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,
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?
A: 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
Having been so ‘underestimated’ by your gurus, you would have
certainly stunned them all, entering Medical College?
A: (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?
A: 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?
A: 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
A: 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?
A: I met her at Lady Ridgeway Hospital, where I received my
Q: What about your early days in the Medical profession
and your training abroad?
A: 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
Q: Can you throw light upon your research work?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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?
A: 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.