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Presidency 17Recently, at a Consultative Committee in Parliament, one of my colleagues remarked that there was no need of any opposition given my own contribution. I had been critical but what my colleague, from the Gampaha District, failed to understand was that I had criticized neither policies nor action. What I had been objecting to was a failure of action, and had the gentleman understood how Parliaments should be conducted, he would have realized that I was actually trying to help. Surely it should be the business of politicians supportive of the government to promote action in accordance with productive policies, not to sit back complacently when there is no progress.

The incident occurred at the 17th meeting of the Consultative Committee on Education, when I wondered what had happened about a matter I had raised at the previous meeting, held 3 months earlier (meetings are supposed to happen every month, but this Standing Order, like almost all others, is observed in the breach). In May I had brought up the question of opening computer laboratories which had, in at least two cases I knew of, been completed and equipped, but were awaiting a ceremonial opening.

The Minister had claimed on that occasion that such a ceremony was needed so that the people would know who had gifted the laboratory. But when I pointed out that these were not gifts, but built with the people’s money, he had granted my point. So, to cite the minute, he ‘stated that the Chairman of the Development Committee of the area should be responsible to utilize them and instructed to take immediate action to open them’.

This time it was reported that some laboratories had been opened already, and that many more would soon be opened in the Uva Province. This caused a lot of giggles, but that did not matter so long as the children were now able to use the equipment. But surely it should have struck my colleagues that, even if the priority was to get brownie points from these computers, the sooner they were in use, the better for the politicians too, as well as the children. For obviously the people would know if there were an unnecessary delay – it was parents and teachers who had kept me informed in areas I am familiar with – while there is also a risk of computers deteriorating if not swiftly put into operation. Read the rest of this entry »

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.
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What I think of as the brilliant idea of the Secretary of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs to set up Women and Children’s Units in Divisional Secretariats did have a precedent in what were termed Social Care Centres. These were set up in tsunami affected areas to coordinate the work of all agencies concerned with social service. Though they were comparatively few in number, and some have ceased to function, the successful coordination efforts that many brought to bear would provide useful lessons for the new Units. Indeed, in recent visits to the East, I have found that some still function, which will facilitate the coordination needed.

They had developed an operations manual that can be used to develop procedures, bearing in mind the difference between the DS Office and the SCC in fulfilling the needs and the rights of the people. Joint ownership of this model between the Ministries of Social Welfare and of Child Development should be developed, with officials of the former also being active members of the Units.

The resources the Government can make available must be known by the community, and these should not be diminished. Technical gaps with regard to delivery should be narrowed by developing models and setting up partnerships between academics and practitioners. The model must also be promoted and officer profiles developed so that working in it will be attractive to diploma holders and graduates of social work. The public image of the social work professional must also be raised.
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Paper presented by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President of Sri Lanka
At an international conference on
India’s North-east and Asiatic South-east: Beyond Borders
Organized by the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development
At the North East University, Shillong, on June 6th and 7th 2014

A major problem former colonies faced when gaining independence was that of identity. When composed of populations that differed from each other in various particulars, the question arose as to whether constituting a single country was justified. The problem was exacerbated by the two Western impositions after the Second World War that had done much to shape attitudes subsequently in an immensely destructive fashion. The first was the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine which institutionalized nationalisms based on identity rather than geography. Even more destructive as far as South Asia was concerned was the partition of British India, which popularized the idea that a country had to be based on homogeneity. This contributed to the othering of what was not homogeneous.

Obviously I do not mean to say that all was sweetness and light before that, for we are only too aware of conflicts based on identity through the centuries. But the idea that a country belonged to those of a particular identity, ethnic or religious or linguistic, was I believe damagingly entrenched by the Western redrawing of boundaries in areas that had not gone through the contortions that Europe had in developing the concept of the nation state. And, even more worryingly, the dominant force in the world at the time these divisive concepts became entrenched was the United States, which prided itself on being a melting pot, where different identities were subsumed in the great American dream.

This, combined with British notions of democracy, which gave supremacy to an elected Parliament, contributed I believe to the majoritarianism that has bedeviled South Asia since independence. So in both India and Sri Lanka we had efforts to impose the language of the majority on everyone else, though fortunately for you in India, this was resisted and, as far as the major languages of the country were concerned, you developed a more sensible policy.

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What I think of as the brilliant idea of the Secretary of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs to set up Women and Children’s Units in Divisional Secretariats did have a precedent in what were termed Social Care Centres. These were set up in tsunami affected areas to coordinate the work of all agencies concerned with social service. Though they were comparatively few in number, and some have ceased to function, the successful coordination efforts that many brought to bear would provide useful lessons for the new Units. Indeed, in recent visits to the East, I have found that some still function, which will facilitate the coordination needed.

They had developed an operations manual that can be used to develop procedures, bearing in mind the difference between the DS Office and the SCC in fulfilling the needs and the rights of the people. Joint ownership of this model between the Ministries of Social Welfare and of Child Development should be developed, with officials of the former also being active members of the Units.

The resources the Government can make available must be known by the community, and these should not be diminished. Technical gaps with regard to delivery should be narrowed by developing models and setting up partnerships between academics and practitioners. The model must also be promoted and officer profiles developed so that working in it will be attractive to diploma holders and graduates of social work. The public image of the social work professional must also be raised.
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The Secretary to Parliamentary Consultative Committees sent me earlier this month the latest Report of the Special Consultative Committee on Education, asking for observations. This had happened previously, with the previous version of the Report, but they forgot to write to me. I did respond hastily, when I got that Report, only to find that I was the only Parliamentarian to have done so. However, since other Parliamentarians told me they had not got the Report at all, I am not sure that I can fault my colleagues.

Be that as it may, I thought I should this time write comprehensively, welcoming the many positive suggestions in the Report, and noting other areas where further reforms are desirable. I will begin here with the first schedule to my reply, which looks at areas in which the Report suggests excellent measures which should be implemented as soon as possible. They represent a consensus of all Parliamentarians, so there is no reason for diffidence or lethargy

I hope therefore that all those interested in education and the need to provide better services to our children will take up these proposals and urge swift action. I should note, since I am sure many will be concerned with other areas that are equally important, that the Report covers much ground, and they will find that other areas are also addressed. The classic vice of belittling some benefits that seem less important should be avoided, though there is every reason also to request action with regard to benefits that seem more important.
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One of the main problems faced by officials involved in the care of children is the lack of precise structures with aims and reporting mechanisms. The task of the NCPA and the Probation Department, whether they are combined or simply work together coherently, involves several dimensions. They must deal with the real needs of children and families instead of being governed by archaic concepts of control. They must understand their responsibility for policy, and ensuring accountability, without dissipating energies on service delivery, which should be left to local officials.

For this purpose they must ensure structured linkages, with other central ministries as well as provincial bodies, and promote multi-disciplinary networking, This requires strong community representation and linkages, withe staff employed on the basis of appropriate skills, with mechanisms for constant training.

The other institution within the Ministry of Child Development is the Children’s Secretariat. Currently this concentrates on children under 5, but its responsibilities should be extended to cover all children. Though other government agencies will provide education and health etc, the Secretariat should promote children’s rights in the fullest sense, and ensure holistic development. Its officials should liaise with officials at Divisional level to monitor progress and satisfactory delivery of services, and conformity to national standards. They must liaise with officials of the Ministries of Health and Education to develop guidelines for action and appropriate areas for intervention.
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I was involved last week in a Round table discussion on Education for All – Challenges in South Asia, organized by Aide et Action, an NGO which implements excellent vocational training programmes in the south, and more recently, in the north of Sri Lanka. Its programme is entitled ‘ILEAD’, and is based on the assumption that students need to be empowered, not only with skills, but also with the confidence to take initiatives on their own.

Earlier this year I was privileged to attend an Awards Ceremony in Ambalangoda, along with the French ambassador, since the NGO is in France though it is now internationalized. The enthusiasm of the students, and also their commitment – in donating a computer to the Centre – was remarkable. More recently I gather the Centre in Vavuniya has had such a positive impact that the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation has requested their assistance for programmes for former Combatants too.

Their characteristically comprehensive background paper had a section on Sri Lanka, which deserves citing in full. While they make no bones about laying the blame for the breakdown in education in the North, and the consequent suffering of children, on the LTTE, they also describe clearly the problems that remain, and which it is the responsibility of government to resolve.
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The outcome of an informal consultation on promoting the Rights of Children held recently, with the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment in the chair, was a discussion document to assist with the formulation of policy in this field. The care of children must be part of a comprehensive programme with the basic goal of empowering all elements in society that need protection and additional support.

Though Sri Lanka achieved great success in providing universal health and education at the period of independence, social services lagged behind. They were provided in terms of the patronage approach that governed Poor Law in Britain in the previous century. The vulnerable were treated as a species apart, with institutionalization and punitive measures being implemented instead of rehabilitation. This last is needed to develop the potential of those who had suffered from lack of equitable opportunities.

To ensure comprehensive and positive coverage of vulnerable sections of society, coordination between the Ministries of Social Services and of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment is essential. This also requires regular consultation with local professionals, as well as the informed involvement of provincial agencies in terms of their responsibilities, to develop a truly national perspective. Women and Children are amongst the most vulnerable sections of society and mechanisms to ensure a level playing field for them are an essential part of the social services government should provide. Interventions for other vulnerable groups will also involve services that are particularly important for women and children, ranging from counseling to employment policies based on equity and furthering the talents and capabilities of all.
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An important item on the legislative agenda over the last few years has been a change to the 1939 Children and Young Persons Ordinance. A few years back, when Milinda Moragoda was Minister of Justice, he had asked for reports in various areas where it seemed justice was not being served. Not all the committees appointed have reported as yet, and there seems to have been little concern to expedite these. However, the indefatigable Shirani Thilakawardhana headed the committee asked to report on children, and she did a typically thorough job.

Unfortunately in the silly way we sometimes function, it seemed to have been decided to do nothing till all the reports were in, and so the proposed amendments have not yet come to Parliament. However the new Secretary to the Ministry of Justice understood the urgency of going ahead, and got comments from various urgencies, and has sent now sent what should be a final draft to the Ministry of Child Development for taking forward.

The new draft is certainly an advance on what we had before, and if we cannot improve on it soon, we should go ahead with it anyway, simply to get rid of provisions for caning, and the generally punitive approach taken 70 years ago to children in need. However it would be best if we had some intense consultation and produced something better, since this would also help with introducing some general principles with legislation.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2017
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