According to the UN agency UNICEF, social and cultural norms that tolerate emotional, physical, and sexual violence against children exist throughout Sri Lanka. And when a violation occurs, parents, teachers, and children are often unaware of how to access and utilise child protection services.
Sri Lanka also lacks a national child protection framework, which means that well-meaning stakeholders lack nationally-accepted guidelines and a defined hierarchy within which to carry out their tasks. In addition, insufficient evidence and data make it hard for policymakers to assess and react to challenges on the ground.
The agency adds: “A lack of coordination at the national, district and divisional levels has made it tough to weave important child protection principles into the work of the health, education, and social protection sectors.”
In 2021, Sri Lanka’s National Child Protection Agency received 11,000 child abuse reports, ranging from cruelty and neglect to sexual violence. In many cases, they involved children from underserved communities.
While families should be the first line of children’s protection, experts are concerned about the rising reports of abuse as households face tremendous financial pressure due to the country’s economic crisis.
‘Shout for Help!’
Poverty has long been a driving factor that forces children into further vulnerabilities. It is no different for those living in Mullaitivu, a town on the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. Studies show a higher prevalence of child sexual abuse here amid other social and economic challenges.
In a fishing settlement here, cries of, “Say no!” “Run away!” ‘Shout for help!” and “Tell someone you trust!” reverberating through rural classrooms have become familiar. The preschool children are, however, in no immediate danger.
Nonetheless, they are learning the perils of the aggression they are susceptible to through a joint project between RYTHM Foundation, the social impact initiative of the QI Group, and LEADS Sri Lanka, a charity committed to social protection awareness.
With the safety of the community’s children a priority, RYTHM and LEADS designed a two-pronged approach toward creating long-term solutions to the worrying issue.
Young teacher Ravina, one of 26 educators trained in developing a lesson plan around inculcating awareness among her students, is spirited about playing an active and influential role in preventing child abuse.
“I have learned many things, including child protection laws and the methods to work better with my students,” the 23-year-old said. “I am confident in my ability to spread this message to all children who enrol in our school, their parents, and my fellow teachers to apply the knowledge and understanding.”
Ravina gained the most inspiration from the flashcards. “My favourite part of the training was using the picture cards to relate stories to children about protecting themselves in simple ways.
“We also learned to observe our students’ behaviour for signs that they may be trying to express something,” she added.
With the district’s Zonal Education Department’s support, the programme also inculcated awareness among 46 parents from the area’s villages. In addition, the trainers reminded the households of their responsibility in safeguarding their children and taught them how to access and utilise child protection services if needed.
Soon after completing her training, Ravina wasted no time sharing the knowledge and materials with the other teachers at her preschool. “I wanted them to immediately add child protection awareness to their lesson plans.
“I am happy that we have also received positive feedback from parents whose children shared the information with them.”
A Safer and Healthier Environment for Children
While emphasising the risk of abuse, neglect, and rights violations, the project also provides shelter, livelihood support, and skills training to struggling low-income families for economic development and stability.
The project also developed and distributed a tool kit for teachers comprising flashcards of pictures showing a ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’ to help facilitate the learning of understanding boundaries.
Advocating for every child’s right to live free from violence, exploitation, and abuse is a bastion of the Foundation’s unflagging work. “Every child has a right to a fulfilled life,” the Chairperson of RYTHM, Datin Sri Umayal Eswaran, says.
“We strongly believe in creating a safer, healthier, and more stable environment for all children where their fundamental rights are protected and allow them to live, learn and grow without fear.
“We hope these awareness efforts combined with the community development support will help reduce the risks to vulnerable children in Mullaitivu and ultimately everywhere else,” Datin Sri Umayal adds.