The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.
In dealing at some length, over several columns, with the meeting on Prisons convened by the Task Force on expediting implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, I have neglected an equally important meeting that took place the next day. On August 4th the new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment had a meeting to discuss initiative regarding children, to deal with problems raised in the plan.
The meeting on Prisons, which I had convened as requested by the Minister to look into the excellent report the ICRC had prepared on Overcrowding in Prisons, had ranged over a number of other issues too, including former LTTE combatants and those still in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Though we dealt much more swiftly with these problems after the conflict was over than other countries engaged in what they term a war against terrorism – which has with one notable exception never laid low hundreds of their citizens as happened to us, Muslims and Sinhalese and Tamils – there are still some issues to be resolved, and better coordination would I think help us to ensure justice as well as security for all our citizens.
In a very different way, this is what we need for children too, and the discussion in the Ministry covered a number of issues. Most important perhaps was a proposal the Secretary had initiated previously, by writing to the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, to ask that a Unit for Women and Children be set up in every Divisional Secretariat. The nucleus for such a Unit is present, with Women and Children’s Desks now established in most police stations, and a host of officials appointed to deal at that level with the problems of Women and Children.
Unfortunately there are many vacancies in these positions, and there seems no concerted effort to fill them. Instead of each Division being provided with a Probation Officer and a Child Rights Protection Officer and a Women’s Development Officer and an Early Child Development Officer, I find just one or two of them at most in the Divisional Secretariats – about 30 of them thus far – at which I have had Reconciliation meetings in the North and East. To make matters worse, in some cases the officers have vanished, being swallowed up in the new graduate recruitment scheme. And though imaginative Divisional Secretaries have allocated them work in these areas, this is not the same as having dedicated officials with clear instructions as to their responsibilities and reporting mechanisms.
At the meeting the Secretary chaired, it was decided that all officials should have clear job descriptions, and also meet regularly with their counterparts. These would include Education and Health officials, since many of the Rights we need to pursue forcefully in the Sri Lankan context have to do with these services. We had found earlier for instance that, though the Ministry of Health had systematic procedures for checking on nutrition through schools, this was not known to the Early Child Development Officers. Similarly, Child Rights Protection Officers, and also officials from the National Child Protection Agency should monitor schools, not only to prevent abuse but also to make sure that education is provided nationwide on an equitable basis.
The Ministry of Public Administration has not I think responded as yet, but I believe they were waiting until the current election season was over to move on essential reforms. This at least was the response I received from the Minister, when I noted the need to ensure greater effectiveness at Grama Niladhari Level with regard to Rights Promotion and Protection. It is certainly time the old diary, that is still the only formal handbook as to GN duties, is replaced by an updated schedule of responsibilities that also make clear the other government officials from whom assistance could be obtained for particular services.
For this purpose, it was agreed at the meeting at the Children’s Ministry, there was need of both geographical as well as functional coordination with regard to responsibilities. Thus, while the Probation Officer would have to look after issues pertaining to his position over the entire Division, obviously he could not maintain close contact with every GN Division. It thus made sense for each Division to have a team for Women’s and Children’s issues, each member of which would have close connections with a few GN Divisions. Thus they could bring to the attention of other members of the team problems in their particular field, but the team as a whole could thus monitor and respond to needs in the whole Division.
This of course was what the Secretary had intended in hoping to establish Units for Women and Children in every Divisional Secretariat, and I hope the Ministry of Public Administration responds swiftly to this excellent initiative. Indeed I hope that they will expand the scope of such a unit to look after all the vulnerable, including the elderly and the disabled. Though the lead would be taken by the Women and Children’s officials, Social Service officials should also be part of the Unit, and in particular contribute to the development of Vulnerability Indices in all Grama Niladhari Divisions. Officials responsible for protection would then have an idea, before any problem arose, of where attention should be focused, where for instance there were children whose parents had gone abroad without ensuring proper care, where there were widows with no family structure to protect them, where children were dropping out of school.
Awareness of potential problems would also help to develop community services to deal with them. Support networks, involving religious organizations, women’s groups and especially counselors, could contribute through these units to prevention of abuse (including abuse arising from deprivation) rather than simply reacting to it when it occurs.