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“Children’s welfare our only concern”

- Head, Save the Children UK, Global

Among the civilians trapped in the North due to the present military conflict, the most affected and hurt are the children. Most of the children caught up in the war are psychologically or physically affected and Save the Children has expressed deep concern regarding their plight. The head of the Save the Children, UK, who also heads Save the Children globally Jasmine Whitbread was last week in Colombo to ascertain for herself the actual situation. In an exclusive interview with The Nation, she said that one of the top priorities of the organisation in a conflict and fragile country is to establish safe places that would enable the children to play and recover from the present trauma. “We use art and play therapy which gradually helps a child to forget his/her traumatic experiences and get back to a sense of normalcy. Looking forward, it is very important for us to support the reunification of children with their families and safe movement back to their villages and where they have come from,” she said. She further said that to further enhance early childhood development, Save the Children also plans to set up a trust fund with a collection of 1.4 million pounds, and hopefully equal amounts from other donors. The trust fund will help the Sri Lankan Government streamline pre- schools nationwide, she said

Following are excerpts:

Q: What is the purpose of your visit to Sri Lanka?

A: My visit is to support the Sri Lankan team which is engaged in the relief work to help the thousands of displaced children and families in the North, and also to make an emergency fund raising appeal we made in the UK for 2.5 million pounds for the emergency response in the North. My coming here, I think, can provide some moral support to the team, besides taking some stories back to the UK to help motivate the British public to respond to the appeal and donate funds. Then we will be able to do more for the affected children in the most effective way. 

Q. How are you helping the displaced children?

A. Prior to the new arrival of displaced people we have been working in 12 of the 14 camps, providing for their immediate needs such as children’s clothes and bed sheets and hygiene kits and other household items. Also in each camp we have set up a safe area for the children to play and overcome their trauma. With more and more people arriving in the welfare camps, there is a need for much more relief aid. The government has asked for more support, and so we need to raise more money to enable us to implement all this in the camps.

Q: What, in your view, are the challenges faced by these children?

A: Many of the children have seen the conflict and they are traumatised. Their family members are hurt or separated. There are some children without any of their families. Most of them are faced with psychological and physical problems. Some are wounded from the conflict and many are sick. Clean water is the problem in the camps, proper food and health facilities are also a problem. And most of them have missed out on schooling for long.

Q: What do you hope to do with the data collected regarding these children?

A: I think there is a lack of media coverage about the situation in the camps. Many journalists are not able to visit these camps. The situation for children is most vulnerable in most conflict areas. They have special needs. Yes, I will be highlighting their needs in the British media and will let my own government know about the funds needed to help them. Not only will the British government be informed of the needs of these children but the Norwegian, Danish and the US governments as well to whom also I will be discussing about the needs of these children.

Q: Is there a difference between the issues that children in England or developed countries have and their counterparts in Asia and Africa?

A: One of the differences that I have been made aware of, is that unfortunately many children in the developing countries who do not have a parent or parents are sent to the orphanages. I find that 85% of children in Sri Lanka living in orphanages have either a parent or both parents.  In the UK it is different. We insist that children should grow up in family environments. It is less expensive and is in the best interest of the child.

Q: Your organisation was founded to serve the children around the world. How has the situation changed for children in conflict and fragile countries?

A: Save the Children always tries to reach the most vulnerable children in any country. We try to do the best work in the worst places.  So that means, we do a lot of our work in fragile countries and conflict affected countries. We also do work even within stable countries where there is one particular conflict or emergency. We have developed expertise because we have worked in fragile countries. For example, we know how important education is in this situation. And we have understood the necessity for children to have safe play areas and educational programmes in very difficult circumstances. And this is our main focus, and we are receiving support from other organisations and the UN to achieve these aims.

Q: What are your aims to support the thousands of Sri Lankan children caught up in the armed conflict?

A: The first priority is emergency relief like the basic items, such as household kits and so on. These are emergency distribution. The top most priority is the safe place to play and recover from the trauma. We use art and play therapy, which gradually helps a child to forget his/her traumatic experiences and get back to a sense of normalcy. Looking forward, it is very important for us to support the reunification of children with their families and safe movement back to their villages and where they have come from. Living in a camp is not a long term solution for children.

Q: What do you think is the way forward for a country like Sri Lanka particularly from a donor perspective?

A: What we see now is a reduction of donor funding to Sri Lanka with the scale down of tsunami response.  And Sri Lanka is not one of the world’s poorest countries, so donors may be reluctant to provide funds apart from an emergency. However there will be a need for development programme to help the poorest children and their families. And it will be important for donors to support this move.

Q: As the pioneer in children’s rights, what can you do to reduce the unimaginable violence that is increasingly brought upon children?

A: There is a huge challenge in terms of violence brought upon children. And addressing that, requires long term programmes to help change people’s attitudes  and beliefs about how children should be treated and this is some of the work Save the Children continues to do in this country and elsewhere.

Q: Save the Children has been operative in Sri Lanka for over 30 years. What, in your view, has this organisation achieved? And what new plans do you think Save the Children in Sri Lanka has to improve the situation of children?

A: I think one of the achievements has been on promoting early childhood care and development, and we are in the middle of it. We want to establish and get more support and recognition for early childhood development. The early childhood education which is also known as pre-school education is very important. I learn that in Sri Lanka this has not been very common in the past. There have not been early childhood development centres and there has been a dearth of well trained pre-school teachers. Over the last two decades we have been able to work with the Government of Sri Lanka and other local organisations to establish pre schools and train teachers. With mothers increasingly working nowadays, it is very important that the children, before they start formal schooling have a stimulating and safe places for their development. We have many programmes in this regard. To further enhance early childhood development we want to set up a trust fund with a collection of 1.4 million pounds from Save the Children and hopefully equal amounts from other donors. The trust fund will help the Government streamline pre schools nationwide and pay the salaries of pre-school teachers. These teachers are very committed and it is time we recognised their values and also give them their due place in society. Another great achievement is the facilitative role played to ensure that children without birth certificates can get in to school. The work started somewhere in 1997 with mobile birth certificate issuing programme, and today it has become a policy.

Q: There is increased suspicion of and much scrutiny on INGOs in many countries, including Sri Lanka. Why do you think this happens and what strategies have you planned to counter this?

A: When I sit in London, and I hear about the good work of our staff in Sri Lanka it makes me sad to know that they are misunderstood. It is unfortunate to learn that in addition to the challenges they face in their work, they face the enormous difficulty of defending their work. I would like to convey to the people of Sri Lanka that we are only here to help and that our only concern is the welfare of children. In Sri Lanka our staff faces unwarranted suspicion about what they are doing and what their motives are. And sometimes this places the lives of our staff at stake. And we have to continue to work hard to communicate clearly what we are doing so that people feel more confident that we are doing good work.

Q: Some of the items donated by you have later been found with the LTTE and this has caused much suspicion?

A: I think wherever there is an emergency response, some of the material given to people may end up in the hands of the people who will misuse it. This is true anywhere in the world. However, it is very small percent. For example, in this recent incident, it was a laser printer that was found in the hands of the LTTE, which we have donated to the Department of Probation to register separated children in the Tsunami. We definitely do not want this to happen again. One of the ways to prevent this is to put our logo so that it is very clear when this is fallen into the wrong hands, there is some mischief in it. It is our way of being accountable for the items we donate. It is a shame when more is made of this than is the case.

Q: You were scheduled to meet with President Mahinda Rajapaksa but later turned down due to President’s tight schedule. What were the priority issues that you were to raise with the President?

A: Firstly it was about the Save the Children’s relationship with the Government of Sri Lanka. As an organisation which has been in Sri Lanka for 35 years we want to strengthen the good relationship we already have. I also wanted to raise with him the situation of children in Sri Lanka, not only in the North but around the country.

Q: Are you confident that Sri Lanka that is a signatory to a plethora of conventions on child rights, has honoured and practised these conventions without violating them?

A: Sri Lanka like most countries has signed most conventions like the Rights of the Child and like most countries struggle to fulfill all of its obligations. The role of the Save the Children is to help ensure that there is faster progress towards meeting those obligations both by pointing out to the Government where they are falling short and stepping in and providing assistance.

Q: Has the violence against children increased and if so to what extent?

A: Violence against children has always been a terrible tragedy particularly in conflict situations and it is often overlooked. The Save the Children is advocating more focus and attention at international and national level on what is happening on recording incidents on violence against children, and taking steps to address this by strengthening government structures and raising awareness in communities. I am not sure it is increasing, because it has always been there. But one thing is sure. The problem is increasingly being recognised. But much more should be done to address this.