The Exchange speaks to Chathuri Jayasooriyya, an independent child rights and protection practitioner and advocate based in Sri Lanka.
Exchange: Hello Chathuri, please tell us a little about yourself and how you came to be working in child rights and protection
CJ: I was born in the central province of Sri Lanka but my family travelled all over the country because of my father’s work. I changed schools every 3 years so I’m not always sure where I come from! However right now I call Kelaniya home.
I’ve always been interested in psychology but it was only later that I started to focus more specifically on children. In the way these things often happen, I fell into this work by chance.
A while back, an international NGO was withdrawing from Sri Lanka and had two buses to donate. At the time I was working in a local NGO on advocacy issues, which included children, and I became aware that the children from remand homes and children’s homes were being transported to the courts together with adults. This was leaving children open to all kinds of abuse and dangers, so we used the buses donated by the INGO to provide separate transport for children to attend the courts.
As a result I started running this project with a team of volunteers who I recruited, and which I ran with minimal resources. This project gradually branched out into a lot of different initiatives including life skills development for children in rehabilitation centres, befriending services for children and parents in the Juvenile Courts, legal support for children in contact with the law, and advocacy for policy reform.
I also started to learn about and initiate programmes on how children can play a more active role in influencing and advocating on issues which affect them. I eventually started specialising in supporting children in institutionalised settings.
E: Describe what the context is like in the place(s) where you work
CJ: Over the years I have worked in the slum areas of the Colombo district, in schools, as well as in many different institutionalised settings for children, which includes children’s remand homes, certified schools (government-run rehabilitation centres for children in contact or conflict with the law, which includes victims) and children’s homes. I also have quite a bit of experience inside the juvenile court as well as the juvenile justice system.
E: What are the specific child protection risks identified in the communities where you work?
CJ: The children I work with are often very much removed from what we might describe as a community, such as a family, or a neighbourhood, village or school. That is a big part of the problem, as they have been removed from any community care they might have received.
In my experience, once a child enters the juvenile justice system, it is very hard for that child to get out, there’s no turning back for him or her, and this system has a very negative impact on children. I have seen children stuck in the justice system who are “in conflict with the law” but in reality have been accused of a petty crime such as stealing food. What is really worrying is that many of these children get abandoned in the remand centres or certified homes, more or less forgotten by the justice system, sometimes with no foreseeable date for a court hearing.
Inside these certified homes, where a lack of resources mean that children are often locked up most of the day, children get very depressed. I’ve personally seen episodes of children self-harming, such as eating glass, burning or cutting themselves, as well as abusing each other. In addition, there is only one juvenile court in all of Colombo. This court was in a very bad state of repair and a very depressing place, with no facilities to support traumatised children. Later on we did work to refurbish the courtrooms and make them more pleasant for children to spend time in.
Even children who live in children’s homes for their own protection or wellbeing have never chosen to go there. And whilst they might arrive there as a very traumatised, abused or dysfunctional child, there is hardly any child who doesn’t want to go back home or to another family member. As a child, I also stayed in a hostel at my school whilst my family moved about. I really hated living there and I think now I can really empathise with other children who are stuck in an institutionalised setting.
In Sri Lanka, whilst we talk about institutionalised care as the last resort, in fact most often it is the first option here.
E: What are the alternatives or preferable options to children’s institutions in Sri Lanka? Are there any community approaches?
CJ: This is a very challenging question because when I have investigated the homes and communities of some of these children, it is hard to determine whether going home really is in the best interest of the child. In many cases the children had families but they were so desperately poor they had sent the child to live in an institution.
I have been deep into the interiors of Sri Lanka searching for children’s families and where I have discovered that entire families and communities are living in great poverty, struggling to meet their most basic needs. These families are often very marginalised and cut off from any formal structures which can help protect children.
In these cases, which are very common, I am deeply conflicted as to what is the best course of action for this child. Whilst the child begs to go home, the families are so poor that if the child returns he or she may not have enough to eat, may not go to school, might be abused, or may end up being exploited or used for child labour, for example being sent to garment factories or a low paid job.
There have also been a number of cases I have experienced where fostering and adoption has had a very negative effect on the child. For instance children being returned by a succession of adoptive parents because of the child’s behavioural issues, or children being used as cheap labour by foster parents. So unless there are resources in place to ensure that these types of alternatives can be managed properly, they can do more harm than good. However, I also know of some cases of international adoption where children are now leading full, happy, loving lives.
E: Are there any government or other official structures in place to protect children from these risks?
On paper, Sri Lanka has a formal child protection system which links to the community level. However in reality, as I have discovered, the families who often require this assistance the most are the most marginalised and cut off from these systems. So in the end there is little if any protection or support provided to children and their families at the community level living in very poor contexts.
E: How do community or local groups work to protect children?
For me this another difficult question. For the poorest people, there is so much social isolation. Often they do not receive any help or support from their communities.
Traditionally there would have been a village Head, a temple, a school which provides structure, guidance and strong social roles in community matters. Now there is an attitude of “don’t get involved” with issues such as domestic violence.
I feel that urbanisation is contributing to the change we now see in traditional structures, but also within villages there seems to be a much stronger move towards an individualised society, which is contributing to a sense of social isolation.
Ironically I think that the war, which has impacted everyone in Sri Lanka, has also provided a sense of community to many. For example, in the north of the country, where the war was mostly waged, people have been brought together and have been very active in protecting their children, and also readily using a child rights vocabulary when talking about child protection. I also think perhaps that the ethnic and religious identities of the Tamils and Muslims within a conflict context has also contributed towards a stronger sense of identity and support.
E: Do you have any studies you could link us to regarding child rights and protection at the community level?
CJ: I conducted a Capacity Assessment of the Save the Children-supported Village Child Rights Monitoring Committees in 2013. This study which was conducted in six districts in the Eastern, Southern and Western Provinces explores the current status and capacities of these committees, highlighting the good practices, gaps and challenges, and presenting short- and long-term recommendations. The findings of the study have provided the basis for the national forum organised by the Department of Probation and Child Care Services for developing operational guidelines and standards for Village Child Rights Monitoring Committees.
E: Chathuri, you paint quite a bleak picture of the child protection and rights challenges for many children in Sri Lanka. It seems as if there are many dilemmas and conflicts in caring for children, and perhaps very limited options, borne out of immense poverty, a lack of government resources and a breakdown in community support structures. Do you have any final encouraging words of wisdom for us?
CJ: I would say that whilst international, regional and even national guidelines and standards for child protection and rights are helpful, they are also generic and non-contextual and cannot always provide the answers for each specific case. In fact they can even conflict with the accepted way of doing things in some communities. Practitioners need to be sensitive to the needs of each individual child and the particular community where he or she comes from. We need to use approaches which are more ‘open and flexible’, as well as empathetic, instead of trying to fit everything into project frameworks. So start with the community’s point of view first, and don’t use a top down approach.
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