Amidst a number of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees in the North last week, I also had a number of interactions with children, and with persons working with children. Two instances were serendipitous, but I was privileged to participate actively – and indeed exhaustingly – on one occasion. This was when I conducted, in a small school near Nedunkerni, one of the games that the former combatants had delighted in, during my first visit to the Rehabilitation Centre for girls in Vavuniya three and a half years ago.

The laughter of the girls on that occasion still illuminates in presentations of the Rehabilitation Bureau, as I saw last month at the Officer Career Development Centre Seminar at Buttala.  In Nedunkerni the children were younger, and even less inhibited.

I had come across well over 50 of them in the playground of the school at 5 pm, which was heartening. I have long argued that we need to ensure that schools are centres of community activity, but all too often schools are deserted after 2 pm. Here however, in addition to attractive new buildings, the school had quarters for the Principal and several staff. They too were in the playground, encouraging the activity and joining in.

The school had teachers even in subjects such as English and Maths and Science, as to which there had been complaints about shortages in almost all Divisions I had visited. Whilst obviously we need to increase supply, the situation here showed that one needs to provide decent facilities to ensure teachers will stay in remote areas to which transport is difficult. The youngsters I saw playing with the children were from Jaffna, but seemed quite content to stay in the school and participate in student life in the evenings. Almost no one had taken more than a day’s leave thus far in the year.
I was at the school because I had been invited to the commissioning of solar powered lights in the Community Centre. This had been the brainchild of the Divisional Secretary, and he had requested the owner of the popular Thampa Hotel to persuade some of his friends abroad to donate lights. His point was that youngsters needed somewhere where they could study in the evenings, and the active turnout and enthusiasm of the villagers to the ceremony suggested that the Centre will be fully used.

The other event I attended by accident was a workshop in Vavuniya organized by the National Child Protection Authority, along with Save the Children, to help officials involved in the care of children to coordinate their activities and establish and work towards targets. The NCPA has done a great deal of much appreciated work in the North after it was revitalized following the 2010 election, and its understanding now of the need to develop policy and monitor implementation should be a model for all national agencies working in the context of power devolution.

The workshop was the more welcome because the previous day, in Oddusuddan, and in Maritimepattu, I had still found shortcomings with regard to the coordination that is essential if resources are to be efficiently deployed. A bright young Probation Officer had no contact with the police, and indeed he noted that now the Province employs them in District Offices, whereas it would make more sense to allocate them to Divisions where they can undertake limited responsibilities effectively, together with a team of others engaged in the field.

The NCPA initiative, which is in accord with the Social Policy document we had developed in the light of the National Human Rights Action Plan, had brought together representatives of various agencies, and will I trust contribute to fast forwarding the idea the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs has so sensibly put forward, of establishing a Women and Children’s Unit in every Division.

This should work together with the Police Women and Children’s Desks, which I gathered were effective where they existed. Unfortunately the practice of having different geographical areas of responsibility for different agencies complicates coordination, and inhibits the development of a team, which is essential if coverage is to be comprehensive.

The third main event I attended was the focal point of my whole trip. It was to participate in the opening of the Vocational Training Centres that had been established with funds from my decentralized budget in two schools in Mullaitivu. The agency selected had worked very well with the District Secretariat and the Zonal Education Office.

Most valuable had been the support of the two Principals concerned, whose enthusiasm – when some elements in educational administration are wary of extra activities – has been fully vindicated now by the Ministry of Education. The suggestion it makes in the new Policy Proposals, that all schools should encourage vocational training, and provide space for other activities throughout the year (without allowing their assets to lie waste except in the few hours in which schools operate), is visionary. I can only hope that it is implemented soon, and that like so many visions in this country it does not simply fade away.

The cornerstone of the training programme was personality development, with soft skills provided on top of technical training in selected areas. So the students themselves organized the introductory programme, and amply lived up to expectations, with imaginative decorations, announcements in two languages, and even creative expression of their hopes through poetry in both English and Tamil. They had invited the District Secretary as Chief Guest, but he was suddenly called away to another programme. However he sent his Deputy and then made a point of turning up himself to the second event, which suggested the active involvement of the community in the programme. I can only hope that, if successful, it will be swiftly replicated elsewhere in the Province.

The Island 15 Feb 2013 –