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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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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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My own concerns, both with regard to aspects of Reconcilation that are not being addressed adequately, and also in terms of my responsibilities as Convenor of the Task Force to expedite implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan, were more with Protection issues. I therefore concentrated initially on these in the consultations, with Ministries and officials from the North, that the UN has kindly facilitated.

However I recognize that the vast majority of people in the North are much more concerned with livelihood issues. It is vital therefore that the initial nexus between government and the people, namely the Grama Niladhari, concentrate also on development, construing that term in the broader sense.

The Grama Niladhari then should have regular discussions with the people for whom he is responsible, so as to find out their pressing needs, and then put these forward to the relevant authorities. In the North I am regularly asked about roads and transport, about electricity and water supply, about irrigation and the marketing and storage of produce. The more perceptive members of Rural Development Societies also raise issues of credit and better training.

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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.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2019
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