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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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The more one studies the 13th amendment to the Constitution, the more one realizes how completely potty it is. I am not sure though whether this lunacy is entirely the fault of J R Jayewardene, even though I have little doubt that his is the primary responsibility for the failure to consider principles at all in formulating legislation, and indeed policies in general. Highlighting process rather than principle however has been a feature of most constitutions based on the British model, perhaps because the British never had a Constitution, and have muddled along on the basis of practicality.

The particular genius of the British is that they did very well on that basis. Others came a cropper however when they tried to emulate them, which is why countries like ours should have rather studied the American Constitution. That was based on the most enlightened political principles, albeit at a time when social equity was not as well developed a concept as it became after industrialization.

The guiding principle of the American Constitution was that power should be limited to the purposes for which power is legitimately exercised. By legitimately is meant the promotion of the interests of the people, since it was at that period that the idea first developed, after Greek and Roman Republic times, that the state belonged to the people, rather than to a monarch. Thus the American Constitution sits well with the principle of subsidiarity, which is that power should be exercised in any particular respect by the smallest group affected by that power, to the extent that its exercising such power should not adversely affect others.

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In the few weeks he has been in office, the new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment has shown himself as concerned as his predecessor to promote the rights as well as the interests of those entrusted to the care of his Ministry. He is also concerned with the wider dimensions of his responsibilities, as was seen when he decided to institute a campaign to ensure Sufficient Leisure for Children.

This was based on a focus area in the National Human Rights Action Plan which we had not concentrated on in discussions of the Task Force, concentrating instead on what seemed more vital issues such as the prevention of abuse. But the Secretary is of course quite right to look at all aspects, and in particular to worry about the ‘holistic development of children’ which is now adversely affected because of educational overload.

I am not certain however about one point in the directive he sent to senior officials of the Ministry to prepare ‘an enabling environment for children to enjoy leisure’. Amongst areas in which he sees overload are extra-curricular activities. My recent investigation during Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings of what goes on in schools in the regions suggests however that the real problem is the lack of extra-curricular activities.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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