Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

On the votes of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs

In the Committee Stage of the Budget, December 9th 2013


I am honoured to speak on the votes of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, which deals with perhaps the most important subject we need to consider. I say this because, while the development programme government has put in place with regard to infrastructure is vital, it will serve no purpose unless we also concentrate on human development. In this regard we need to ensure that our children are in full enjoyment of all their rights, and that we also empower them so that any violations are minimized.

It is equally important, Mr Speaker, to ensure that women are not only protected, but also empowered. For this purpose we must put in place coherent mechanisms that can identify shortcomings and address them promptly and systematically. Above all we must move from simply reacting to problems, but rather anticipate potential problems and avoid them – a strategy, I should add, that would hold us in good stead with regard also to international relations as well as domestic politics.

With regard to Women and Children, I am happy to say that we have an active Ministry that is able to conceptualize and initiate new measures. Chief amongst these is the establishment of Women and Children’s Units in every Divisional Secretariat. If I might say so, this Ministry has been the first to recognize the importance of the Division, which is the first active interface between government and people. Indeed this Ministry has also recognized the importance of the Grama Niladhari Division, which is the first actual interface, though it is for the raising of issues rather than solving them. I should add that it would make sense to set in place, even in GN Divisions, consultative mechanisms to resolve simple problems. However it the Division that is the first level at which more important decisions can be taken, and where the front line officers of various government institutions can meet to discuss problems and plan responses – and where they can discuss trends that will help them to anticipate problems and avoid them.

In this context, Mr Speaker, I would like to table an organogram prepared by Mr Asoka Gunawardena, formerly of the Finance Commission, which makes clear the need for systemic reform if we are properly to fulfil the commitments in the Mahinda Chintanaya about consultation of the people. The organogram notes in direct lines the responsibilities of government officers, but there are only broken lines to note mechanisms of accountability to the people. These need to be systematized, so that there is regular consultation and feedback, which is what this Ministry plans to do through the Units it has set up.

All this is the more important because, as His Excellency the President noted in his budget speech, the problem of abuse needs to be addressed swiftly and effectively. This is twinned with the need to establish better systems with regard to our migrant population, which is why it makes sense to bring together in this debate the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs together with the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion and Welfare. While the latter Ministry has made immeasurable progress under a dynamic and dedicated Minister and Secretary, there is still much to be done. The recent study by Save the Children, entitled ‘Sri Lanka’s Missing Mothers’, which I will table, and in particular the Preface that sums up the difficulties and possible solutions, shows the extent of the needs that must be addressed. It notes too that their roots lie in social problems which require concerted action.

This debate, Mr Speaker, takes place during the 16 day action programme against Gender Based Violence, a Policy Dialogue on which I was privileged to attend last month. After an inspiring address by the Secretary to the Ministry, there were presentations that made clear the problems so many of our women face. Amongst these is alcoholism, which was again one of the principal problems brought to my attention during Reconciliation meetings in four Divisions in the North last week. I should note in this context that the Report on Missing Mothers, whilst highlighting economic reasons for this phenomenon, also notes that sometimes migration is an escape route for women from abuse at home.

Concerted measures are needed to deal with this, and amongst these is better counselling, the need for which His Excellency highlighted. In this context it is heartening that this Ministry, together with the Ministry of Social Services, yesterday inaugurated a Diploma in Counselling. Such initiatives, through coordination, are most laudable.

In addition to developing counselling expertise and better services, we also need to set in place more and better awareness programmes, and for this we must provide the Women and Children’s Desks of the police with better equipment and facilities. I was impressed in Kandaveli when the police noted that they could only talk, and could not show the materials they had been provided with to enhance the impact of the programmes they implement. At the same time we need to involve the community in these efforts, and I would strongly recommend the Guru-Deguru initiative of the Gandhi Centre, which involves parents too in what I would term meaningful education for life.

Education, Mr Speaker, is far too important to be left to our current educationists who seem to think the killing of initiative is the purpose of the school system. Despite the admirable intentions of the Ministry, little is done to develop personality and social awareness in our youngsters. Extra-curricular activities barely exist outside prestigious schools, and the reliance on tuition, which has increased geometrically in the last few years, is economically and socially destructive.

But what can we expect when evaluation is based on rote learning? Recently I saw a Grade 4 Test Paper, set by a Zonal Office in the self-satisfied rent-seeking that dominates education. Children are asked in what District Sigiriya is, and how many Districts there are in the Northern Province. For English the examples of jobs and colours and flowers they need to know are cobbler and purple and orchid. They have to unscramble words which is an exercise more suited to elderly English speakers in retirement, as we know from the senior citizens who derive great enjoyment from the Jumbled Words column of the ‘Island’. Perversely the text books have no stories, which would help children to learn, and to understand what they are learning.

The Ministry of Child Development has noted that children also have a right to leisure, and I can only hope that it will set up systems to ensure this right too, by careful monitoring of the school system. Recently I found that the police in the East had prescribed involvement of education and health personnel in their Civil Defence Committees, and I can only hope that the Women and Children’s Units, working together with the Women and Children’s Desks of the Police, will ensure holistic consultation that will promote a more user friendly education system, with attention also to the physical welfare of children. It is the community that must monitor whether schools have access to drinking water, adequate toilets, adequate transport facilities and leisure space and activities, in addition to enough teachers and buildings and furniture.

And on a far more basic question, we also need to combat immediately a recent phenomenon, namely increasing malnutrition, for instance in Moneragala. This is not because of poverty, though that too contributes, but because of a lack of awareness of nutritional needs. In this context it is shocking that, as was reported recently by a Health Ministry official at a consultation this Ministry arranged, the audiovisual material they had produced on the subject was not telecast by Rupavahini. If we have a State Television Channel, Mr Speaker, it must fulfill a social purpose and not simply compete commercially with other channels. Indeed, even that it does absurdly, because I gather it refused to show a programme on children’s clubs, even when paid, because it thought this would be competition for its own clubs – an example of the statist monopolistic mentality that we must get rid of in all spheres, not simply commerce.

Community awareness is vital, because it is the community, together with other front line officials, who must agitate for services which are lacking now, and markedly so in many rural schools. Recently in Vavuniya I was told that, while many schools had received computers, hardly any had electricity. The poor school principals who are deprived are not in a position to expedite an electricity supply to remote villages. Perhaps even parents and Child Rights Protection Officers will not be able to achieve this, since we know that much has been done with regard to the provision of power in recent years, and any shortfalls are because of constraints that cannot be overcome at once.

But, even while we accept this, there must be alternatives, perhaps Computer Centres in at least a couple of areas in each Division where there is electricity, so that school children can use them at least at weekends. There should be partnerships with the National Youth Services Council, to set up Computer Centres, on the lines of the initiative of Diaspora Sri Lanka in Mannar, so that some school leavers can be trained to run a business, while also providing training to school children who would otherwise be deprived.

All this requires coordination, which this Ministry must provide, given its comprehensive mandate. It must also take the lead in improving the situation of children who in one way or another come before the courts, or who are in care. Recently the National Child Protection Agency drafted excellent guidelines for Children’s Homes, which require better resources as well as better monitoring. The Ministry has also had discussions recently with the Judicial Services Commission, which is far more responsive under its new Secretary to social requirements. Earlier, when I convened the Task Force on expediting implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan – a responsibility I gave up since I found I was getting nowhere, despite goodwill in many institutions, because of the incapacity to coordinate that seems endemic in our administration – I found that requests to the Judicial Services Commission for rules of procedure were ignored. Now however there is some willingness, which I hope translates into action, to introduce greater consistency and human sympathy into the judiciary. I hope therefore that we will move swiftly from the days when a child can be charged for having stolen a pigeon, a horrifying example a couple of years back of the Victorian mentality we still suffer from in this country.

In this context, let me take this opportunity to congratulate those responsible for the Commonwealth Youth Declaration, which is a model of modernity and tolerance that should be an object lesson to those in the older generation who are stuck in prejudice and insularity. Since I am able to speak in only one debate in the Committee Stage of the budget, I will express here my appreciation of the Draft National Youth Policy and hope that it will soon be adopted – and also that the Ministry will do more, especially in the North and East, and other deprived Provinces of this country, to fast forward the Skills Training our youngsters need. They should also work on developing entrepreneurship as suggested in the Commonwealth Youth Declaration.

Let me conclude, Mr Speaker, by drawing attention to an excellent initiative which has the blessings of this Ministry, namely the Child Centred Budget Analysis which draws attention to the need for greater attention to the specific needs of children. Because different agencies work with children, it is not clear how much is being done, and also where supplementation is needed. I hope therefore that this Ministry will take a lead in better coordination, so that we provide a better future for our children. There are many agencies, working with Women and Children, who are willing to help, but they need to be heard and also guided so that their assistance is systematic and productive. I believe this Ministry, with its various agencies, can fulfil the task, and it should be strengthened for this purpose.