the army, the leadership of the LTTE too has decided that their children should be spared the option of being blown up in the war. Prabhakaran’s daughter is said to be pursuing her higher studies in Ireland while his son is reportedly attending a European university. Tamilselven’s daughter is in Norway and LTTE “Police Chief” Nadesan’s daughter is studying in Australia. Prabhakaran is considered to be a demi-god by his followers whose purpose on earth is to deliver the Promised Land to suffering Tamils. However the several hundred child combatants who died recently in the salty plains of Muhamalai were no doubt, children of a lesser god, unworthy of childhood, education and life.