Professor Harendra de Silva

“Parents, teachers must be considerate of adolescence”

Professor Harendra de Silva’s contribution to the welfare of children in the country is exceptional. Professor of Paediatrics at the Faculty of Medicine, Ragama, he is the Founder Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) and the Presidential Task Force on Child Protection. A social entrepreneur and an activist against all forms of child abuse, Professor de Silva has been honoured with coveted accolades including Senior Ashoka Fellow of the Ashoka Foundation, Washington DC
Following are excerpts of an interview Prof. de Silva recently had with The Nation.

By Randima Attygalle
Q: Can you recall unforgettable memories as a schoolboy?
I was so playful in school and hardly studied till I entered secondary school. Even after returning from school, all I ever did was play till my mother dragged me for a bath! Many children from several parts of the island entered Ananda at secondary level, and the competition was high. So much so that, I always used to come towards the end of the best class in the Grade! All teachers predicted that I wouldn’t pass my Ordinary Levels! Although I showed an aptitude for English, Sinhala, Science and Maths, I was so weak in History, Geography and Civics. My memories of Ananda are bittersweet. I remember being entrusted with the responsibility of ‘keeping an eye’ on a student who was a newcomer to school, a task which I took rather seriously. He had a psychological imbalance, and my colleagues used to ridicule me as well as the new student. The bullying went to the extent of a fellow student challenging me for a fight. I was not a renowned fighter at all, it was my first such fight, and for the sake of the principle of safeguarding my ‘friend’, I accepted the challenge. My opponent turned up with a knuckle-guard full of injurious nails jutting out, and eventually, he was taken to aside and assaulted by the onlookers! The fight was declared null and void and I was declared the winner by the ‘audience’! The new student was bullied to such an extent by this student, that the latter had to finally pay the penalty of two loosened teeth! Such are my unforgettable memories.

Q: Having been so ‘underestimated’ by your gurus, you would have certainly stunned them all, entering Medical College?
(smiling) Yes, indeed I did. Prior to our Advanced Level exam, we had to do our practical tests in the Science stream and one of our teachers categorised us into ‘those who would pass’ and ‘those who wouldn’t’. Naturally, I fell into the latter. When the results came, I went and told that very teacher, “teacher mama pass” (I have passed the exam) Her response was, “owu mata aaranchi. Pass wenna hitiya lamai neveyine pass wune” (Yes, I heard the news. Those who have passed the exam were meant to fail it) She didn’t even bother to look at my face.

Q: As a social entrepreneur whose chief agenda is the well-being of children in this country, how do you look at the emotional trauma you underwent as a student?
I realise that being labelled a ‘failure’ by the school setup, amounted to the psychological harassment we often talk of today. Yet, I was a very resilient student and couldn’t be cowed down by all that harassment. However, we come across only a small percentage of resilient children. Had it been any other ‘average’ child, he would have been emotionally scarred.

Q: Can you tell us about your renowned peers at Ananda?
At a professional level, there were so many renowned medical practitioners in the country today, including Prof. Ravindra Fernando and Dr Banagala. They were with me at Medical College as well. Several more such practitioners are residing abroad. General Sarath Fonseka was with me in the first year of our AL class. There were others including Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda. Of the politicians, I remember Rajitha Senaratne and the late Ossie Abeygunawardene. I still remember how most of us did ‘Prefects Duty’ together.

Q: You also belonged to the first batch of Sinhala medium AL students who entered Medical College to do Medicine in the Sinhala medium. Can you recall your experience at Medical College?
Initially, we thought it would be a very challenging effort, but was really not so. I entered Medical College in 1971, and all three media of Sinhala, Tamil and English were available. Prof. Carlo Fonseka was one of the most popular lecturers at that time. He was a very energetic lecturer, who was very graphic in his descriptions. He used very eloquent Sinhalese in his lectures, and even Tamil medium students used to come and listen to him. Prof. Carlo was a rebellious person and was a role model for us. Other than the 1971 insurgency, the time spent at Medical College was a smooth and memorable one. We used to be film buffs as well. Unlike today, it was rather a conservative society at that time, an era where a love affair had to blossom in marriage!

Q: Where did you meet your wife, Dr. Dula de Silva?
I met her at Lady Ridgeway Hospital, where I received my first appointment.

Q: What about your early days in the Medical profession and your training abroad?
My first appointment was to the ward of Prof. Priyani Soyza at Lady Ridgeway Hospital. It was only at that point I decided to do paediatrics. After that, I got a surgical appointment to Badulla, and I also served in Kegalle for three years. After that, I returned to Lady Ridgeway Hospital as a Registrar in Prof. Priyani Soyza’s ward. It was during this time that I won the Commonwealth Scholarship to work in collaboration with the University of Birmingham. My scholarship was for four years. However, I completed my MRCP within a very short time span and did my MSc as well. I was determined to return home and serve the country. Upon my return, I was absorbed into the OPD of Lady Ridgeway for a short period and in 1983, I moved to Galle.

Q: Can you throw light upon your research work?
Research had held my interest since my internship days. I presented papers from wherever I served in the island. In recognition of my research work, I have received so many prestigious accolades, including lifetime awards from various bodies, including British Royal College of Paediatrics & Child Health. Recently, I was honoured with a Senior Fellowship from Ashoka Foundation in Washington DC, in recognition of my work on child protection in the country. Ashoka Foundation, Washington DC is a body which recognises social entrepreneurs. It has derived its name from King Ashoka, who is believed to be the best social entrepreneur ever.

Q: What was the background to setting up of the NCPA, of which you are the founder Chairman?
I was concerned about the abused children in the country, and attempted to get protection for them through various government organisations supposed to look after the welfare of children. I’m sorry to say that I always received a negative answer from them. At Medical audiences, I highlighted the issue of sexually abused children, data arrived upon perfect scientific research I conducted on my own. I used to give talks at various forums, and one such forum was represented by the media, which picked it up, and from there on I was approached directly by them. The media started talking about this issue in detail. In this background, President Kumaratunge appointed me to the Presidential Special Task Force on Child Protection. I was stationed in Galle at that time, and in 1997, I was requested to chair the Task Force. Eventually, I was appointed the Chairman of NCPA.

Q: How do you view your term of office as the founder Chairman of NCPA?
NCPA was accepted as a successful institution and the success attributed to the professionalism displayed by the Authority. The Board of NCPA comprised professionals including lawyers, psychologists, paediatricians as well as administrators. The decisions taken by the Board, therefore, were not mere administrative decisions. They were in the best interests of children in this country, and not essentially those to please anyone else’s agenda. Therefore, we had a successful story to narrate. Naturally, when good work is done, allegations brought upon a person is more, and I was no exception. When I launched ‘Don’t hit children’ campaign, several forces stood against me, including many teachers, principals and even parents. Being the resilient person I was, I was not discouraged, because I knew I was making a national contribution in good faith. One of the worst moments in my life was when I was alleged of mismanagement. Despite the fact that I was appreciated by a large number of people in this country, a few were attempting to tarnish my image, which frustrated me. Of course, when it was taken before the courts, the case was dismissed, as I was falsely alleged. Today, when I look at the present agenda of NCPA, I have my concerns and doubts about the professionalism it abides by.

Q: In a post-war context, what measures do you think should be adopted to ensure child welfare?
The welfare of children, as well as the entire community sheltered in IDP camps, is of utmost importance. NCPA has a very crucial role to play in this aspect. A team effort of a large number of professionals is vital in this regard. Providing medical care alone will not address the vulnerability of children. The protection provided by Health sector is different to the protection provided by NCPA. Presently, I’m involved in several welfare campaigns for those in IDP camps. With the assistance and patronage of several individuals and organisations, I have initiated a cultivation project, and we intend to launch a water purification project as well. All this endeavours are channelled towards the well-being of those communities, including children.

Q: Apart from your engagements related to child welfare, are you involved in anything else at present?
I’m involved in different aspects of social entrepreneurship not necessarily related to Medical field. For instance, I’m involved in projects related to composting etc. I’m also a lover of wildlife photography, particularly bird photography. It helps me ‘unwind’, and I’m planning to publish a book of photographs soon.

Q: Finally, what is your message to parents and teachers with young children?
Today, we live in a society exposed to technology and the world outside. In such a society, children will like to experiment. They are curiosity-driven, especially in adolescence. Parents and teachers have to be considerate of adolescence. If a child has ‘wronged’, it is wrong to label him or her as a permanent rogue or a criminal. That amounts to emotional abuse. I strongly believe that a child who commits wrong is a child who lacks parental supervision. When one points a finger at a child, parents and teachers should realise that the other four fingers are pointed at them.